August 18, 1771. Phillis Wheatley, a famous poet, becomes a full member of Old South Meeting House, the church and public meeting space where she attended since being brought to Boston as an enslaved child more than ten years earlier. Old South Meeting House is where she first heard the Reverend George Whitefield preach, and her poem about him was the first poem to earn her widespread recognition. In 1773, she became the first African to publish a poetry book in the English language, and the third woman in America to do so.
Today, Old South Meeting House is a history museum, and we celebrate Phillis Wheatley day on August 18.
July 11th 1960: To Kill a Mockingbird published
On this day in 1960, the novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee was published by J.B Lippincott & Co. The novel tells the story of the trial of a young African-American man in Alabama in the 1930s, and is told from the perspective of the daughter of the defendant’s lawyer, Scout Finch. Lee was partly inspired by events she recalled from her own childhood growing up in Alabama in the days of Jim Crow segregation. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was released during a turbulent time for American race relations, as the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was beginning to get underway with sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The novel was originally going to be called ‘Atticus’ for Scout’s father and the moral centre of the story, but was renamed for one of Atticus’s iconic lines. The novel was an immediate success, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In 1962 it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and featuring the film debut of Robert Duvall as the elusive Boo Radley. Harper Lee never published another novel and remains reclusive from the press, though she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. The influence of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has never faded in the 54 years since its release, and is a favourite of many for its warmth and humour while tackling some of the most troubling issues of its day.
"Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird"
June 9th 1870: Charles Dickens dies
On this day in 1870, the English writer Charles Dickens passed away aged 58 following a stroke. Dickens wrote some popular and famous works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. He died leaving his final novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) unfinished, leaving the identity of the story’s murderer unknown. Due to his status as a literary giant of his age, Dickens was buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey rather than the “unostentatious” service he desired. His work is still celebrated and widely read today.
"He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world."
- Epitaph for Charles Dickens
May 6th 1940: Grapes of Wrath wins Pulitzer
On this day in 1940 the novel The Grapes of Wrath by American author John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Steinbeck is best known for this novel, and for his other works including Of Mice and Men (1937) and East of Eden (1952). Steinbeck was critically lauded both in his lifetime and beyond, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 just six years before his death at 66. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) focuses on the Joad family and their troubles during the Great Depression, which meant that the novel resonated with its contemporary readers who had lived through the Depression. Despite its popularity and critical success, the book disgusted many groups who burned it in protest at how Steinbeck supposedly exaggerated the plight of the poor to make a political point about the greed of the rich, labelling it socialist propaganda. However, the novel is now widely loved and considered an exemplary piece of social commentary, fully deserving its Pulitzer.
March 25th 1811: Shelley expelled from Oxford
On this day in 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Shelley is best known as a famous English poet, who was part of a group of fellow prominent writers including his wife Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. As well as being as being an author, Shelley was a radical political activist who advocated non-violent protest. Having begun study at Oxford in 1810, it is often said that he only attended one lecture during his time there. He published several works whilst at university, but it was his atheistic pamphlet which led to his appearance before the College fellows and his eventual expulsion as he refused to deny authorship. ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ argued that people do not choose their beliefs and thus atheists shouldn’t be persecuted. However it is unclear whether Shelley was personally an atheist; he may have instead been an agnostic or a pantheist. Either way, this document is an interesting insight into Shelley’s views and shows how atheism was stigmatised in the early nineteenth century.
"Truth has always been found to promote the best interests of mankind. Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity"
March 18th 1893: Wilfred Owen born
On this day in 1893, the English poet and soldier was born in Shropshire. Owen is famous for his poetry depicting his experiences in the First World War, especially the horrors of trench and gas warfare which he experienced first hand. His grim portrayal of war was contrary to the optimistic public perception of war. Owen was good friends with fellow World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon whom he met whilst they were both in hospital for shell shock. Perhaps Owen’s most famous poem is 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. In the last lines of this poem Owen laments the “old lie” of the dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which is Latin for ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’. Owen was killed in battle in 1918 aged 25 exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice. He was outlived by his friend Sassoon who died in 1967. This year when we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we must remember Owen’s haunting words and understand the horrors these soldiers experienced.
January 27th 1832: Lewis Carroll born
On this day in 1832, the English writer Lewis Carroll was born. His birth name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson but he took Lewis Carroll as his pseudonym. Carroll studied at Rugby School and Oxford University. He is most famous as the author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865) and its sequel ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871). Carroll’s writing is an example of literary nonsense, and displays his aptitude with word play and logic. His works are still widely enjoyed today by adults and children alike.
