Literary Birthday: Joanna Russ

One of the few female and openly gay writers in postwar science fiction—at the time even more straight male-dominated than the rest of the publishing world—Joanna Russ (born today in 1937) first made her name with a metafictional story cycle featuring the time-traveling assassin Alyx before penning the controversial women-only utopian novel The Female Man.

Russ, who once wrote “I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry,” later decanted her fiery feminism into the 1983 landmark study How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Reprinted in 2018, this still-relevant book lays out how the literary establishment ignores and marginalizes non-male voices. Russ boils these double standards down in the book’s most famous entry: “She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it’s unintelligible/ badly constructed/ thin/ spasmodic/ uninteresting/ etc., a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can’t understand it.”

Literary Birthday: Toni Morrison

Unlike many novelists who became household names, Toni Morrison (born today in 1931 as Chloe Anthony Wofford; Anthony was her confirmation name, and led to her friends calling her “Toni”) had a professional career as well. She taught at universities like Howard and Princeton, and spent nearly two decades as a fiction editor at Random House.

As an editor she nurtured the careers of several black novelists, while also publishing everything from Muhammad Ali’s autobiography to The Black Book, a groundbreaking anthropological look at the black American experience.

In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech, she mused on her legacy and the meaning of what she and her community of writers did: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Literary Birthday: Bertolt Brecht

German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht (born today in 1898) always intended to agitate as well as entertain. After World War I, he was denounced for the satirical poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” in which the Kaiser demands an inconveniently dead hero soldier be exhumed and marched right back to action. Brecht’s more famous plays, like The Threepenny Opera, used dark absurdism to deliver stinging critiques of capitalism and fascism.

Banned early on by the Nazis, Brecht went into exile in 1933. His allegorical 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, used a Chicago gangster drama to illustrate how demagogues like Hitler divide their opposition to gain power. Post-2016 productions of the play have tilted the allegory toward present-day authoritarianism, finding the continued relevance in lines such as: “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, / We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.”

Literary Birthday: Charles Dickens

As an ambitious young man with the kind of lower-class background that limited prospects in 19th century England, Charles Dickens (born today in 1812) was not sure what he wanted to or could become. After stints as a law clerk and comic, he landed on writing.

His first piece, a fairly low-key comedic sketch titled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published in Monthly Magazine in 1833, but under the name “Boz.” One of his favorite characters in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel Vicar of Wakefield was named Moses, which was what Dickens had nicknamed his younger brother. That later became “Boses,” and then “Boz.” Dickens was never paid for his debut, having to buy a copy of the magazine in order to see his pseudonym in print. More pieces followed in the same vein. Three years later, the first collected volume of Sketches by Boz appeared. A preface to a later edition showed a self-conscious Dickens noting “their often being extremely crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.”