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Aiken, Conrad (05 August 1889–17 August 1973), author and critic, was born in Savannah, Georgia, the first child of Dr. William Ford Aiken, an ophthalmological surgeon, and Anna Potter, transplanted New Englanders. Aiken’s father was brilliant but unstable, hectored increasingly by bouts of paranoia in the late 1890s. The main targets of his rage during these seizures were his wife, who strove vainly to convince relatives in the North of his worsening mental condition, and his oldest son, who was often beaten for slight or imaginary wrongs. Aiken later said of this period, “I hardly ever forgot what it was to be afraid.”...

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Aldrich, Thomas Bailey (11 November 1836–19 March 1907), author and editor, was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of Elias Taft Aldrich, a businessman, and Sarah Abba Bailey. Aldrich was educated in Portsmouth under Samuel De Merritt, and the Portsmouth environs furnished the background for much of his work, as did the backdrops of New York City and Boston, where he spent his adult life. Aldrich moved to New York City at age sixteen to work in his uncle’s commission house. After reading ...

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Allen, Hervey (08 December 1889–28 December 1949), writer, was born William Hervey Allen, Jr., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of William Hervey Allen, Sr., an inventor and speculator, and Helen Eby Myers. Allen was reared in a middle-class environment, about which he rarely wrote or spoke. He admired his paternal grandfather, an engineer and pioneer, but was deeply critical of his father’s impractical schemes, which brought the family to the brink of bankruptcy. He was also ambivalent toward industrial, urban Pittsburgh and, even as a young man, enjoyed family trips and individual excursions to the countryside....

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Barr, Amelia Edith Huddleston (29 March 1831–10 March 1919), author and teacher, was born in Ulverston, Lancashire, England, the daughter of the Reverend William Henry Huddleston and Mary Singleton. When Barr was young, her family moved often, according to her father’s assignment as a Methodist minister. Although her early education was frequently interrupted by relocations, returns on the Reverend Huddleston’s investments allowed Barr to attend the best private schools wherever the church sent the family. Furthermore, reading sophisticated books and treatises to her father reinforced her formal schooling and contributed to an excellent early education. This childhood security ended abruptly in 1847, when a family friend absconded to Australia with the Reverend Huddleston’s fortune, and Barr had to earn her own living as a “second teacher” at a school in Downham Market. Soon the family’s monetary situation improved and enabled Barr, in 1849, to attend Normal School in Glasgow to learn the Stowe teaching method, with its emphasis on moral training, lifelong learning, and understanding rather than rote learning. Marriage, in 1850, to Robert Barr, a prosperous young Scottish wool merchant, ended her teacher-training program. Nevertheless, teaching, on a formal or informal basis, was an important part of Barr’s life for the next twenty years....

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Beers, Ethel Lynn (13 January 1827–11 October 1879), poet and writer, was born Ethelinda Eliot in Goshen, Orange County, New York, the daughter of Horace William Eliot, a druggist, postmaster, and justice of the peace, and Keziah Westcott. Her father was a soldier during the War of 1812 and was a direct descendant of ...

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Benét, Stephen Vincent (22 July 1898–13 March 1943), writer, was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the son of James W. Benét, a career officer in the U.S. Army, and Frances Neill Rose. The Benét household was extremely literary. Benét’s father, whose military specialty was ordnance, loved to read, recite, and discuss poetry. Writing some years after his death, Benét said of his father, “He was interested in everything from the Byzantine emperors to the development of heavy ordnance, and was the finest critic of poetry I have ever known.” Benét’s mother was also an avid reader and the author of occasional verse. His brother, ...

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Bishop, John Peale (21 May 1891–04 April 1944), writer, was born in Charles Town, West Virginia, the son of Jonathan Peale Bishop, a physician and druggist, and Margaret Miller Cochran. His grandfather, a Yale graduate, had moved south from New York after the Civil War. Bishop considered himself a southerner, but he nevertheless maintained a high regard for his northern roots. When Bishop was ten his father died, and his mother remarried in 1906. His mother and stepfather moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, and Bishop entered Washington County High School. His health had not been robust during childhood, and in his senior year he had trouble with his eyesight; he was not able to attend school from 1910 to 1913. During these years his mother and sister read aloud to him, and he developed a fondness for poetry. Bishop published a poem, “To a Woodland Pool,” in ...

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Bissell, Emily Perkins (31 May 1861–08 March 1948), volunteer social worker and author, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the daughter of Champion Aristarcus Bissell, a lawyer and banker, and Josephine Wales. Her forebears settled in Connecticut where her father, a Yale graduate, was reared. Her maternal grandfather, John Wales, served as a U.S. senator from Delaware from 1849 to 1851. Bissell was educated in Wilmington and at Miss Charlier’s School in New York City....

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Bleecker, Ann Eliza ( October 1752–23 November 1783), poet and novelist, was born in New York City, the daughter of Brandt Schuyler, a prosperous merchant from an upper-class New York family, and Margaret Van Wyck. Her father died two months before Ann Eliza’s birth, but he left his family of one son and three daughters in comfortable circumstances. In childhood she read widely, wrote verse, and was part of the cultural life of upper-class New York society....

