Tag Archives: authors

Meeting Zora Neale Hurston


Hurston 1

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
From Dust Tracks on a Road


Although Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, she moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was a toddler and claimed that as her hometown. Eatonville, the first black-incorporated town in the United States, served as the backdrop for her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in addition to providing a rich vein of African-American folklore that resounds throughout her writing. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Hurston sought to incorporate the black culture and dialect that she knew best into her writing. Her positive outlook on black culture as it was created friction between Hurston and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance movement. After a few decades of literary success, Hurston fell into obscurity. Her works went out of print. It wasn’t until novelist Alice Walker, who had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and who became a passionate advocate of her work, published the essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in a 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine that scholars renewed their focus on the Hurston, her amazing life story, and her contribution to American literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God is now one of the most widely-taught and best-known of African-American novels. Hurston died in Ft. Pierce, FL on January 28, 1960.

Hurston’s Perspective

What strikes the contemporary reader is that Hurston was deeply passionate about the people whose dreams and desires, whose traumas and foibles she describes with such élan, and that she loved the fictional language in which she cloaks their tales; hers is not the urgency of the essayist or the columnist, intent upon reducing human complexity to a sociological or political point. Above all else, Hurston is concerned to register a distinct sense of space—an African-American cultural space. The Hurston voice of these stories is never in a hurry or a rush, pausing over—indeed, luxuriating in—the nuances of speech or the timbre of voice that give a storyteller her or his distinctiveness.

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke,
Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories

In the twenties, thirties, and forties, there were tremendous pressures on black writers. Militant organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expected them to be “race” people, defending black people, protesting against racism and oppression; while the advocates of the genteel school of literature wanted black writers to create respectable characters that would be “a credit to the race.” Many black writers chafed under these restrictions, including Hurston, who chose to write about the positive side of black experience and to ignore the brutal side. She saw black lives as psychologically integral—not humiliated half-lives, stunted by the effects of racism and poverty. She simply could not depict blacks as defeated, humiliated, degraded, or victimized, because she did not experience black people or herself that way.

Mary Helen Washington, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow”

 Hurston 2“I tried … not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro,” Hurston said of Their Eyes Were Watching God. “Neither did I want to pander to those ‘race’ people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us.”                               

Hurston’s Language

Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for perhaps the eleventh time, I am still amazed that Hurston wrote it in seven weeks; that it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done; and that the language of the characters, that “comical nigger ‘dialect’” that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or “improved” so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful. There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one.

Alice Walker, “On Refusing to be Humbled By Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design: A Tradition by Now”


Hurston Resources

The PBS program Do You Speak American? includes an excellent essay on African-American women writers including Hurston, Alice Walker, and Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison. Hurston’s use of dialect is discussed in detail. The essay also includes links to sounds clips and other info:


The idea that there are proscribed ways for people of varied races to speak still exists these days. In her podcast “Sounding Black,” produced for Studio 360, performer Sarah Jones discusses “blaccents” and their impact on communication and the 2008 presidential election.


Comments Off on Meeting Zora Neale Hurston

Filed under AP Literature

The Pittsburgh Cycle

The Pittsburgh Cycle, also known as the American Century Cycle, is August Wilson’s magnum opus, a series of ten plays that charts the African American experience throughout the twentieth century. “Put them all together,” Wilson once said, “and you have a history.” All of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago. 

Wilson didn’t actually plan to write a 10-play cycle. “I didn’t start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney set in ’77 and a[n unpublished and unperformed] play called Fullerton Street that I set in ’41,” he told author and teacher Sandra Shannon. “Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I set in ’27, and it was after I did that I said, ‘I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue doing that?’”  (Fassler)

Characters in the plays often appear at different stages of their lives, with the offspring of previous characters cropping up in later plays. The figure of Aunt Ester features most often in the cycle. Other recurring elements include the use of music and the presence of an apparently mentally-impaired character; examples include Gabriel in Fences and Hedley in Seven Guitars.

Gem of the Ocean
Nominee, Tony Award, 2005

Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904 in the Pittsburgh home of Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave and renowned cleanser of souls. A young man from Alabama visits her for help in absolving the guilt and shame he carries from a crime he’s committed, and she takes him on a journey of self-discovery to the City of Bones.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Tony Award, 1988

Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone tells the story of owners Seth and Bertha Holly and the makeshift family of migrants who pass through during the Great Migration of the 1910s.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Yale Repertory Theatre. William B. Carter, 1986. Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Tony Award, 1985

Set in 1927. Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her band players convene in a Chicago studio to record a new album. As their conversation unfolds, their bantering, storytelling and arguing raise questions of race, art and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is being released by Netflix in December, starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance, as the young jazz musician Levee.

