Robert Creeley arose from a generation of poets who came to consciousness during the Great Depression and World War II and for whom these events formed a vast awareness of loss. Creeley in particular felt loss on a national and a personal scale; before he was five, his father had died of pneumonia and one of his eyes was blinded in a freak automobile accident. His family was originally working class. Creeley's paternal grandfather was a wealthy farmer, but the wealth, forfeited in a family scandal, was not passed on to the next generation. That brief brush with fortune raised Creeley's father out of the working class long enough to pursue an M.D. By the time Creeley was born on 21 May 1926 in West Acton, Massachusetts, his father had his own clinic and the family maintained chauffeurs and maids; however, it all disappeared when his father died. The family income dropped precipitously, and his mother was left with only her public health nurse's salary to support Creeley and his older sister. Critics have made much of the effect of the loss of his eye at the age of four on later themes of loss and betrayal in his poetry. The accident, which occurred when he was two, involved an errant load of coal that drove a shard of glass into Creeley's left eye. The injury was increasingly problematic until, after his father's death, his mother had the eye removed under circumstances he later considered a betrayal of trust. On what seemed like a routine visit to the hospital where she worked, she checked him in and the eye was taken out.
Kathryn W. Kemp
In Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a writer calling himself J. Hector St. John provides a firsthand view of the lives of ordinary Americans in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Because the author, a native of France named Michel-Guilliaume de Crèvecoeur, opposed the American Revolution, his work received scant attention until the twentieth century, when scholars recognized the value of its descriptions of the colonial world, including rural life, Indians, the frontier, the whaling communities of New England, slavery, and the flora and fauna of the Middle Colonies.
Poet of satire, love, and lower-case letters, Edward Estlin Cummings was born on 14 October 1894 at his home at 104 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Reverend Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Cummings. To distinguish between the two Edwards, the son was called by his middle name, becoming known as Estlin to family and friends. It was much later that he chose to be known professionally as E. E. Cummings, and although it was believed for many years that he had legally changed his name to reflect the use of lowercase letters that became his poetic signature (e. e. cummings), he did not.
On 14 August 1834, a nineteen-year-old Harvard student walked down a Boston wharf to board the brig Pilgrim. He was wearing the loose duck trousers and tarpaulin hat of a sailor, for which he had exchanged his usual silk cap, kid gloves, and tight dress coat. Richard Henry Dana was about to embark on the adventure of his life—a two-year working voyage to California and back. He had decided to sail “before the mast” as an ordinary seaman, living forward in the ship for over two years with men who could hardly be more different from him. This breech of the boundary surrounding educated society shocked his friends. It was an audacious decision.
There is something coolly inaccessible about the fiction—and the person—of Don DeLillo. By any measure—productivity, longevity, influence, scope—a dominant novelist of his era, DeLillo nevertheless resists the expectations of celebrity: public appearances, promotional Web sites, prestigious university appointments, conference readings, talk-show blitzes; even his interviews can be dense and forbidding. In an era of tell-all glamour, what little DeLillo, born on 20 November 1936, has offered of his autobiography rarely figures in his fiction—his Italian immigrant family; his love of the street life of his native Bronx; his fascination with the ritual theater of his Catholicism; his indifference toward his own formal education (he “slept through” high school and “didn't study much of anything” while earning a 1958 communication arts degree from Fordham); his initial experience of serious literature—Faulkner and then gloriously Joyce—while, at age eighteen, killing time as a summer playground attendant; his five-year stint as copywriter for the Manhattan advertising firm of Ogilvie and Mather; his 1964 decision to quit, not to write (although he had published two stories) but rather to abandon work he found unfulfilling; his long struggle to write his first novel, which would not be published until his mid-thirties. Since then he has maintained a spectacularly low-key lifestyle. Since his marriage in 1975 to designer Barbara Bennett, DeLillo has lived in the suburbs of New York City and traveled some, but mostly he has written, a dozen novels as well as a scattering of essays, stories, and experimental plays.
