Literary Birthday: Martin Amis

In the time before the Internet, Martin Amis (born today in 1949) was a favored author of a certain type of cold-hearted literati. Novels like London Fields (1989) were scabrous, pitch-black satires of soulless urbanites that took no prisoners.

But Amis was almost more scathing as a critic. He once pronounced that “all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart,” which can be argued sets a high standard in a world where the publishing business was briefly kept afloat by sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. Amis’s opinions were so hotly felt that he and his friend Salman Rushdie once disagreed violently enough about the merits of Samuel Beckett that Rushdie asked Amis to step outside to resolve the matter.

Literary Birthday: Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (born today in 1899) has a reputation in the literary world that is almost in inverse proportion to his slim output. A painstaking stylist, he published in a wide variety of areas—short stories of various genres, poems, essays, literary criticism—but kept his pieces short: His longest story was the 14-pager “The Congress” (1971).

Nevertheless, Borges was widely revered, largely due to his influential English-language story-and-essay collection Labyrinths (1962). Highly attentive to the awards he received and did not, Borges was reportedly saddened by his failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (rubbing salt in his wounded pride, reporters would gather outside his door each year on the day of the prize’s announcement).

Unlike many South American writers who gain an international following, Borges’ politics were somewhat reactionary. He praised the brutal military dictatorship that took over Argentina from the Peronists and accepted a medal from the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, neither of which likely endeared him to the Nobel committee.

Literary Birthday: Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret (born today in 1967) made his name publishing stories of modern Israeli life that were riddled with black humor and painful absurdities.

In the title story of Keret’s collection Fly Already, a father is on his way to play ball with his son in the park when he spots a man who looks like he’s about to jump off a building. The father shouts at the man not to jump. Meanwhile his son asks whether the man can fly and begs for ice cream. Communication is mangled as the man turns out to be half-deaf. The father turns out to have suicidal thoughts of his own—guilt over the car accident that killed his wife years before. “I want to tell him … it’ll pass,” the father thinks. “I know what I’m talking about, because no one on this blue planet was as miserable as I was.”

Literary Birthday: Chester Himes

Raised in Missouri, Chester Himes (born today in 1909) began his writing career in an unlikely place. While attending Ohio State University, he started walking on the wild side. He was sent to prison for robbery at the age of 19. Buying a typewriter in part with his gambling winnings, he began writing stories from his jail cell that were published in the black press and Esquire, under the pen name 59623 (his prisoner number).

After moving to France, Himes began publishing the raucous Harlem-set noir novels that made him famous, particularly Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). One day in Paris in 1953, Himes was at a café with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The two rivals were sparring over petty literary slights, real and imagined. “I confess,” the street-wise Himes wrote in his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972), “at this point they lost me.”

Literary Birthday: Ernest Hemingway

Like many eager young men at the time, Ernest Hemingway (born today in 1899)  tried to enlist to fight in World War I. “I can’t let a show like this go on without getting in on it,” he wrote to his older sister Marcelline. “There hasn’t been a real war to go to since Grandfather Hemingway’s shooting at the battle of Bull Run.” Rejected by the Army, Navy, and Marines for bad eyesight, he was thrilled to go to war in 1918 as a Red Cross ambulance driver.

After being wounded, and winning a medal for trying to rescue a soldier, he spent six months recuperating. Marcelline was seeing a movie back home when she was thrilled to see Ernest in the newsreel. “He was in uniform, sitting in a wheelchair on the hospital porch, being pushed by a pretty nurse,” she wrote. “He smiled at the camera and waved a crutch.” The Hemingway family went to theaters all over Chicago to catch the newsreel as many times as possible.

Literary Birthday: Frantz Fanon

“Decolonization,” wrote Frantz Fanon (born today in 1925) at the beginning of his revolutionary-philosophical text The Wretched of the Earth (1961), “is always a violent event.” He knew what he was talking about. Born in the West Indian French colony of Martinique, Fanon studied in France to be a psychiatrist and published the pioneering work of racial consciousness, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).

Stationed at a hospital in Algeria during the civil war, he witnessed up close the effects of torture. Fanon joined the Algerian liberation movement the FLN and began writing of the need for violent overthrow of the French colonial system. Published the year he died of leukemia, The Wretched of the Earth called in stark terms for colonized peoples to not replicate Europe but instead to “turn over a new leaf … and try to set afoot a new man.”

Literary Birthday: Wole Soyinka

Like his cousin, world-renowned musician and activist Fela Kuti, Nigerian poet and dramatist Wole Soyinka (born today in 1934) is almost as well known for political agitation as his art, the latter of which made him the first black African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He made numerous enemies with his outspoken critiques of authoritarian African regimes and post-colonial powers, lampooning “the oppressive boot and the irrelevance of the colour of the foot that wears it.”

For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Nigerian government in 1967 for over two years. During that time, he wrote verse that was smuggled out on toilet paper and published as Poems from Prison (1969). His poem “When Seasons Change” reflects a perspective shaped in solitary confinement: “Shrouds of seasons gone, peeled / From time’s corpses, mouse-eaten thoughts / You flutter upon solitude in winds.”

Literary Birthday: Ann Radcliffe

Given that she was later referred to by Sir Walter Scott as “the first poetess of romantic fiction,” it is fitting that many dramatic rumors about Ann Radcliffe (born today in 1764) swirled around her. There were stories that she had died young, gone mad (potentially being locked up in an asylum), or even arrested as a spy.