The Piano Lesson
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1990
Nominee, Tony Award, 1990

The Piano Lesson is set in 1936 Pittsburgh during the aftermath of the Great Depression. The play deals with themes of family legacy. Brother and sister Boy Willie and Berniece Charles clash over whether or not they should sell an ancient piano that was exchanged for their great-grandfather’s wife and son in the days of slavery. The Piano Lesson was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 1995, the first of Wilson’s plays to be filmed for a large audience.

Seven Guitars
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1995
Nominee, Tony Award, 1996

A blues singer just released from prison is asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes an unexpected hit in 1948. He is ready to right the past year’s wrongs and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what’s important in his life. Unfortunately his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.

Jean Hyppolite as Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is confronted by Stephon Duncan’s Louise in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.”
A 2018 production of Seven Guitars by Miami’s M Ensemble Theatre

Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1987
Winner, Tony Award, 1987

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete. Troy has gone through life in an America where to be proud and black is to face pressures that could crush a man, body and soul. But the 1950s are yielding to the new spirit of liberation in the 1960s, a spirit that is changing the world Troy has learned to deal with the only way he can, a spirit that is making him a stranger, angry and afraid, in a world he never knew and to a wife and son he understands less and less.

Mary Alice, James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance in Fences at Yale Repertory Theatre. William B. Carter, 1985. Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Two Trains Running
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1992
Nominee, Tony Award, 1992

Two Trains Running is set in 1969. It tells the story of a local diner owner who fights to stay open as a municipal project encroaches on his establishment. His regulars must deal with racial inequality and the turbulent, changing times of the Civil Rights movement.

Production of Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle

Set in 1977 in a worn-down gypsy cab station, Jitney tells the story of men hustling to make a living driving jitneys — unofficial and unlicensed taxi cabs — because official cabs will not accept jobs in the Hill District, and what the company and its drivers must consider when the building housing the station is slated for destruction. Jitney is the only one of Wilson’s plays not to have been produced on Broadway during Wilson’s life, although it had been performed off-Broadway and overseas. It finally made its Broadway debut in 2017.

Jitney at True Colors Theatre, Atlanta 2010

King Hedley II
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 2000

Nominee, Tony Award, 2001

One of Wilson’s darkest plays, King Hedley II tells the story of an ex-convict trying to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators so that he can save enough money to buy a video store during the trickle-down economic era of the 1980s and a decaying Hill District. Many of the characters have connections to the characters in Wilson’s 1940s-era play Seven Guitars, showing “how the shadows of the past can reach into the present.” (Samuel French playscript Overview)

Radio Golf
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle

Radio Golf is set in 1997 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Aunt Ester returns in this story of a charming, powerful African-American politician who is running for the highest office of his career with the support of his savvy wife. As he steps into political prominence, his plans to redevelop the Hill District collide with his past.



Comments Off on The Pittsburgh Cycle

Filed under AP Literature

August Wilson Introduction

Perhaps the most successful African-American playwright in American history, August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents were Daisy Wilson, who cared for August and his four siblings alongside her work as a cleaning woman, and Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant and baker.

Young August Kittel went to parochial school near his Hill District home on Bedford Avenue until his parents’ divorce. He, his mother, and his siblings moved from their historically black community to the Oakland neighborhood, which was primarily white. The constant bigotry of classmates led him to change high schools three times by the time he was fifteen, when he withdrew from formal school and began educating himself independently at Pittsburgh’s famed Carnegie Library. In 1962, at age 17, he enlisted in the Army but left after a year of service. After his father’s death in 1965, he took the name August Wilson to honor his mother.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library c. 1935

The 60s launched Wilson’s writing career. Although he originally planned to work as a poet, by the late 1960s he had formed, with a group of friends, the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. In 1968, he met collaborator Rob Penny through the CAPTW, and they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District, a community-based Black Nationalist theater company. Penny worked as the playwright while Wilson directed the productions, which were designed to raise awareness of the African-American experience.

Wilson relocated to Minneapolis in 1978, where he began serious work on his own plays. His first play, Jitney, was completed in 1979. Over the next few years, Wilson submitted both Jitney and his second play Fullerton Street to the renowned Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference without success, but his third attempt, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was selected in 1982. Through the Conference, Wilson was introduced to the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, Lloyd Richards, who nurtured trailblazing playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun and the first African-American to have a play produced on Broadway. Richards helped shepherd the development of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ended up directing Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway, including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. Wilson earned his second Pulitzer in 1990 for The Piano Lesson.

