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Arenas, Reinaldo (16 July 1943–07 December 1990), novelist and political activist, was born in Holguín, a town in rural eastern Cuba, the son of Oneida Fuentes, a poor peasant woman, and a peasant father who abandoned his unborn child. Barely sixteen years old at the time of the Cuban Revolution, Arenas received excellent instruction during the Campaigns against Illiteracy conducted by volunteers sympathetic to Fidel Castro’s ideals. Such an opportunity for self-improvement was unheard of during the regime of the deposed leader, Fulgencio Batista. In 1960 Arenas received a scholarship so that he might pursue a career in accounting in Havana....

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Kay Boyle. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-113309).

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Boyle, Kay (19 February 1902–27 December 1992), writer, educator, and political activist, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of Howard Peterson Boyle, a lawyer, and Katherine Evans, a literary and social activist. Her grandfather had founded the West Publishing Company, and the financial security afforded by this background allowed the Boyle family to travel extensively. Boyle’s education was sporadic, culminating in two years of architecture classes at the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute (1917–1919). In 1922 Boyle joined her sister Joan in New York City, where she began to work for ...

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Courtesy of the National Afro-American Museum.

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Harper, Frances Ellen Watkins (1825–20 February 1911), political activist and author, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the only child of free parents. She was orphaned at an early age and raised by an aunt. She attended a school for free blacks, which was run by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins. Her formal education ended at age thirteen. Harper became a nursemaid and found additional employment as a seamstress, needlecraft teacher, and traveling abolitionist lecturer. She also lectured in support of woman suffrage. She later became a schoolteacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania....

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Le Sueur, Meridel (22 February 1900–14 November 1996), author, speaker, and political activist, was born Meridel Wharton in Murray, Iowa, to Marian Lucy Wharton ( Marian Le Sueur) and William Winston Wharton, a Church of Christ minister. Her parents met at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her mother realized after a few years that life with her husband was going to be untenable, and she devised ways to earn money in order to leave. A staunch feminist, she established an exercise studio for women, using the methods of the physical culture enthusiast ...

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McCall, Mary C., Jr. (4 Apr. 1904–3 Apr. 1986), screenwriter, labor activist, and novelist and short story writer, was born Mary Caldwell McCall Jr. in Manhattan, New York, the only daughter of Mary Caldwell Burke and Leo Horan McCall of Manhattan. Though she would be teased at school by the boys for the “Jr.” suffix in her name, at the time, it was not unusual for independent-minded mothers to name their firstborn daughters in this way. McCall’s future Hollywood colleagues, actress and executive Cobina Wright Jr. and writer Harriet Frank Jr., also maintained their “Jr.” status throughout their careers....

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Paley, Grace (11 Dec. 1922–22 Aug. 2007), short story writer, poet, antiwar activist, and feminist, was born Grace Goodside in the Bronx, the third child of Isaac Goodside and Manya Ridnyik. Grace was the baby of the family; her sister Jeanne and brother Victor were respectively fourteen and sixteen years older. Her parents, both Socialist activists, anglicized their name from Gutseit when they emigrated from the Ukraine in ...

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Pelley, William Dudley (12 March 1890–01 July 1965), novelist, religious and political leader, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, the son of William George Apsey Pelley, a Methodist minister and printer, and Grace Goodale. Pelley's family lived in several Massachusetts communities during Dudley's childhood. He dropped out of Springfield Technical High School during his sophomore year at the behest of his father, who needed his son to help him in a toilet paper factory he co-owned....

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Sinclair, Upton (20 September 1878–25 November 1968), novelist, reformer, and politician, was born Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr., in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Upton Beall Sinclair, Sr., a wholesale liquor salesman, and Priscilla Harden. Sinclair’s father was irresponsible and alcoholic and left the boy’s care to his mother, who encouraged him to read. In 1886 or 1887 the family moved to New York City, where in 1889 Sinclair attended public school classes for the first time. During the next two years he completed eight elementary grades and in 1892 enrolled in the City College of New York. In 1894 he began to sell jokes and puzzles to children’s periodicals and a year later was selling stories to juvenile magazines to support himself. He graduated from City College with a B.A. in 1897, abandoned an ambition to become a lawyer, and enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University, all the while writing almost a hundred “half-dime” novels for Street and Smith, America’s leading pulp-fiction publisher. Attracted to courses in music, contemporary politics, and poetry, especially that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sinclair decided to become an influential man of letters. In May 1900 he left Columbia without a graduate degree, rented a cabin for three months in southern Quebec, and wrote an idealistic novel, ...