December 30th 1865: Rudyard Kipling born
On this day in 1865, the English writer Rudyard Kipling was born. Kipling was born in Bombay and in later life wrote frequently about British soldiers in India. However he is best known for his book for children ‘The Jungle Book’. ‘The Jungle Book’ is a collection of short stories and was published in 1894.The book inspired the 1967 Disney film. Kipling was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Kipling died in 1936 aged 70.
August 11th 1897: Enid Blyton born
On this day in 1897 the famous British children’s writer was born in East Dulwich, London. Blyton’s books have enjoyed enduring popularity, selling over 600 million copies worldwide. Her most famous works include the character of Noddy, The Famous Five series and the Secret Seven series. Beyond her novels, Blyton was also a prolific writer of non-fiction, writing on topics as diverse as natural history and the Bible. Despite later criticisms of her work as representing outdated ways of thinking, including some arguably racist and sexist content, children around the world still read her books. Blyton died in 1968 aged 71 in Hampstead, England.
June 19th 1937: J.M. Barrie dies
On this day in 1937 the Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie died in London aged 77. Barrie is best known for his creation of Peter Pan. Originally a play entitled Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which later became the novel Peter and Wendy, they told the story of a boy’s adventures in ‘Neverland’ with his friends and their encounters with the villainous Captain Hook. The aspiring writer was inspired to write this most famous work by his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. Whilst Barrie wrote other plays and novels, the adventures of Peter Pan remain his most famous, and earned him numerous honours in his lifetime including some bestowed by King George V. Before his death, Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.
June 2nd 1840: Thomas Hardy born
On this day in 1840, the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy was born in Dorset, England. Hardy is best known for his novels ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’ and his poems ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘Under the Waterfall’. Hardy and his first wife Emma had an unhappy marriage, as they later rarely talked. However, upon her death in 1912 Hardy was filled with remorse for his treatment of her and wrote many poems about her. When Hardy died in 1928, despite his wishes to be buried next to Emma, the executor of his will wanted him placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise, Hardy’s ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner, and his heart was buried with Emma.
April 23rd 1616: William Shakespeare dies
On this day in 1616, the famous English poet and playwright William Shakespeare passed away on his 52nd birthday. Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, became famous for his plays including Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear; he wrote around 38 plays and 154 sonnets. He was married to a woman named Anne Hathaway and had three children. In his will he left most of his estate to his eldest daughter Susanna and to his wife left “my second best bed”. He was buried in the chancel of the Holy Trinity Church. Today, on the 450th anniversary of his birth, Shakespeare is still considered one of the greatest writers of the English language in history.
"Good friend, for Jesus’ sake, forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here;
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed he that moves my bones.”
- Shakespeare’s epitaph
March 20th 1852: ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ published
On this day in 1852, American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was published. Previously published as a serial in the anti-slavery periodical the National Era, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ tells the story of a black slave and recounts the harsh reality of his enslavement. Stowe was an ardent advocate of the abolition of slavery, and wrote the novel in response to the passage of the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which was part of the Compromise of 1850. The Act ordered Northern citizens to assist in the return of runaway slaves from the South, thus forcing the generally anti-slavery North to become complicit in the continuance of the ‘peculiar institution’. Thus the popular discontent over the slavery issue helped make ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and saw its translation into sixty languages. The novel helped keep the flames of anti-slavery sentiment alive, and is therefore sometimes attributed with helping start the American Civil War. Whilst still hailed as a great anti-slavery work of its day, the novel falls short of modern expectations with its stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans.
"So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war"
- what, according to legend, Abraham Lincoln said upon meeting Stowe in 1862
January 29th 1845: ‘The Raven’ published
On this day in 1845, the poem ‘The Raven’ by American writer Edgar Allan Poe was published in the New York Evening Mirror. The poem made Poe famous and established him as a popular writer. ‘The Raven’ remains one of his best known works today. It tells the story of a raven who comes to a man who has recently lost his beloved. The raven perches on a bust of Pallas and distresses the man by repeating the word “Nevermore”.
The last lines are as follows:
"And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – nevermore!”
(read the full poem here)
January 11th 1928: Thomas Hardy dies
On this day in 1928, the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died aged 87. Hardy is best known for his novels ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’ and his poems ‘Convergence of the Twain’, ‘The Darkling Thrush’ and ‘Under the Waterfall’. His novels were mostly set in the fictional region of Wessex. Hardy and his first wife Emma had an unhappy marriage, as latterly they rarely talked. However, upon her death in 1912 Hardy was filled with remorse for his treatment of her and wrote many poems about her. When Hardy died in 1928, despite his wishes to be buried next to Emma, the executor of his will wanted him placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise, Hardy’s ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner, and his heart was buried with Emma.