From a piano hand-carved by slaves to prison work songs to blues anthems, music sings throughout Wilson’s plays. He said hearing Bessie Smith’s “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” the first time “was a defining moment: it made him recognize the poetry in the everyday language of black America and gave him the inspiration and freedom to use that language in his own writing.” (Greene Space) He often explained that he got his education from the four B’s: the blues, the art of painter Romare Bearden and the writing of poet Amiri Baraka and writer/poet Jorge Luis Borges. “The foundation of my playwriting is poetry,” he once said, and that influence is obvious from the cadence and power of his dialogue. (Greene Space)

After a decade in Minneapolis, Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 and continued work on the ten-play series that would become known as The American Century Cycle or The Pittsburgh Cycle. The plays explore the challenges faced by African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century, “beginning with the complex narrative of freedom at the turn of the century and ending with the assimilation and sense of alienation of the 1990s.” (The Greene Space)

A passionate advocate for black representation in the theatre, Wilson explained, “I think my plays offer [white Americans] a different way to look at Black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this Black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with Black people in their lives.” He stated that he didn’t write for black or white audiences, but about the black experience, because “…contained within that experience, because it is a human experience,” he said, “are all universalities.” This 1998 interview with Charlie Rose preceded a five-day symposium at Dartmouth University and reveals much of Wilson’s thinking on the topics of race and culture.

The day after Wilson’s 60th birthday in April of 2005, the last play of the Pittsburgh Cycle, Radio Golf, made its debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre. In August of that same year, Wilson revealed his diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Wilson died October 2, 2005. Peter Marks of The Washington Post wrote that Wilson did not “simply leave a hole in the American theater, but a huge yawning wound, one that will have to wait to be stitched closed by some expansive, poetic dramatist yet to emerge.” (Greene Space)

Actor-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who performed in many Wilson plays and won a 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as Canewell in Seven Guitars, said, “August Wilson left such a tremendous body of work for us. He wanted to make sure that our culture did not become history without some life and love and breath in it. He wanted a heartbeat in the stories that we told.” (Fassler)

On October 16, two weeks after Wilson’s death, the owners of the Virginia Theatre on East 52nd street renamed the theatre after him. The August Wilson Theatre is the first Broadway venue to be named for an African-American. In 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.



Comments Off on August Wilson Introduction

Filed under AP Literature

William Golding Intro

The British novelist William Gerald Golding was born in St. Columb Minor, a village in Cornwall, on September 19, 1911. Golding greatly admired his father, Alec Golding, a distinguished school master who “inhabited a world of sanity and logic and fascination.” His mother, Mildred Golding, was active in the suffragette movement.

Golding entered Oxford University, and to please his parents, he began to study science. After two years, however, he switched to English. He graduated in 1935 with a B.A. degree and diploma in education.

Golding moved to London, where he became a social worker. During this time, he began writing, acting, and producing for a small London theater, bu eventually deferred to family tradition and became a teacher. When World War II began in 1939, he was teaching at Bishop Wordsworth’s school, a boys’ school in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

In 1940, Golding joined the Royal Navy and served on a cruiser. Eventually he became a lieutenant, ending his career in command of a rocket launching craft. During his naval career, Golding saw action against battleships, submarines, and aircraft. He was present at the sinking of the Bismarck and took his rocket-launching craft to Normandy for the D-Day invasion.

golding1In 1945, Golding resumed his teaching post at Bishop Wordsworth’s School and began writing again. Some of his reviews and essays were published, but he found no publisher for the novels he had written. In spite of this, Golding persisted. He concluded that since he would probably never be published, he would simply write for his own satisfaction. One night after reading a bedtime story to his children, he spoke with his wife about his true desire, to write a book about what people are really like. Boys’ adventure books such as Coral Island and Treasure Island weren’t believable, and he wanted to trace the darkness that he witnessed as being part of every human being. The result was Lord of the Flies, published in 1954 when Golding was 43. Lord of the Flies sold well when first published;however, it sold fewer than 3,000 copies in the United States and soon went out of print. Later, the novel found and retained an influential audience and eventually became a favorite of college students, rivaled only by J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Later Golding published The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956), and Free Fall (1959).

In 1961, largely due to the success of Lord of the Flies, Golding was able to leave his teaching post at Bishop Wordsworth’s School to become writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia. Thereafter, he became a full-time writer. His later novels include The Spire, The Pyramid, The Scorpion God, Darkness Visible, Rites of Passage, The Paper Men, and Fire Down Below, published four years before his death at 81 years old.


