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Adams, Abigail (11 November 1744–28 October 1818), first lady and woman of intellect, was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of William Smith, a Congregational minister, and Elizabeth Quincy. Abigail grew up in a prominent and wealthy family, descended from Puritan leaders and successful merchants. She had no formal schooling, both because of her recurrent illnesses and the limited options available to girls. Yet neither obstacle prevented her from achieving a remarkably broad and sophisticated education. She enjoyed the family’s well-stocked library, the stimulating company of educated relatives and parsonage visitors, and the attentive tutelage of her grandmother. Her studies ranged from Shakespeare to Locke, from Plato to French. She also began two lifelong habits: letter-writing to distant relatives and friends, and the practice of a deep Congregational faith....

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Agee, James Rufus (27 November 1909–16 May 1955), writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father’s family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother’s were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father’s death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt) cold values. “Agee’s mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and sober,” the photographer ...

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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Ames, Fisher (09 April 1758–04 July 1808), Federalist party leader, member of Congress, essayist, and renowned orator, was born in Dedham, Massachusetts, the son of Nathaniel Ames, Sr., a physician, tavern keeper, and almanac writer, and Deborah Fisher. Intellectually honed, Ames was admitted to Harvard at twelve. Steeped in the classics, he excelled in elocution and participated in a debating club, the Institute of 1770. Graduating in 1774, he served with the Dedham militia at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill but did not see combat. At home he pursued his scholarly interests, reading widely in classical literature and history. He also occasionally taught school. Under the tutelage of the prominent ...

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Anderson, Margaret (24 November 1886–19 October 1973), editor and author, was born Margaret Carolyn Anderson in Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson and Jessie Shortridge. Anderson’s father was a railway executive who provided a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and three daughters. Anderson, whose chief interest as a young woman was music and literature, was soon regarded as the rebel of the family. After three years at Western College for Women in Ohio, she dropped out and made her way to Chicago, hoping to find work as a writer. After various stints as a bookstore clerk, print assistant, and part-time critic, Anderson decided to start her own literary journal. With little money but a great deal of enthusiasm and support from friends, Anderson founded the avant-garde ...

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André, John (02 May 1750–02 October 1780), British officer and spy, was born in London, England, the son of Anthony André, a merchant, and Marie Louise Girardot. His early schooling was with a tutor, the Reverend Thomas Newcomb, and he may have attended St. Paul’s School. In his teens André studied mathematics and military drawing at the University of Geneva, giving vent to his romantic temperament by dreaming of a military career. He was rudely brought back to reality by his merchant father when he was called home to work in the countinghouse before he completed a degree. Despising the family business, he nevertheless labored at it manfully for a number of years. After his father died on 14 April 1769, he felt a particular obligation as the eldest son to continue the business, even though his father had left him financially independent, with a small fortune of £5,000. In the summer of 1769 he joined a Lichfield literary group presided over by Anna Seward, a poet. The group included a young lady named Honora Sneyd, for whom he developed a passion. They became engaged and courted for a year and a half before she suddenly rejected him for another man at a Christmas party in 1770. Shattered by this betrayal, André revived his earlier ambition to become a soldier and in early 1771 bought a second lieutenant’s commission in the 23d Regiment, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Later he purchased a first lieutenancy in the same regiment....

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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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Atherton, Gertrude Franklin (30 October 1857–14 June 1948), author, biographer, and historian, was born Gertrude Franklin Horn in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Thomas Horn, a businessman, and Gertrude Franklin. Her maternal grandfather, a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, was a banker and editor of one of San Francisco’s first newspapers. Gertrude lived with him when her parents were divorced after three years of marriage. Although she was well read, her formal education was sporadic—while she was attending the Sayre Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, she contracted tuberculosis. After twice becoming engaged, she eventually eloped in 1876 with George H. Bowen Atherton, a former suitor of her mother’s. They had a daughter and a son who died at the age of six....

