On Oct. 24, 1934, the S.S. Champlain docked in New York City. Reporters crowded the port to receive the ship’s famous passenger, Gertrude Stein. Stein hadn’t stepped foot on American soil in 31 years.
Stein moved to Paris in 1903 with her brother, Leo. After six years, she moved in with Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus.
There, Toklas and Stein collected art and hosted salons. They engaged with artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce.
Stein, too, was a writer. Her first book, Three Lives, came out in 1909 and didn’t receive much attention. But Stein became famous when she published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a fictional autobiography, in 1933. Readers loved the work, making it a best seller. …
John Dickens had a good job as a clerk for the British Navy. But he wasn’t good at handling money. Plus, he and his wife, Elizabeth, had seven kids. This family size and John’s ineptness put a financial strain on the Dickens household.
To help out, their oldest son, Charles, got a job a few days after he turned 12 on Feb. 7, 1824. Charles went to work at a shoe polish factory. His job was to paste labels on bottles, for which he earned six shillings a week. That’s about £18 today, or $23.
The money Charles earned wasn’t enough, though. Authorities arrested John and placed him in debtors prison on Feb. 20, 1824. Not long after, Elizabeth and most of their children joined John in jail. Charles, as the only earner in his family, remained free, as did his older sister, Fanny. She was studying at the Royal Academy of Music. …
John Steinbeck didn’t think movie studios would be interested in the book he was writing. On Jul. 5, 1938, Steinbeck sent a letter to his agent. “I am quite sure no picture company would want this new book whole and it is not for sale any other way,” Steinbeck wrote. “It pulls no punches at all and may get us all into trouble but if so — so. That’s the way it is.”
But it turned out that Steinbeck didn’t write an ordinary book. The Grapes of Wrath came out on Apr. 14, 1939. It captivated readers with its story about the plight of the Joad family. …
Alexandra Chang wrote a novel about a young Asian American woman discovering herself in present-day America. The book, Days of Distraction, touches on issues such as racism and xenophobia.
Days of Distraction came out on March 31, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing’s not ideal for Chang, a debut novelist. But it’s also a moment when some Asian Americans describe verbal and intimidating assaults from people who blame them for the crisis.
In other words, people are witnessing in the open some of the things Chang wrote about in Days of Distraction. …
One day in 1946, the phone rang at Jack Schaefer’s home in Norfolk, Va. Schaefer answered.
“Jack Schaefer?” a male voice asked.
“You know you’re a fool, don’t you?” the man replied.
The caller was an editor at Argosy magazine. A few months prior, Schaefer submitted a story he’d written to the publication. But he broke every rule Argosy had about unsolicited manuscripts.
For one thing, Schaefer typed his piece in single-spaced font, instead of double-spaced. And he didn’t include a self-addressed stamped envelope, which Argosy required so they wouldn’t have to pay postage when sending a rejection letter. …
Patrick Brunty was supposed to be a farmer. As the oldest child to Hugh and Elinor Brunty, expectation called for Patrick to take over the family farm in County Down, Ireland. Instead, Patrick became a schoolteacher. And then he got into Cambridge University in England.
In Oct. 1802, a 25-year-old Patrick arrived at Cambridge. He registered at the university’s St. John’s College using, for reasons we don’t know, a new last name. Patrick Brunty became Patrick Brontë.
The two dots above the “e” in Brontë are what’s called a diaeresis. The symbol marks that a vowel’s a separate syllable. We don’t use diaeresis in English much anymore. …
Jessica Moor came to a realization. She wanted to write books, so Moor went back to school to study writing. And now, Moor’s published her debut novel, Keeper.
It’s the story of a woman, Katie Strawn who appears to have committed suicide. But the residents of a women’s shelter where Katie worked disagree. What follows is a novel that one reviewer called “atmospheric, timely.”
In this interview, Jessica Moor talks about the work experience that led to writing Keeper. You can help Moor while supporting independent bookstores by Keeper on Bookshop (paid link).
To be clear, I didn’t work in a refuge, but for a domestic violence charity in a fundraising capacity, although that work often took me into refuges. I took that job because I thought I wanted to be a psychotherapist. This was when I was still in denial about wanting to be a writer, and I thought that being a shrink would satisfy my curiosity about the human condition. Me becoming a shrink would have been completely unethical because I would always have been scavenging my clients for stories, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. …
On Jan. 4, 1915, Ginevra King wrote in her diary, “Scott perfectly darling.” King was a wealthy Chicago debutante. She was visiting her boarding school roommate in St. Paul, Minn., over Christmas break. The two young women went to a snow-sledding party, where King met a 19-year-old Princeton University student she called Scott.
King and Scott started a romance, exchanging letters and seeing each other when possible. King wrote about Scott in her diary in Feb. 1915, “I am madly in love with him.” And a June 1915 entry in Scott’s journal read, “Midnight frolic with Ginerva.”
It’s not accurate to say that King and Scott were from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But Scott’s family wasn’t as wealthy as King’s, whose dad was a banker and stockbroker. Scott’s family relied on money from his mother’s family. …
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel about Christian missionaries started with a curse word. For ten years, the writer researched for the book, filling a filing cabinet in her office with notes and news clippings. Kingsolver referred to the project as the DAB, for “Damned Africa Book.”
The idea for the DAB came to Kingsolver after reading Jonathan Kwitny’s 1984 book, Endless Enemies. In it, Kwitny analyzes the United States’ role in supporting dictators in developing countries, such as Chile and Congo.
It’s the latter country that sparked Kingsolver’s imagination. In 1961, a firing squad killed Congo’s first elected leader, Patrice Lumumba. The next year, a seven-year-old Kingsolver arrived with her family in the Congo. …
Workers building a U.S. government office in lower Manhattan in 1991 found something in the dirt. Bones. Because it was a federal project, construction had to stop while experts investigated. And that’s how we uncovered the most substantial African burial ground in the United States.
The site took up 6.6 acres, about five city blocks. Excavations found the remains of 419 Africans from the 1690s to the 1790s. But experts believe as many as 15,000 freed African slaves and their descendants were buried there.
The U.S. government contracted Howard University to study the bones and artifacts recovered from the site. And the U.S. Department of Interior developed plans to honor the former cemetery. …