In 1983, Golding received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of his works in general, he was quoted as saying,

In all books I have suggested a shape in the universe that may, as it were, account for things. The greatest pleasure is…just understanding. And if you can get people to understand their own humanity–well, that’s the job of the writer.

His Nobel lecture discusses various topics and focuses not only on writers, their creations, and the impact that writing has on humanity, but also the mutual responsibility we have for the Earth. He ruminates on the interplay between pessimism (which people assume he has based on the dark focus of his works) and optimism, which he challenges us to embrace and recognize in the power of the written word. Golding says,

Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion, and the luck of writers prove to be the most powerful thing in the world. They may move men to speak to each other because some of those words somewhere express not just what the writer is thinking but what a huge segment of the world is thinking. They may allow man to speak to man, the man in the street to speak to his fellow until a ripple becomes a tide running through every nation – of commonsense, of simple healthy caution, a tide that rulers and negotiators cannot ignore so that nation does truly speak unto nation. Then there is hope that we may learn to be temperate, provident, taking no more from nature’s treasury than is our due. It may be by books, stories, poetry, lectures we who have the ear of mankind can move man a little nearer the perilous safety of a warless and provident world.

You may listen to a recording of Golding’s Nobel lecture here.

In the year before his death in 1993, Golding reflected with melancholy on the body of his literary career. Comparing his few works to other writers whose works number in the hundreds, Golding said,

The list makes me more aware of wasted time, the years the locusts have eaten, than of achievement. Seeing them in my mind’s eye I feel a little depressed, like a tourist catching sight of Stonehenge from a distance and for the first time: “not a very impressive scatter of a few stones heaped in a plain without much feature and under a gloomy sky.”

Of course when the tourist (if he can) gets inside the stone circle he will find things much different, and I hope against hope that the same thing can be said of my books.

golding3When looking at Golding’s philosophical attitude about Lord of the Flies, one interpretation is that each individual must acknowledge his connection to all people. Humanity’s problems stem from lack of awareness of this truth. People remain trapped inside themselves, too self-absorbed to look at the world around them. Only if people are able to see themselves as part of the whole, not as islands, will they find salvation. Humans must somehow find a way to connect with outer reality. Golding believes that humans’ intelligence will help them to make this necessary connection: one cannot change basic human nature, but can recognize and understand it. In so doing, individuals can willfully choose to suppress the savagery beneath their humanity.

For a commentary on Golding’s reputation in literary circles, check out William Boyd’s “Man as an Island,” published in the New York Times Book Review in 2010.

adapted from material by Jane Gutherman, DPHS English Department

Comments Off on William Golding Intro

Filed under AP Literature

Sandra Cisneros Introduction

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954 to a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother, the only girl in a house with six brothers. Her work “deals with the formation of Chicana identity, exploring the challenges of being caught between Mexican and Anglo-American cultures, facing the misogynist attitudes present in both these cultures, and experiencing poverty.” The family moved often between Illinois and Mexico. These travels informed much of her early life and helped plant the seed of restlessness that has endured throughout her career. Today, she is widely hailed as one of the most successful Chicana writers, someone whose “sense of ethnic identity or chicanismo animates their work manifestly and fundamentally, often through the presentation of Chicano characters, cultural situations, and speech patterns.” (Paredes)

The Cisneros family lived in many different places in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, which was well-known as a neighborhood of immigrants, first from Europe and Eastern Europe, then transforming into a primarily Puerto Rican neighborhood in the 1950s. They settled into a small brick house on Campbell Street which later became one of the most famous fictional addresses in the country. Her father worked as an upholsterer while her mother, moody and unfulfilled as the mother of seven, sought escape through trips to libraries and museums.

Cisneros as a child in front of the Chicago residence that informed  The House on Mango Street
Cisneros as a child in Chicago

Cisneros noted during an interview with Chicago Reader that “My memories when I was living in Chicago were struggling with getting to and from school or work and just writing on the side.” She wrote constantly, gaining the nickname “the poet” from her high school classmates. After graduating, Cisneros attended Loyola University of Chicago, graduating with a degree in English, and then the famous University of Iowa Writers Workshop, where she earned her master’s degree in poetry in 1978. In 1980, her first chapbook of poetry, Bad Boys, was published. After graduation, she returned to Chicago, where she worked as a teacher and counselor at the Latino Youth Alternative High School and later as an administrative assistant at her college alma mater.

Biography — Sandra Cisneros
Cisneros around the time The House on Mango Street was published.