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Baker, Ray Stannard (17 April 1870–12 July 1946), journalist and author, was born in Lansing, Michigan, the son of Joseph Stannard Baker and Alice Potter. A descendant of pioneering stock, he grew up in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, where his family moved in 1875 and his father worked as a land agent. Baker later boasted that he had been brought up on the “last frontier.” His mother died in 1883, but his father, a Civil War veteran, strongly impressed Baker with his rugged character, integrity, and common sense. He attended the local schools, discovered the world of books in his parents’ library, and in 1885 enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College in East Lansing. In college Baker discovered a special liking for science courses and also edited the school newspaper. After receiving the B.S. degree in 1889, he returned home to work in his father’s land office. In January 1892 Baker entered law school at the University of Michigan but dropped out after a few months. Meanwhile, he became interested in journalism, partly as the result of a seminar at the university. In the summer of 1892 he found a job with the Chicago ...

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Baldwin, James (02 August 1924–30 November 1987), author, was born James Arthur Baldwin in Harlem, in New York City, the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones, who married the author’s stepfather, David Baldwin, in 1927. David Baldwin was a laborer and weekend storefront preacher who had an enormous influence on the author’s childhood; his mother was a domestic who had eight more children after he was born. Baldwin was singled out early in school for his intelligence, and at least one white teacher, Orrin Miller, took a special interest in him. At PS 139, Frederick Douglass Junior High School, Baldwin met black poet ...

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Barrus, Clara (08 August 1864–04 April 1931), physician and author, was born in Port Byron, New York, the daughter of John William Barrus, a traveling salesman, and Sarah Randall, a schoolteacher. She began her education at the Port Byron Academy, where three years before her graduation she decided to become a physician. She felt women physicians were scarce and were needed to “treat modest girls who refused treatment from a man” ( ...

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Bate, Walter Jackson (23 May 1918–26 July 1999), biographer and literary critic, was born in Mankato, Minnesota, the son of William G. Bate, a high school principal, and his wife, Isabel Melick Bate. The second of five children, he experienced two major crises while growing up in Mankato: at the age of four he was hit by a car and suffered permanent damage to his nervous system; and with the advent of the Great Depression seven years later his father's salary was cut in half, creating financial hardship for the family. To make matters worse, the elder Bate, a staunch Republican, was fired from his job altogether following the Democratic sweep in the elections of 1932. Despite the family's limited means, Walter's father urged his sons to get the best education possible, which to him meant attending an Ivy League college. Walter chose Harvard because of its proximity to Boston, where he could find work, and he enrolled there in the fall of 1935 with the intention of studying English literature....

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Bentley, Elizabeth Terrill (01 January 1908–03 December 1963), Communist party activist and government witness, was born in New Milford, Connecticut, the daughter of Charles Prentiss Bentley, a newspaper editor and department store manager, and Mary Burrill, a schoolteacher. After growing up in small towns in Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, Bentley enrolled in Vassar College and in 1930 received an undergraduate degree in English. While at Vassar, she became involved in a variety of Socialist causes but did not demonstrate any interest in more radical left-wing ideas. For two years following graduation, she taught languages at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, but left in 1932 for Columbia University, where she earned her M.A. in Italian in 1935. While working on her graduate degree, she accepted a fellowship that took her to the University of Florence for the 1933–1934 academic year....

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Bowen, Catherine Drinker (01 January 1897–01 November 1973), biographer and novelist, was born Catherine Shober Drinker in Haverford, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Henry Sturgis Drinker, an attorney, and Aimee Ernesta Beaux, a musician. After her father became president of Lehigh University in 1905, the family moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In between travels to such places as the Panama and Suez canals, she attended the Moravian Seminary, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. From 1914 to 1916 she studied at St. Timothy’s boarding school in Catonsville, Maryland, where she cultivated a taste for music and started to play the violin. Although accepted at Bryn Mawr College, she studied instead at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland (1915–1917), where she further cultivated the violin. Subsequently, she studied at the Juilliard School in New York City when it was still known as the Institute of Musical Arts....

