Late author James Agee is regarded today as one of American literature’s most incisive, insightful, and innovative writers. It wasn’t so while he was alive. He was respected enough, sure: His book and film reviews for Time and The Nation were popular and well regarded, as were his contributions to the screen adaptations of The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, but Agee didn’t grow in stature untilafter his alcoholism-fueled heart attack in 1955, at the age of 45.
Today marks birthdays for Mary Renault (b. 1905) and Richard Wright (b. 1908), two authors who used their tremendous talents to tackle social injustice and institutional discrimination.
Renault’s novels, including 1953’s The Charioteer and 1956’s The Last of the Wine, challenged homophobia: the first directly, the second, like most of her works, indirectly, through the lens of historical fiction. Meanwhile Wright’s works, most notably 1941’s Native Son and his 1945 memoir, Black Boy, explored and exploded racism in America and its deleterious impact on the nation and its people.*
In another similarity between these Virgos, both authors left their homelands to live their truest lives: Renault and partner Julie Mullard escaped England’s mainstream homophobia by relocating in 1948 to comparatively nonchalant South Africa (they would also become vocal opponents of that nation’s racist apartheid government); and Wright and his wife Ellen Poplar relocated to Paris in 1946 to enjoy an existence free of American racism, especially because they were an interracial couple in a time when that was uber taboo.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that post-WWII America and England, symbolic stars at the time for the west’s superior liberalism, lost two of their brightest stars because of their restrictive, moralistic social norms?
Both authors died in their adopted lands, Renault in 1983, and Wright in 1960, in Paris.
(*Note: James Baldwin, the gay black author recently discussed here and who escaped American homophobia and racism by also moving to Paris, later took aim at Wright’s depiction of black people, in Notes of a Native Son).
Author E.B. White would turn 119 today. To honor the prolific, versatile and adroit writer — Charlotte’s Web, Here is New York, The Elements of Style and countless New Yorker essays are among his many varied works — here are 15 excellent E.B. White quotes on writing.
- “Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.”
- “Writing is hard work and bad for the health.”
- “Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.”
- “I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that doesn’t have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright.”
- “Only a person who is congenially self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”
- “There is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments—moments of sustained creation—when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.”
- “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”
- “A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. … A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy: true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”
- “The best writing is re-writing.”
- “Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about man; write about a man.”
- “Advice from this elderly practitioner is to forget publishers and just roll a sheet of copy paper into your machine and get lost in your subject.”
- “The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up.”
- “A writer is like a bean plant – he has his little day, and then gets stringy.”
- “Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.”
- “Use the smallest word that does the job.
A history book’s minor character becomes the author’s editorial sidepiece, resulting in an essay that includes log cabins, net neutrality, research methods, Twin Peaks, romance, politics and one very good dog.
“Poetry— the sound and look of language—definitely played a role in my writing of this novel. Novelists are failed poets, as they say. A good turn of phrase, a beautiful description, and lyricism, I feel, are central to any good writing. Form and content aren’t separate.”
“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world,” so said Henry R. Luce, the founder of Life and Time magazines who was born on this date in 1898.