Her best-known work, The House on Mango Street, made its debut in 1984. The central character, Esperanza Cordero, shares many of the experiences and thoughts that Cisneros did growing up in Humboldt Park. It was most readers’ first exposure to Cisneros’s poetic voice. The House on Mango Street has sold more than six million copies and been translated into more than twenty languages. It was selected as the One Book One Chicago read in 2009.

The same year The House on Mango Street was published, Cisneros moved to San Antonio, Texas, to take a job as the Literature Director at the Guadalupe Arts Center. During her years in Texas, Cisneros expanded her voice–she honors her migrant roots by writing in both Spanish and English–and began earning the awards that have marked her exceptional career. Her works written during that time encompass poetry (My Wicked Wicked Ways, 1987, Loose Woman, 1994), short stories (Woman Hollering Creek, 1991), novels (Caramelo, 2002, and the illustrated fable Have You Seen Marie?, 2012), and children’s books (Hairs/Pelitos, 1994, and Bravo Bruno!, 2011).

Cisneros’s numerous awards are listed in the biography on her official website. She has earned fellowships in both poetry and fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant,” in 1995. Cisneros is also well-known for her community activism and her work in social justice. She is the founder of both the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros de Moral Foundation for emerging writers. She is the organizer of Los Macarturos, a group of Latino MacArthur Fellows who are also community activists. For her activism, she earned the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship and was recognized among The Frederick Douglass 200. Cisneros has been awarded multiple literary prizes including the Texas Medal of the Arts, Chicago’s Fifth Star Award, the PEN Center USA Literary Award, the Fairfax Prize, and the PEN/Nabokov Award for international literature.

Cisneros was interviewed for the PBS News Hour in 2015 after the publication of A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, a collection of early writings. Listen to her talk about making her place as an immigrant writer and her lifelong search for home.

After nearly thirty years in San Antonio, Cisneros moved to San Miguel de Allende, a small town in Mexico, where she still lives as “nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife.” She holds dual American and Mexican citizenship and continues to teach and lead workshops and write. Her most recent book, Puro Amor (2018) is another series of poetic vignettes, this time about the fictional Mr. and Mrs. Rivera’s “la casa azul” full of interesting animals, written in both English and Spanish and illustrated by the author.

In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Cisneros the National Medal of Arts “…for enriching the American narrative. Through her novels, short stories, and poetry, she explores issues of race, class, and gender through the lives of ordinary people straddling multiple cultures. As an educator, she has deepened our understanding of American identity.”

Obama to present two local artists with National Medals of Art | WOAI


Comments Off on Sandra Cisneros Introduction

Filed under AP Literature

Kate Chopin Introduction

Kate ChopinKatherine O’Flaherty Chopin was born on February 8, 1851, in St. Louis, Missouri. The O’Flahertys were a wealthy, Catholic family. Her father founded the Pacific Railroad, but he died when Kate was four. Kate and her siblings were raised by their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. These women proved to be strong role models. They encouraged Kate’s love of reading and storytelling. Kate was an average student at the convent school she attended. After her graduation, she became one of the belles of fashionable St. Louis society. She met Oscar Chopin, a wealthy cotton factor, married him after knowing him a year, and moved to New Orleans.

Oscar Chopin’s circle was the tight-knit French Creole community. Kate led a demanding social and domestic life because of her status. Unusually for the time, her husband was supportive of her independence and intelligence, and her storytelling gifts and her knowledge of French, English, and Creole made her a keen observer of  the local culture. She had much to draw from. Her husband’s business gave him prominence in the Creole community, and New Orleans was a city full of diversions, including horse racing, theater, music (Kate was an accomplished pianist herself), and, of course, Mardi Gras. norlhouseThe Chopins lived in three different houses in New Orleans; this one on Louisiana Avenue was the last. Like many wealthy families, they traveled by boat out of the city to one of the many small Gulf islands to vacation during the summer months. All of these experiences feature in Chopin’s stories and novels.

Oscar’s business failed in 1879. The family moved to their plantation in Natchitoches Parish near the small town of Cloutierville, which strengthened Kate’s connection to the Creole community and gave her more material to draw from. Malaria claimed Oscar’s life in 1880 at the age of 31. Kate moved back to St. Louis with their six children to draw support from her family and place the children in better schools than Cloutierville could provide. The loss of her mother a short time later added to her grief. A family physician suggested writing as an outlet, and Chopin’s literary career was born.

Chopin published her first story in the St. Louis Dispatch. Soon after, her first novel, At Fault, was published privately. Her prolific output over the next fifteen years includes nearly a hundred short stories for adults and children alike. The most famous of these, like “A No-Account Creole,” “Desirée’s Baby,” “The Story of an Hour,” and “A Pair of Silk Stockings” are set in the Creole community and explore its traditions and expectations, especially of the women concerned. Her story collections Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie were nearly universally praised.