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Brodsky, Joseph (24 May 1940–28 January 1996), poet, was born Iosif Alexandrovich Brodsky in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Russia, the son of Alexander I. Brodsky, a commercial photographer, and Maria M. Volpert Brodsky, both of whom were secular Jews. As an adult he anglicized his first given name. Maria Brodsky worked as a language teacher and translator and provided most of the family's income. Although he grew up in a nonreligious household, young Brodsky was acutely conscious of being Jewish because of prevailing anti-Semitism, a factor he later blamed for his father's abrupt dismissal from the navy and his subsequent lack of success, and which made the son feel like an outsider from an early age....

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Buck, Pearl S. (26 June 1892–06 March 1973), author and humanitarian, was born Pearl Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, the daughter of Absalom Sydenstricker and Caroline Stulting, missionaries who were on furlough from their Presbyterian missionary activities in China when Pearl, their first daughter, was born in the United States. Three months later the infant was taken to China when her parents returned to their duties. Educated by her mother at home and then by a Chinese tutor, Buck later attributed much of her knowledge to the influence of her Chinese amah who, together with Chinese playmates, gave her many insights into her exotic surroundings and developed imaginative outlets. Indeed Buck claimed that in her early years she was more fluent in Chinese than in English. She received additional training at a mission school and in 1909 was sent to board for a year at Miss Jewell’s School in Shanghai. Her parents insisted that she attend college in the United States, so in 1910 she enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she won several academic honors and graduated four years later with a bachelor of arts degree. She received a teaching assistantship at Randolph-Macon, but upon learning that her mother was seriously ill she returned to China to care for her....

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Bucke, Richard Maurice (18 March 1837–19 February 1902), psychiatrist and biographer, was born in Methwold, County of Norfolk, England, the son of Reverend Horatio Walpole Bucke, a Church of England curate and a direct descendant of Sir Robert Walpole, the renowned prime minister of England. (His mother’s name has been recorded as Clarissa Andrews, but that cannot be confirmed.) Within a year of his birth, Bucke’s parents emigrated to Upper Canada, settling on a farm near London, Ontario. His father, a classical scholar and linguist, brought to Canada a library of five or six thousand books in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Bucke and his six siblings received their schooling at home....

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Church, Benjamin (1639–17 January 1718), soldier, was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the son of Richard Church, a carpenter, and Elizabeth Warren. He married Alice Southworth in 1667; the couple had eight children. Early in life Church followed his father’s trade, and he first appeared in public records as a trial juror in Plymouth, 25 October 1668. Two years later he was listed as a freeman of “Duxburrow” (Duxbury, Plymouth Colony), where he also sat on trial juries and served as constable. In 1674 he acquired land in Saconet (later Little Compton, R.I.) from the Plymouth General Court and claimed to be “the first English Man that built upon that Neck, which was full of Indians.” Church described himself as “a Person of uncommon Activity and Industry,” though little is known of his personal life at the time. He gained the favor of the local Indians and, by his own estimation, even won their “great esteem.” He became acquainted with Awashonks, the “Squaw Sachem” of the Sakonnet Indians, and their friendship led to Church’s early involvement in ...

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Cleaver, Eldridge (31 August 1935–01 May 1998), social activist and writer, was born Leroy Eldridge Cleaver in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, the son of Leroy Cleaver, a waiter and nightclub piano player, and Thelma Hattie Robinson Cleaver, an elementary school teacher. When Cleaver was ten the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona; three years later, they moved again, this time to Los Angeles, California. Soon after, his parents separated. At this time, Cleaver became involved in criminal activities. In 1949 he was arrested for stealing a bicycle and was sent to reform school. In 1952 he was arrested for selling marijuana and was sent back to reform school. In 1954, a few days after his release, Cleaver was again arrested for marijuana possession and was sent to Soledad State Prison for a term of two and a half years....

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Cowley, Malcolm (24 August 1898–28 March 1989), literary critic and editor, was born in a farmhouse near Belsano, Pennsylvania, the son of William Cowley, a homeopathic physician, and Josephine Hutmacher. After attending Pittsburgh public schools, in which he began a lifelong friendship with the critic ...