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Maxwell Bodenheim. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112040).

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Bodenheim, Maxwell (26 May 1892–07 February 1954), poet, critic, and novelist, was born in Hermanville, Mississippi, the son of Solomon Bodenheimer and Caroline Herman. An emigrant from Alsace, Solomon Bodenheimer never found financial or professional security; his career included stints as a traveling whiskey salesman and unsuccessful forays into clothing stores and men’s haberdashery. The daughter of a distinguished and wealthy surgeon, Caroline Bodenheimer came from a milieu that was vastly different from that of her husband. Indeed, the town of Hermanville itself obtained its name from Caroline Bodenheimer’s uncle, M. B. Herman, who had founded the town and established a small mercantile empire there. Caroline’s tales of lost prosperity provided a bitter contrast to the impoverished world in which Maxwell Bodenheim was reared....

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Arna Bontemps Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-100856).

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Bontemps, Arna Wendell (13 October 1902–04 June 1973), writer, was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, the son of Paul Bismark Bontemps, a bricklayer, and Maria Carolina Pembroke, a schoolteacher. He was reared in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was three. He graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, in 1923....

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Andrew T. Crosland

Boyd, James (02 July 1888–25 February 1944), author, was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the son of John Yeomans Boyd, an industrialist and lay Presbyterian leader, and Eleanor Herr. A frail child of a wealthy family, Boyd attended Hill School, entered Princeton in 1906, and graduated in 1910. He earned a master’s degree in English literature from Trinity College, Cambridge (1910–1912)....

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Bradbury, Ray (22 August 1920–05 June 2012), writer, poet, screenwriter, and cultural critic, was born in Waukegan, Illinois, the third (and second surviving) child of Leonard Spaulding Bradbury, a telephone lineman, and Esther Marie (Moberg) Bradbury. He became interested in science fiction in 1928, during convalescence while recuperating from whooping cough; other childhood interests that endured included the wonders of magic, drama, carnivals, and motion pictures. In 1934 his family moved to Los Angeles as Leonard Bradbury looked for work around the movie studios. Ray Bradbury’s first publication, the poem “In Memory of Will Rogers,” appeared in the 18 August 1936 ...

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Bremer, Fredrika (17 August 1801–31 December 1865), novelist, travel writer, and poet, was born near Abo, Finland, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The family moved to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1804 as Russia prepared to annex Finland, then a year later to a country estate near Arsta, Sweden. Bremer’s early life was unhappy; she was isolated and held under her parents’ strict control, her days consumed by a demanding academic regimen of history, philosophy, literature, music, art, and languages. She escaped the pressure by consuming romance novels by the British author Fanny Burney. Her health deteriorated, and in 1821 the family took her to the south of France to convalesce....

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Gwendolyn Brooks, late 1940s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107993).

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Brooks, Gwendolyn (07 June 1917–03 December 2000), poet and novelist, was born Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks at her grandmother's home in Topeka, Kansas, the daughter of David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, and Keziah Wims Brooks. When she was two months old, the family settled in Chicago, where she would live the rest of her life. Brooks and her brother had a sheltered upbringing in a cheerful, orderly household. (She would later draw on memories of those years for her poem “a song in the front yard” [1945].) At Forrestville Elementary School, where she learned that light skin and fine hair were valued, this shy child with dark skin and coarse hair felt socially isolated. Her mother, however, encouraged her interest in writing, and Brooks published her first poem in ...

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Brown, William Hill (late Nov.? 1765–02 September 1793), writer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Gawen Brown, an English-born clockmaker of repute, and his third wife, Elizabeth Hill Adams. He attended a Boston boys’ school and assisted in his father’s shop during vacation periods. In his lifetime Brown’s writings appeared under various initials or names such as “Pollio” or “Columbus.” His work reveals a broad acquaintance with classical and British literature and a keen awareness of contemporary American writers. His first published poems were witty treatments of political topics. “Shays to Shattuck: An Epistle” ( ...

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Bukowski, Charles (16 August 1920–09 March 1994), poet and novelist, was born Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., in Andernach, Germany, the son of Henry Charles Bukowski, an American soldier, and Katherine Fett. His father moved the family to Los Angeles when Bukowski, an only child, was two years old. Henry, Sr., held various jobs, including delivering milk and working as a museum guard, though he was often unemployed. Katherine Bukowski supplemented the family income by working as a housecleaner. Bukowski attended local public schools, including Mount Vernon Junior High School and Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard. His early years were made difficult by his strict and overbearing father, who frequently beat him with a razor strop for minor infractions such as poor performance in school or failure to mow the front lawn with precision. To make matters worse, not long after starting high school, Bukowski developed a severe case of acne, which covered his face, neck, and body. It became so serious that he was briefly removed from school and taken to Los Angeles County Hospital, where doctors treated him with ultraviolet light and drained his boils with electric needles. With few close friends, Bukowski began a life of hard drinking while still in his teens. He found solace in the local public libraries, where he discovered ...