The publication of The Awakening in 1899, however, was a different story. Through its heroine, Edna Pontellier, The Awakening gave Chopin’s themes of independence, art, and possibility free rein. Edna’s decisions go against the expectations for women of the time. A few critics praised the novel’s artistry, but most were very negative, calling the book “morbid,” “unpleasant,” “unhealthy,” “sordid,” “poison.” Novelist Willa Cather labeled it trite and sordid. The overall view was that Edna’s decisions, which modern audiences view quite differently, as scandalous and unfeminine. Chopin was ostracized as a result. Her third story collection was refused by its publisher. The Awakening was removed from libraries for its scandalous content. Chopin herself never got over it; her writing output slowed to the point of cessation. Chopin bought a season ticket to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and visited on August 20, an unusually hot day. She took to her bed complaining of a severe headache that evening and lapsed into unconsciousness. Two days later, Chopin died, probably from a brain hemorrhage.

Awakening CoverIn 1969 Norwegian critic Per Seyersted wrote that Kate Chopin “broke new ground in American literature. She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority; with a daring which we can hardy fathom today; with an uncompromising honesty and no trace of sensationalism, she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life. She was something of a pioneer in the amoral treatment of sexuality, of divorce, and of woman’s urge for an existential authenticity. She is in many respects a modern writer, particularly in her awareness of the complexities of truth and the complications of freedom.”

Chopin did not consider herself a feminist, but her themes of independence and women’s self-realization are stirrings of a movement that would resound throughout the twentieth century. She is now considered one of the essential authors of American literature.

Includes material from the Biography page of the Kate Chopin International Society.

Comments Off on Kate Chopin Introduction

Filed under AP Literature

Shakespeare: Let It All Out


Some of my favorite comments you wrote about Shakespeare:

“I once got knocked out by being slammed on my head. Compared to Shakespeare, getting knocked out is fun. At least it is quicker.”

“I think Shakespeare is pretty freaking cool, even though sometimes it can be hella hard to translate.”

“His works are a vile thing, equivalent to castration and fingernail-bamboo torture.”

“I bite my thumb at Shakespeare.”

“In every play he kills almost everyone. IN EVERY PLAY. I can’t. I can’t even.”

“Let’s begin with the spelling of his name. It irritates me.”

“Shakespeare is my dog.”

“Shakespeare…to hate him or not to hate him…”

“I’ve always disliked any book that is older than me.”

“I don’t hate Shakespeare. I just don’t understand what he is saying.”

“I absolutely adore the Bard of Avon!”

“He’s a pretty cool guy I guess. His hair is ugly tho. He got MAD CLOUT.”

“OMG I love Shakespeare because of his plots and how it relates to us but that language? Oh no no honey!”

“I like that Shakespeare is Sex, Love, Death. But he has to be extra with his writing.”

“I think reading Shakespeare is like being suffocated with a pillow. I dislike the topics, the vocabulary, and the confusing names—”Mustardseed”? What is that??

“People say Shakespeare is a classic, a legend of the arts, a genius, can never be compared to, he is credited with some of the greatest works of all time, like Biggie.”

“I’ve been told many times that I was going to study Shakespeare. Never have I actually done that. Why? Because whenever it comes to that time, I stop paying attention.”

“Just stop with all of the ‘thou’ and ‘O’ stuff. But I guess it’s just a style, so you keep doing you, man. Shakespeare –> 7/10”

“I feel that people like him because of his name, like identical off-brand shoes to Nike.”

“I’m not a fan of ye olde English because it makes my brain melt out of my ears, but I haven’t read enough Willy to pass an unbiased judgment of him and his work. XOth XOth, Ye Olde Gossip Girl.”

“I’m not in love with him, but I don’t cringe at his name either.”

“When I hear the word ‘Shakespeare,’ I feel like imitating Romeo and killing myself. I also have the burning desire to have Macbeth’s fate (decapitation). I also feel like having the same ending as Julius Caesar: being stabbed thirteen times in the back.”

“Shakespeare and I have a hate-love relationship. I love his work, but the way he writes irks me with a raging passion.”

“So usually when I receive a Shakespeare play to read, I never read it because I feel stupid just trying.”

“Freaked out. Can’t understand. Grade will drop. I do like his stories when I understand them tho.”

“He’s super awesome, he lives up to the hype that surrounds his name. His works are the base of what many other works are written on.”