Kathryn W. Kemp
The two-volume work Democracy in America (1835, 1840) grew out of a nine-month trip to the United States early in the career of a distinguished French statesman and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville. Convinced that democracy in some form would soon replace the old authoritarian systems of administration, he saw the United States as a case study of this new form of government. He wrote for a French audience, which he hoped would draw useful lessons from his observations of Jacksonian America. Tocqueville's book has become a standard resource for students of American history and government and has inspired many other works, including a documentary television series.
The poet known to readers as H.D. is a kind of constellation that has not yet really been brought into focus. There is the H.D. of imagism, the short-lived movement of the mid-1910s that cast a long shadow over American poetry; this H.D. is chiefly a poet of craft and technique. There is the H.D. who belongs to the history of women's writing, and in whom feminist literary scholars have taken an interest quite distinct from the interest that attaches to her imagist phase. There is the H.D. whom contemporary literary critics—in particular, the “queer theorists”—might regard as a kind of pioneer in the struggle against hetero-normative sexuality. There is H.D., the author of experimental fictions in the high modernist mode. There is H.D., the disciple and analysand of, and also commentator on, Sigmund Freud. There is, too, an H.D. who properly belongs to the history of film: she edited the influential journal of film criticism in which Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's famous essays on montage first appeared; she wrote essays on film theory; and she acted alongside Paul Robeson in an experimental silent film, Borderlands (1930). And there is H.D., author of an unprecedented kind of epic poem, Helen in Egypt (1961), into which passed her imagist sense of concision and craft, her lifelong fascination with the classical world, and her many experiments with narrative. She is the sort of writer often described as a “poet's poet,” which is to say—among other things—a poet with relatively few readers. And yet her place in the history of twentieth-century American literature has never been in doubt, nor is it ever likely to be.
James Dickey liked to conceive of his life as a series of cyclical journeys in which he departed from the securities and prohibitions of home, struggled through trials in order to penetrate to a source of power, and then returned home to deliver the fruits of his quest to others. The main catalyst for this conception was his journey to the Philippines and Japan during World War II. He once observed: “I remember almost every day that I was in the war, and I think almost everything that I've done is influenced, at least to some degree, either directly or indirectly, most probably directly, by the fact that I was in the war” (Hart, p. 65). Before his service in the Army Air Corps, Dickey had been a mediocre student whose main interests were dating southern girls, running the high hurdles on the track team, and playing football. The war shook him out of his intellectual torpor, dispelled many of the traditional values he had acquired from his affluent parents in Atlanta, and convinced him to pursue the vocation of a writer. When he returned to the United States from the Pacific, he transferred from Clemson Agriculture and Military College, where he had been an engineering cadet for a semester, and enrolled in Vanderbilt University, a center of the Southern Literary Renaissance, where he soon earned a reputation as the best poet and one of the best literature students on campus. The metamorphosis caused by the war became the seed narrative in most of Dickey's major works.
A clear sign of literary malady: The experienced reader begins to take Emily Dickinson for granted, failing to feel the insoluble, salutary shock of her poetry. And the cure for this malady: try paraphrasing any poem by Dickinson. If you do, you'll quickly learn that you will probably never be able to satisfactorily summarize—or maybe even fully understand—Dickinson's recondite, elated originality. The writing will faithfully resist any effort to possess it completely; her poetry belongs to Dickinson only. Marvelously, though, many readers have been able to borrow it, admire it, and glean wisdom from the lapidary brio of the author. Although writing in literary seclusion in western Massachusetts during the mid to late nineteenth century, Dickinson invented a poetry both unprecedented in form and long-lasting in impact. She wrote as if to bid farewell to the Victorians and to urge on the modernists.
Joan Didion is an accomplished writer of essays, political journalism, and novels. A distinctive literary voice, she is known for her subjective yet unsentimental essays, her harrowing novels, and her astute political criticism.