Charles Bukowski fought, drank, and tirelessly wrote his way to international renown by defining a new American outsider poetry. A self-mythologizing and ingenious promoter, Bukowski was also an extremely prolific novelist, columnist, short-story writer, and poet best known for his hard-bitten, minimalist portrayals of Los Angeles's underbelly. Bukowski provokes extreme reactions to his work. On the one hand he is a cult hero, a writer who sees through the pretensions of life and literature to depict the world in all its brutality and beauty. On the other hand he is dismissed as a primitive writer who spewed out a facile mixture of juvenile bile, self-absorbed rant, and clever posturing designed to get a rise from his audience and raise sales of his books. Bukowski published over sixty volumes of poetry and prose, and his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Though he lived hard and drank determinedly for most of his life, he died on 9 March 1994 from leukemia. At the time of his death, he had become wealthy from his many writings and lived in the comfortable suburb of San Pedro.
Beat pioneer, heroin addict, expatriate, anarchist, gay rights advocate, gentleman, punk icon, free speech trailblazer, and member of the Academy of Arts and Letters, William Seward Burroughs was not only one of the most important American authors of the twentieth century but also one of the most fascinating.
Charles Robert Baker
The author known as Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on 30 September 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, Archulus Persons, was a charming dreamer who believed that his big break was just around the corner; that his next get-rich-quick scheme would be the one that would establish him as a financially independent southern gentleman. One of the many people who fell for his charm and his dreams was a seventeen-year-old former Miss Alabama, Lillie Mae Faulk. Lillie Mae had dreams of her own and saw the twenty-five-year-old entrepreneur as her ticket to a better life. The two were married in Lillie Mae's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, on 23 August 1923. Their honeymoon along the Gulf Coast was cut short when Persons ran out of money and Lillie Mae was sent home to the relatives who had raised her since her mother's death. Persons stayed in New Orleans, trying to raise some funds, and four weeks later returned to Monroeville with the expectation that the Faulks would take him in and care for him as a member of the family. He was mistaken.
John Wharton Lowe
Transnationalism and Global Studies have exploded old notions of artificial cultural boundaries, opening to view the myriad cross currents between the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Thus, the literature produced by the wider region of the circumCaribbean can be considered to reflect this interplay and as an alternative history to chronicles bounded by nationalism. While the age of contact and contest, the Haitian Revolution, and the U.S.–Mexican War were early focal points for interchange, the mutual influences of cultures have been dynamic, ongoing, and intricately connected to immigration, diaspora, racial conflict and mixing, and the creation of new forms of cultural expression. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the literature of the circumCaribbean, especially in the new forms it has taken over the past fifty years.
James P. Austin
Few writers have succeeded over hardship to become an indelible literary figure of their era quite like Raymond Carver. Born in 1938 in Clatskanie, Oregon, Carver was the son of a sawmill worker and he spent his formative years, and even much of his own adulthood, as a member of the working class. It is the men and women of the working class who populate the world of Carver's award-winning short stories. But the road from Clatskanie to the distinguished awards and respect Carver had earned by the end of his life was a long and winding one.
Susan J. Rosowski
Willa Cather is remarkable for the excellence, productivity, longevity, consistency, and experimentation of her writing, and also for the absence in her life of the angst familiar in other authors' biographies: alienation, madness, scandal, alcoholism. Instead, she was faithful to her home, her family, and her friends. Her experience encompassed rural Virginia, frontier Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Park Avenue in New York City, with side trips to Europe, the American Southwest, and Canada; she was a Nebraska cosmopolite. Unlike writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived their lives as extensions of the stories they told, Cather was known for the privacy of her life as well as for the openness of her writing. She once said, in a letter to The Commonweal describing her own methods, that a novelist should present “the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own…whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ ” (On Writing, p. 13). Cather was a writer whose works were exceptionally infused with her own experiences, but at the same time she had the rare capacity for detachment and could make those experiences and emotions part of her characters' stories, not just her own.
In his memoir Writing Was Everything (1995), Alfred Kazin describes meeting John Cheever for the first time. The occasion was a 1937 party hosted by the New Republic magazine for contributors under the age of twenty-five. Kazin was impressed by the ease with which Cheever maneuvered around the room. They were both struggling young writers but very different in personality. As Kazin stammered around the periphery, the short and slight Cheever took over the party, as lithe in movement as Fred Astaire and bubbling with pleasure as he charmed everyone with his wit and cleverness. He seemed to possess an inborn social confidence.
Robert M. Dowling
America's first great black novelist, Charles W. Chesnutt, was a mixed-race, middle-class political moderate. He spent much of his life, both as a child and an adult, in northern cities and southern towns, particularly in Ohio and North Carolina. He was a product of the industrial Gilded Age and of agrarian Reconstruction, an author who fused tradition with new forms, realism with romance, ancient mythology with African-American folklore, and love stories with the law. “I am neither fish, flesh, nor fowl,” Chesnutt confessed in 1881, “neither ‘nigger,’ white, nor ‘buckrah.’ Too ‘stuck-up’ for the colored folks, and, of course, not recognized by the whites.” Chesnutt, who wrote during the period that in 1931 he called “Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem,” falls in between most American group identities. That station simultaneously equipped him as a realist, hobbled his ability to achieve an authentic social affiliation, and made him one of the most intriguing representatives of his period. As William Dean Howells wrote of Chesnutt's work in the context of the American race-writing tradition:
The “Chicago Renaissance,” as it is called, can be regarded as a cheerfully inexact moniker for the simple reason that a city like nineteenth-century Chicago, with no literary past to speak of, would have had none to revive in a “renaissance” either. Yet Chicago did compel a surge of new and unprecedented literary activity from a varied corps of writers beginning in the 1890s and lasting through the 1920s. These writers wrote in Chicago, they wrote of Chicago, and whatever they wrote was shaped somehow by the city. In their turn, the poets and novelists of the Chicago Renaissance gradually worked a change on the local and national literary landscape. Their city, described in 1914 by Theodore Dreiser as “a maundering yokel with an epic in its mouth,” led them all to scribble toward an epic that would fit their own sense of style, scale, and literary destiny. From Dreiser the monumental realist to Edgar Lee Masters the free-verse elegist, from L. Frank Baum the pop American allegorist to Harriet Monroe the poetry magnate, the protagonists of the “renaissance” relied on Chicago to twist their pens and turn their pages.
“Language,” Loren Eiseley wrote, “implies boundaries. A word spoken creates a dog, a rabbit, a man. It fixes their nature before our eyes.” What does well for a rabbit or a man, however, is inadequate for literature. The phrase “children's book” resembles a tent, baggy and capacious, containing all kinds of writing and drawing. For some critics, any book a child reads or plays with is a children's book. A Golden Touch and Feel book, Dorothy Kunhardt's Pat the Bunny, is for preschoolers. The “reader” imitates the characters Judy and Tom as they touch things. While Judy pats an illustrated bunny, the child touches a piece of cotton. After Paul smells flowers in an illustration, the reader sniffs a scented page. For children slightly more advanced are “Board Books,” small books whose pages are thick as cardboard to resist rough handling; Sandra Boynton's books are an example. At the other intellectual extreme are books read by precocious children. If a child reads John Steinbeck's East of Eden in the fifth grade, can the book be classified as a children's book? Or should it simply be labeled “extraordinary reading”?