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Joel Barlow. Watercolor on ivory, 1806, by William Dunlap. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Barlow.

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Barlow, Joel (24 March 1754–26 December 1812), businessman, diplomat, and poet, was born in Redding, Connecticut, the son of Samuel Barlow and Esther Hull, fairly well-to-do farmers. Barlow was born the second-to-last child in a large family. Given the size of the family and their farm, Barlow could receive formal education only from the local minister, an education probably interspersed with farm chores. When Barlow was eighteen, his father arranged for his schooling at Moor’s Indian School (now Dartmouth) in Hanover, New Hampshire. Barlow began his studies there in 1772, yet his father’s death shortly thereafter made it necessary for Barlow to return home. He entered Yale College with the class of 1778. At Yale Barlow began to give evidence of an interest in poetry, in moral and political philosophy, and in science as a key to the improvement of the human condition. His first published poem, a broadside publication, was a satire in pseudobiblical verse about the bad food served in Yale commons. Although he wrote poems throughout his college days, Barlow’s best-known college verses were verse orations delivered at two Yale commencements, ...

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Bolling, Robert (17 August 1738–21 July 1775), Virginia burgess and poet, was born in Varina, Henrico (new Chesterfield) County, Virginia, the son of John Bolling II, burgess and planter, and Elizabeth Blair. He was the third of their eight children who lived to adulthood. Through his father’s side, he was a great, great, great-grandson of ...

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Brooke, Henry (01 October 1678–06 February 1736), poet and politician, was born at Norton Priory in England, the youngest son of Sir Henry Brook, baronet of Norton. His mother’s name is not known. He was probably the Henry Brooke who graduated from Bracenose College, Oxford, in 1693. He went to Pennsylvania in 1702 seeking his fortune. An Episcopalian, Brooke had difficulty securing a place in Quaker-controlled Philadelphia, so he accepted the office of queen’s customs collector for Lewes Town, a trading settlement at the mouth of the Delaware River. While serving as collector he saved Newcastle from plunder by a French privateer in 1709, leading local inhabitants in a sortie against the raider....

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Burgos, Julia de (17 February 1914–04 August 1953), poet and activist, was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the daughter of Francisco Burgos Hans, a member of the National Guard, and Paula García. The family was extremely poor, which may explain the death of six of the twelve siblings. Despite their poverty, for Julia, a bright and studious child, the Burgos family found the means for an education. In 1933 she received a teaching degree from the University of Puerto Rico....

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Casal, Lourdes (5 Apr. 1938–1 Feb. 1981), poet, literary critic, social psychologist, and political activist, was born Lourdes Emilia Irene de la Caridad Casal y Valdés in Havana, Cuba, the daughter of two professional parents, Pedro Casal, a doctor in medicine and a dentist, and Emilia Valdés, an elementary school teacher. Of mixed heritage, Casal’s family included black, white, and Chinese ancestry....

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Cotter, Joseph Seamon, Sr. (02 February 1861–14 March 1949), teacher, author, and civic leader, was born in Bardstown, Kentucky, the son of Michael (also spelled Micheil) Cotter, a boarding house owner, and Martha Vaughn. Although his father was known as an avid reader, Cotter was raised largely by his mother, a freeborn woman of mixed English, Cherokee, and African blood. It was from her naturally dramatic manner—she orally composed poems and plays as she worked at chores—that he acquired his love of language and stories. Having taught herself, she also taught Cotter to read and enrolled him in school, but at age eight economic necessity forced him to drop out and begin working at various jobs: in a brickyard, then a distillery, and finally as a ragpicker and a teamster. Until age twenty-two, manual labor consumed much of Cotter’s life....

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Daggett, Rollin Mallory (22 February 1831–12 November 1901), journalist, congressman, minister to Hawaii, and author, was born in Richville, New York, the son of Eunice White and Gardner Daggett, farmers. Daggett was the youngest of seven children, the other six being girls. After his mother’s death in 1833, the family moved to Defiance, Ohio, in 1837. In 1849 Daggett became a printer, learning a trade which endowed him with an education and influenced his later choice of a journalistic career....

