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Henry Walton Bibb. Lithograph on paper, 1847, by Unidentified Artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Bibb, Henry Walton (10 May 1815–1854), author, editor, and antislavery lecturer, was born into slavery on the plantation of David White of Shelby County, Kentucky, the son of James Bibb, a slaveholding planter and state senator, and Mildred Jackson. White began hiring Bibb out as a laborer on several neighboring plantations before the age of ten. The constant change in living situations throughout his childhood, combined with the inhumane treatment he often received at the hands of strangers, set a pattern for life that he would later refer to in his autobiography as “my manner of living on the road.” Bibb was sold more than six times between 1832 and 1840 and was forced to relocate to at least seven states throughout the South; later, as a free man, his campaign for abolition took him throughout eastern Canada and the northern United States. But such early instability also made the young Bibb both self-sufficient and resourceful, two characteristics that were useful against the day-to-day assault of slavery: “The only weapon of self defense that I could use successfully,” he wrote, “was that of deception.”...

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Brant, Irving Newton (17 January 1885–18 September 1976), biographer, journalist, and historian, was born in Walker, Iowa, the son of David Brant, the editor of the local newspaper, and Ruth Hurd Brant. Irving Brant decided on a career in journalism. He was educated in local schools and at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, from which he earned a BA in 1909....

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Callender, James Thomson (1758–17 July 1803), political writer and newspaper editor, was born in Scotland, the son of a tobacconist. Of his childhood and youth little is known, except that he was raised as a Presbyterian and received a classical education. He first came to prominence in 1782 when he published a work critical of Dr. Samuel Johnson. A supplementary volume published in 1783 was less successful, and for the next seven years he worked as a clerk. During this period he married (wife's name unknown), eventually having four children. Displaying early a strong sense of self-righteousness and a Calvinist contempt for human depravity, Callender destroyed his career as a clerk by agitating for the dismissal of a superior, whom he accused of corruption. Thereafter, from about 1790, he moved toward radicalism, writing a number of anonymous pamphlets critical of British politics and extolling Scottish nationalism. In 1792 he became a member of the Scottish Friends of the People, attending the Edinburgh Convention in December 1792 as a militant radical. Later that month, Lord Gardenstone, his patron, admitted to the authorities Callender's authorship of ...

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Cantwell, Mary (10 May 1930–01 February 2000), writer, was born Mary Lee Cantwell in Providence, Rhode Island, the daughter of Leo Cantwell, a man of Scottish descent who worked as a production manager in a rubber plant, and Mary Lonergan Cantwell, a former teacher and the descendant of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants. As described in her nostalgic memoir ...

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Childs, George William (12 May 1829–03 February 1894), publisher, biographer, and philanthropist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The names of his parents are not known. In Recollections (1890), his autobiography, Childs shrouds his family origins in mystery, making no reference to his parents or early childhood, beginning instead with an explanation of how he had had from a young age “a rather remarkable aptitude for business.” At twelve he worked a summer job as an errand boy in a Baltimore bookstore for two dollars a week. He reflects in ...

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Godwin, Parke (25 February 1816–07 January 1904), journalist and editor, was born in Paterson, New Jersey, the son of Abraham Godwin, a manufacturer and merchant, and Martha Parke. After graduating from Princeton in 1834, he returned to Paterson to study law. He lived briefly in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was admitted to the bar, but before establishing a practice, he moved to New York City. There he met ...

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Hatcher, William Eldridge (25 July 1834–24 August 1912), minister, editor, and author, was born in Bedford County, Virginia, near the Peaks of Otter, the son of Henry Hatcher and Mary Latham, farmers. His mother was a close relative of General Nathanael Greene, principal foe of British general ...

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Holbrook, James (1812–28 April 1864), postal official and journalist, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of unknown parents. Holbrook grew up in Boston, where he was apprenticed to a printer. In 1833, he moved to Connecticut, where he worked as a newspaper editor and in that year married Mary Baker Tyler. He and Tyler had four children. He edited the ...

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Jones, John Beauchamp (06 March 1810–04 February 1866), author and journalist, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. The names and circumstances of his parents are unknown. Jones’s early days in Baltimore and his childhood on the frontier in Kentucky and Missouri are blank pages from an early life that is obscure at best. Evidently he received a basic education in local schools, for journalism and literature became his livelihood. In 1841 he edited the Baltimore ...

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McElroy, John (25 August 1846–12 October 1929), journalist and author, was born in Greenup County, Kentucky, the son of Robert McElroy, an ironmaster, and Mary Henderson. The family background was Scotch-Irish. He left home at the age of nine, after his father’s death and his mother’s remarriage, dropping his middle name, Henderson, which was his mother’s maiden name. He worked his way to St. Louis, where he found a job as a printer’s devil. Befriended by journeymen printers, he learned how to set the type for popular songs and sold the songs on the streets of St. Louis. Through a program of reading and independent study he remedied the meagerness of his formal education. He was aided in this project by a photographic memory. He could recite most of Shakespeare’s plays, read French and German, and translate Greek and Hebrew. When the country was moving toward war, he traveled to Chicago. In 1862 he enlisted in ...

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H. L. Mencken Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1932. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42489).

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Mencken, H. L. (12 September 1880–29 January 1956), author, editor, and journalist, was born Henry Louis Mencken in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of August Mencken, a cigar manufacturer, and Anna Abhau. Having emigrated from Germany during the mid-nineteenth century, the Menckens and Abhaus had quickly adapted to life in the United States, and they provided a home more Victorian than German-American for their four children. Henry Mencken, the eldest, did attend a private German school for his earliest education, but he completed his formal education at Baltimore Polytechnic, a high school primarily responsible for producing engineers and technicians....

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Nicolay, John George (26 February 1832–26 September 1901), journalist and private secretary and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, journalist and private secretary and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, was born in Essingen, Bavaria, the son of John Jacob Nicolay, a farmer and barrelmaker, and Helena (maiden name unknown). The Nicolay family emigrated to the United States when John was a small boy, arriving in New Orleans in 1838. From there the family moved frequently, living in Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri, before settling in Pike County, Illinois, where John’s father and brothers operated a flour mill. Nicolay clerked for a year in a store in White Hall, Illinois, before going to work as a typesetter at the ...

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Warner, Charles Dudley (12 September 1829–20 October 1900), author and editor, was born in Plainfield, Massachusetts, the son of Justus Warner and Sylvia Hitchcock, farmers. In 1837, three years after her husband died, Sylvia Warner took her two sons to a guardian in Charlemont, Massachusetts, and, in 1841, on to her brother in Cazenovia, New York. Warner attended classes at the Oneida Conference Seminary in Cazenovia, enrolled at Hamilton College, and graduated in 1851 with a B.A. While still a student he published articles in the ...

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White, William Allen (10 February 1868–29 January 1944), journalist and author, was born in Emporia, Kansas, the son of Allen White, a physician and merchant, and Mary Ann Hatten, a schoolteacher. A year later the family moved sixty miles southwest to the frontier village Eldorado (now El Dorado), where Allen White quickly became the leading citizen and most energetic booster; he was the town’s mayor when he died in 1882. William Allen would emulate his father’s absorption in community and civic life. He attended the College of Emporia in 1884, but, seeking a skill to help pay his way, he found a job as printer’s devil for a local newspaper. Quickly graduating from compositor to cub reporter, White worked for newspapers throughout the rest of his university career, which included a second year in Emporia and four years at the University of Kansas. He left without a degree in 1890 to manage the ...