“Why does everything have to include something sad or love? Why can’t we read about trees or something when it comes to you? Why do I have to think twice as hard to figure out what you’re trying to say? GIVE ME A BREAK, SHAKESPEARE.”

“Meh. He’s chill, not for or against, but he’s for sure overhyped. Meh.”

“You want to know what I think about Shakespeare? You REALLY want to know? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ”

“Raw. Sexual. Ladies’ man. Hat with feather. Poet. Playwright.”

Comments Off on Shakespeare: Let It All Out

Filed under AP Literature

Tennessee Williams Intro

tennessee_williams3Playwright Tennessee Williams is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s leading lights of American literature. Born in 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi as Thomas Lanier Williams, Tennessee Williams was the middle of three children. His father was a salesman who much preferred life on the road to family life; as a result, Williams was raised primarily by his mother. His early years in Mississippi were relatively carefree. When Williams was seven, the family relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, a change reflecting a difference in the family’s fortunes that Williams understood but resented. He attended college briefly in Missouri until his father withdrew him and demanded he come home and get a job. Williams fell into a depression during this time working at a shoe factory. Although he made time after work to continue his writing, eventually the stress proved too much, and he suffered a nervous breakdown. After recovery he left home, finished college at the University of Iowa, and changed his name to Tennessee Williams.

toulouseWilliams famously quipped, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” He chose New Orleans as his home, and his work is infused with places and situations that could only have been spawned from the Crescent City’s mix of class, jazz, decadence, and alcohol. He moved into an apartment at 722 Toulouse Street and began working on the plays which would make him famous. The first was a flop. The second, the highly autobiographical The Glass Menagerie, premiered in 1945 to nearly universal acclaim. The character of Amanda Wingfield exerts the same kind of strong influence on her children Tom and Laura that Edwina Williams did on Tennessee, his sister Rose, and their brother Dakin. Fragile, crippled Laura Wingfield is based in no small part on Rose Williams, who possibly suffered from schizophrenia and who was subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy in 1943 at their mother’s choice.

Oscar Brockett explains that

By the late 1940s, theatrical realism, the faithful reproduction of real life as accurately as possible on the stage, had begun to modify. Simplification, suggestion, and distortion, borrowed from other artistic movements of the early 20th century, made their way onto stage sets and into character portrayals. Stage settings became more suggestive of locales and functions. Play structures changed as well, often shifting from formal acts into more fluid collections of scenes.

Tennessee Williams’  work employs many of these theatrical devices. Symbolism is found in all of his plays, and his play titles usually indicate some deeper symbolic meaning. Normally, Williams settings are fragmentary and suggestive: consider the fire escapes, alleys, and rooms in The Glass Menagerie that require no scene changes. The use of time is fluid.

Against these suggested backdrops, though, are very lifelike characters dealing with conflicts that represent larger human issues. As Brockett puts it, “…spiritual and material drives are almost always at odds and the resolution of a dramatic action depends on how well the characters can reconcile the demaonds of these two sides of human nature.” Juxtaposition is also evident in how he reveals comic and serious elements. Amanda, for example, can be ridiculous one minute, admirable the next. Williams explores human limitations alongside their aspirations, resulting in plays that can be at once compassionate and bitter. (from The Theatre: An Introduction, Historical Edition. New York: Holt, 1979.)

desireThese human limitations are on full display in Williams’ second and perhaps most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which premiered in 1947. In it, genteel Southern manners and brutish reality clash in the characters of Stanley Kowalski, his wife Stella, and her delicate sister Blanche DuBois. Named for the New Orleans streetcar that traveled through the French Quarter to the Bywater district, the play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was later made into a film starring Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Vivien Leigh, winning Oscars for Hunter and Leigh and a nomination for Best Actor for Brando in addition to other nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. A Streetcar Named Desire is widely considered one of the preeminent plays of the 20th century.

tennplaysSeveral of Williams’ plays, many featuring clashes of culture and class, were produced and filmed in the years to following. Summer and Smoke and The Rose Tattoo received mixed reviews, but 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (famous for Elizabeth Taylor’s slinking about in a silk slip—and not much else—in an unsuccessful attempt to engage her husband Brick’s, played by Paul Newman, attention), won another Drama Critics Circle Award and a second Pulitzer Prize. Later plays included Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana. As Ethan Mordden explains in The Fireside Companion to the Theatre (New York: Fireside, 1988), “His arena is the south, his genre is the cross section of personal relationships, and his archetypes are the somewhat cultured (but inbred and shy) gentlewoman and the brutish male who shatters her flimsy pretenses: in essence, Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski of A Streetcar Named Desire, but, in variation, the Daughter and the Gentleman Caller of The Glass Menagerie, she terminally unsensual and he more breezy than brutish…Almost always, however, Williams deals with the confrontation of the dreamer and realist, his sympathies lying with the dreamer but the victory, in the end, always going to the realist. Thus…the Gentleman Caller does not, as was hoped, stay on to comfort the Daughter…”