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Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (19 July 1875–18 September 1935), poet, journalist, and political activist, was born Alice Ruth Moore in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of Joseph Moore, a seaman, and Patricia Wright, a seamstress. Dunbar-Nelson graduated from Straight College (now Dillard University) and began her teaching career at a New Orleans elementary school in 1892....

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Sara Bard Field. Gelatin silver print, 1927, by Johan Hagemeyer. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Field, Sara Bard (01 September 1882–15 June 1974), suffragist, social reformer, and poet, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of George Bard Field, a purchasing agent for a wholesale food company, and Annie Jenkins. In an interview, Field recalled her father as a staunch Baptist whose “puritanism spread like a cloak over everybody, a dark cloak” (Fry, 1979). While in high school, Field attended classes at the University of Michigan with an older sister. She hoped to enroll after her high school graduation, but her father, afraid that further education would damage her faith, refused to support her through college. Field married Albert Ehrgott, an older Baptist minister and family friend, in 1900; they had two children....

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Flagg, Edmund (24 November 1815–01 November 1890), author and civil servant, was born in Wiscasset, Maine, the son of Edmund Flagg and Harriet Payson. He graduated with distinction from Bowdoin College in 1835. Later that year he moved with his widowed mother and sister to Louisville, Kentucky, where he briefly taught the classics in a boys’ school. The following summer, he explored the Illinois and Missouri prairies and published in the ...

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Gallagher, William Davis (21 August 1808–27 June 1894), poet, journalist, and government official, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Bernard Gallagher, apparently a printer or journalist, and Abigail Davis. At the age of eight Gallagher headed west with his three brothers and mother (a widow since 1814) and settled in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. There he attended the Lancastrian Seminary and learned the printing trade through an apprenticeship....

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Allen Ginsberg, late 1960s. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-119239).

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Ginsberg, Allen (03 June 1926–06 April 1997), poet, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the younger son of Louis Ginsberg, a high school English teacher and and Naomi Levy Ginsberg. Ginsberg grew up with his older brother Eugene in a household shadowed by his mother's mental illness; she suffered from recurrent epileptic seizures and paranoia. An active member of the Communist Party–USA, Naomi Ginsberg took her sons to meetings of the radical left dedicated to the cause of international Communism during the Great Depression of the 1930s....

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Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky” (18 June 1928–12 Apr. 2005), boxer, activist, and poet, was born in Denver, Colorado, to Federico and Indalesia Gonzales, the youngest of eight children. Gonzales’s nickname came from his uncle, who would chide the young Rodolfo for “always popping off like a cork” every time the boy was involved in an altercation. The name stuck and would come to reflect Gonzales’s life as a social activist....

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Grayson, William John (12 November 1788–04 October 1863), politician and author, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, the son of William John Grayson, a sheriff of the Beaufort District, and Susannah Greene. His father, who had been an officer during the American Revolution, died in 1797 at the age of thirty-seven; eleven months later Susannah Grayson married William Joyner, a widower and wealthy planter of the Beaufort District. Young Grayson early developed an insatiable desire for learning. From 1801 to 1803 he attended private academies in the North in preparation for admission to either Yale or Harvard. Accustomed to the gentility and hospitality of the South, he chose instead the new South Carolina College (now University of South Carolina)....

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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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Harris, Thomas Lake (15 May 1823–23 March 1906), poet, writer, and founder of a religious community, was born in Fenny Stratford, England, the son of Thomas Harris, a grocer and auctioneer, and Annie Lake. When he was five, his parents emigrated to America, settling in Utica, New York. The death of his mother and his father’s remarriage, along with his aversion to the Calvinistic Baptist faith of his parents, occasioned Harris’s early departure from home. He sought a more liberal worldview in Universalism, receiving an informal theological education and financial help from Universalist ministers in Utica. By 1844 he had his first “settlement” at a church in the Mohawk Valley and was contributing poetry to Universalist newspapers. He married Mary Van Arnum in 1845; they had two children before her death in 1850....