But whatever the truth of her biography, the impact that Radcliffe’s picaresque Gothic novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) had on the literary world is undeniable, influencing everyone from Coleridge to Wordsworth and Scott. She was the highest-paid writer of the 1790s and one of the most imitated. Jane Austen paid tribute to Radcliffe in her semi-comic Gothic Northanger Abbey, in which a character raves about Udolpho: “I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time.” 

Literary Birthday: Mark Helprin

After a peripatetic youth that included stints in Paris and Jamaica, Mark Helprin (born today in 1947) was inspired to write his first short story while at the graves of William and Henry James. Learning that a nearby funeral was for a young man killed in Vietnam he was also inspired to join the military. Opposed to the Vietnam War but determined as a Jew to support the nascent state of Israel, he instead joined the Israeli military.

That experience formed the nucleus of his first novel, Refiner’s Fire (1977). A globe-hopping spectacle that mixed breath-taking action with transcendent prose, it contains one of modern fiction’s great opening lines: “It was one of those perfectly blue, wild days in Haifa when the winds from Central Asia and the eastern deserts come roaring into the city like a flight of old propeller planes.”

Literary Birthday: Octavia Butler

As a black woman who grew up poor in Pasadena, Octavia Butler (born today in 1947) faced a host of obstacles in her quest to become a bestselling author. Reportedly inspired in her childhood by seeing the B-movie Devil Girl from Mars and thinking she could write better than that, Butler started publishing short fiction in 1971. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976)—kicking off her series of linked dystopic stories featuring telepathy, African mythology, and eugenics—received strong notices.

While revered by other writers, fame and fortune were still far off. To keep herself going, Butler used affirmations. A 2018 Huntington Library exhibition about her work displayed a notebook on which she had written plans for success (“This is my life. I write bestselling novels”) and what she could do with that success (“I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops”).

Literary Birthday: Lillian Hellman

Lillian Hellman (born today in 1905) was raised comfortably in Louisiana before her family, who did not always manage their money well, moved to New York. There, she worked various jobs while trying to get her writing career off the ground. When it did, with the 1934 premiere of her hit play The Children’s Hour, her success came with a heavy helping of controversy. Based on an incident that took place in Scotland in 1810, the story was set at an all-girl’s school where a student spreads a lie that the two women running the institution were lovers.

A milder version of the moral panic Hellman depicted greeted the play itself, which was considered too dirty-minded for the Pulitzer Prize. She, along with her longtime paramour Dashiell Hammett, palled around with Communists and other radicals. This gained her the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who put the playwright under surveillance. Hellman’s FBI file runs to over a hundred not terribly interesting pages: “Miss HELLMAN did not engage in any Communist activities in Fairbanks.”

Literary Birthday: Chris Van Allsburg

Caldecott-winning author Chris Van Allsburg (born today in 1949) began his creative career studying and making sculpture. Some of his pieces from the 1970s have a puckish, off-key humor that would later be familiar to his readers (1974’s Event at the Observatory shows a B-movie flying saucer crashed into an observatory dome). He only took up writing and drawing children’s books later.

His first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), in which a boy stumbles into a fantastical garden with surreal and somewhat threatening topiary, established the signature grey-toned look he would use in later books like Jumanji (1982) and The Polar Express (1986). But it was less a conscious choice than a practical one, as Van Allsburg’s schooling had only really acquainted him with using pencil and charcoal pencil.

Literary Birthday: Louise Erdrich

After growing up in North Dakota, where her parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, the part-Ojibwe and part-German Louise Erdrich (born today in 1954) became one of the first women admitted to Dartmouth College. Inspired to write by her parents—her father paid her a nickel a story—wrote numerous books (novels, poetry, nonfiction) that frequently explore Native American traditions and issues, first gaining critical acclaim with her novel Love Medicine (1984).

In 1999 she published The Birchbark House, the first in a series of young adult novels set in the Ojibwe community. Two years later, Erdrich opened Birchbark Books in her home city of Minneapolis. The store offers a wide selection of native artwork and features a wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling and an old church confessional that has been refashioned into a “Forgiveness Booth.”

Literary Birthday: Allen Ginsberg

(L-R) Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs

Allen Ginsberg (born today in 1926) entered American literary infamy on the night of October 7, 1955 at a gallery in San Francisco, when he read his iconic poem “Howl” for the first time. The stage and audience included many other writers who had not quite achieve boldface status (Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder). Ginsberg went on later in the evening, by which time the audience had been indulging for several hours (urged on by Kerouac, who described in The Dharma Bums telling everyone that “mad night” to “glug a slug from the jug”).

The reception to Ginsberg’s ecstatically exuberant Whitman-esque flight of prophetic fancy blew the doors off, with the crowd yelling (per Kerouac) “Go! Go! Go!” as though they were at some late-night bop session. City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in the audience as well. He published the collection Howl later that year and was promptly arrested for indecency and obscenity.

Literary Birthday: Harlan Ellison

A motormouthed, frantically productive science-fiction writer who made a decent living in the pulps before finding his voice in the genre’s boundary-smashing New Wave period of the 1960s, Harlan Ellison (born today in 1934)—who preferred being called a “fantasist,” thank you very much—had almost as many as opinions as published works.

In college, he punched out a professor who critiqued his writing. To express his displeasure with a publisher, Ellison mailed them an odiferous gopher corpse. For others who incurred his irritation, he used a form letter that began: “Dear Sir (or Madam), Clearly some brain-damaged moron is writing letters and signing your name. I suggest you do something about this.” After Ellison’s death in 2018, George R. R. Martin described his late friend as a “temperamental, exhausting, raging, loving, roaring giant” who started so many feuds that his antagonists actually formed a club: Enemies of Ellison.