Williams became a darling of the midcentury literary set. Despite his successes, he battled a lifelong dependency on alcohol and drugs and was at one point committed to the hospital by his brother to recover. Although he worked feverishly after his release in the mid-1970s, his demons caught up with him. In 1983, Tennessee Williams was found dead in his New York apartment, surrounded by pills and empty bottles. He’d choked to death on a plastic bottle cap.


Comments Off on Tennessee Williams Intro

Filed under AP Literature

Oscar Wilde Introduction

Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright who became the darling of British high society, is probably the best-known and most-quoted satirist of the late 19th century. Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1864, Wilde became a well-known lecturer, essayist, and playwright who enjoyed near-universal popularity until the shocking trial that ended his literary career and, not long after, his life.

Wilde’s parents encouraged his intellectual pursuits. His success at Dublin’s Trinity College ended in his receiving a scholarship to Oxford University in England, where he won prizes for his academic achievements and his writings. He graduated with a degree in classics. Wilde was a strong proponent of the intellectual movement known as aestheticism, which emphasized the pursuit of beauty more than social-political themes for the arts. His lecture tour of the United States introduced him to many American artists and intellectuals, including the poet Walt Whitman. He continued lecturing upon his return to England in 1882.

Wilde began his professional writing career as the editor of the magazine Lady’s World. In 1888, he published The Happy Prince and Other Stories, a collection for children. Three years later, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a man whose enchanted portrait ages so that he can continue living a life of sin, was published in 1891. Dorian Gray was viewed as scandalous and immoral, a hint of troubles to come.

The next year, Wilde’s first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, made its debut to great acclaim. Playwriting became Wilde’s preferred literary style. Lady Windermere’s Fan was followed in short order by A Woman of No Importance in 1893 and both An Ideal Husband and his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. Each of these works skewered the pretensions of British high society through clever wordplay and Wilde’s satirical wit. 

Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and George Alexander as Jack Worthing in the 1895 production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, from The Sketch magazine, London, March 1895. NAL 131655

Wilde’s gift for the cutting remark and his razor-sharp acuity about human folly would have made him a natural at Twitter, had social media existed at the time. As it was, he could be counted on to provide a smart remark about just about any topic:

“There is always more books than brains in an aristocracy.” —Vera, or The Nihilists

“The English mind is always in a rage. The intellect of the race is wasted in the sordid and stupid quarrels of second-rate politicians or third-rate theologians.” —The Critic As Artist

“One is impressed in America, but not favourably impressed, by the inordinate size of everything. The country seems to try to bully one into a belief in its power by its impressive bigness.” —Impressions of America 

“If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilised.” —An Ideal Husband

“The Rhine is of course tedious, the vineyards are formal and dull, and as far as I can judge, the inhabitants of Germany are American.” —Letter to Robert Ross

“It is the Philistine who seeks to estimate a personality by the vulgar test of production.” —Pen, Pencil, and Poison

“There is no sin except stupidity.” —The Critic as Artist

The year 1895 proved both the pinnacle of Wilde’s success as an artist and the nadir of his personal life. Wilde was married to a woman named Constance Lloyd, and although he and Constance had two children together, it was no secret that Wilde’s true affections lay elsewhere. He had for years enjoyed a close relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the son of the powerful Marquess of Queensbury. When the Marquess found out about the relationship, he publicly accused Wilde of homosexuality, which was a crime in Great Britain at the time. Wilde sued the Marquess for libel, which proved his undoing. At the trial, excerpts from his writings and his personal letters to Bosie were presented as evidence. His libel case was dismissed. Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years at hard labor.

Wilde emerged from prison a broken man, his popularity shattered and his family and fortunes gone. He spent the next couple of years in exile. His only writing from that period was the long poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which chronicled his prison experience.

In 1900, Wilde contracted a serious case of meningitis at the age of 46 while living in a shabby Paris hotel. Witty to the end, his reputed last words were, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”



Comments Off on Oscar Wilde Introduction

Filed under AP Literature

Brontë Sisters Power Dolls

This bit of inspired lunacy from Phil Lord and Chris Miller was created in 1998. It’s a never-aired fake commercial for a line of educational action figures based on historical figures. Enjoy!

Comments Off on Brontë Sisters Power Dolls

Filed under AP Literature