Mar

18

"There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know," Marguerite Ann Johnson, better-known as Maya Angelou (born April 4, 1928), asserted in her eloquent meditation on why we write. But more than a mere literary device, this ethos of lyrical bravery permeates every aspect of the beloved author’s spirit, from her stirring autobiographies to her resolute civil rights activism to her valorous poetry. Though her most memorable work is autobiographical in nature, it emanates an expansive celebration of the tender resilience of the human spirit, reverberating at the intersection of the deeply personal and the universally resonant.

Far from a beeline to literary success, the trajectory of Angelou’s life treks the uneven topography of fortune and misfortune, steered by that same daring spirit of unflinching conviction. Born into a tumultuous working-class family and abandoned by her father at the age of three, Angelou was sent to live with her grandmother, an unusually prosperous store owner amidst the otherwise impecunious environment of the Great Depression. Angelou was eventually reunited with her mother, Vivian, in what turned out to be a heartbreaking trade-off — at the age of 8, Angelou was raped by Vivian’s boyfriend. Though terrified, she confessed to her brother, who then alerted the rest of the family. The attacker was convicted but jailed for only a day. Mere days after his release, he was murdered — by Angelou’s uncles, according to most speculations.

With the tragic magical thinking that leads abused children to take the weight of the world on their shoulders, young Maya came to believe that her words had killed her abuser and that her voice had the power to destroy. She became mute for nearly five years — an extreme manifestation of the soul-wrenching see-saw of silence and sanity that rocks many victims of sexual abuse — and it was in this verbal interlude that Angelou developed her love of literature, her keen capacity for observation, and her remarkable memory for fact and detail.

Less than a month after her high school graduation, at the age of 17, Angelou gave birth to her son, Clyde. Over the following decade, she spiraled into poverty and cycled through various relationships, cities, and occupations — from a pimp to a prostitute to a line cook — in struggling to survive as a single mother. While performing modern dance with her husband, the Greek electrician and aspiring musician Enistasious (Tosh) Angelos — an interracial marriage in an era that deemed the union radical and worthy of condemnation — she adopted “Maya Angelou” as her professional name upon her managers’ insistence.

Shortly thereafter, Angelou was drawn to the antiapartheid movement in South Africa and became a champion of civil rights, befriending both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose subsequent assassinations only three years apart left Angelou devastated but even more committed to the cause. King’s loss in 1968 threw Angelou into a particularly deep depression. In an effort to cheer her up, her friend James Baldwin took her to a dinner party at legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer’s home. Taken with the story of Angelou’s childhood, Feiffer’s wife, Judy, urged iconic Random House editor and family friend Robert Loomis to convince Angelou to write a book. In 1969, despite having almost no writing experience, she penned her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which catapulted her into the strata of international literary celebrity.

Over the half-century that followed, Angelou earned her reputation as one of modern history’s most acclaimed and disciplined authors with five more autobiographies, five books of essays, and a number of poetry anthologies, in addition to collaborating on various theater, television, and film projects. The recipient of numerous awards and nearly three dozen honorary doctoral degrees, she is only the second poet in history, after Robert Frost’s famous performance, to recite at a presidential inauguration.

Jan

28

In 1972, when a school librarian burned a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Night Kitchen in an act of micro-censorship against the book’s depiction of a fictional little boy in the nude, Sendak’s editor, the great Ursula Nordstrom (February 2, 1910 - October 11, 1988), sent the librarian a personal note:

“We are truly distressed that you think it is not a book for elementary school children. I assume it is the little boy’s nudity which bothers you. But truly, it does not disturb children. … Should not those of us who stand between the creative artist and the child be very careful not to sift our reactions to such books through our own adult prejudices and neuroses?”

This anecdote, cited in Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, captures the essence of Nordstrom’s character – brilliant and wise and relentlessly respectful of the inner lives of children – and the kind of zest with which she ushered in the golden age of mid-century children’s literature in her three decades heading Harper & Row’s juvenile books division. Besides nurturing and cultivating Sendak from a young, insecure artist into a cultural icon, Nordstrom was also the force behind such timeless classics as E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Sendak’s iconic Where the Wild Things Are (which would’ve been titled Where the Wild Horses Are had it not been for Nordstrom’s gentle insistence that Sendak abandon his rather poor drawings of horses and imagine instead his own whimsical creatures).

At Shel Silverstein’s request, Nordstrom, herself a gay woman, helped Marlo Thomas bring to life her iconic 1972 equality anthem Free to Be…You and Me.

When Harpers management took her to lunch and ceremoniously offered to “promote” her into the adult department after her success at children’s publishing, she nearly flipped the table, then composed herself and kindly explained that “she couldn’t possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults.”

In the original manuscript of The Long Secret, which Nordstrom edited, she scribbled in the margins next to the very first mention of menstruation in a children’s book, “Thank you, Louise Fitzhugh!”

In 1960, she became the first female vice president at Harper’s.

Shaken by the news of her death in 1988, Sendak told The New York Times: “With her incomparable editorial genius, Ursula Nordstrom transformed the American children’s book into a genuine art form.”

With her singular blend of bravery and tenderness, Nordstrom was the antithesis of the “mediocre ladies in influential positions,“ as she once described the ranks of unimaginative management running the industry, and pushed persistently past the stagnant comfort zones of children’s literature, challenging young readers — and the people they would become — to soar beyond the boundaries of their own intellect and imagination.

Jan

06

French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (February 21, 1903 – January 14, 1977) endures as one of history’s most prolific, dedicated, and timelessly insightful diarists. The fifteen volumes of her journals published to date, which she began at the age of eleven and kept up until shortly before her death, span six decades of profound introspection and keen observation of public life.

Nin crossed paths with some of modernity’s most celebrated writers, artists, psychiatrists, and intellectuals, including Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, Otto Rank, Salvador Dalí, John Cage, Robert Duncan, Peggy Guggenheim, and her longtime lover Henry Miller. Her records of these encounters and relationships read like a lyrical alternative history of 20th century intellectual life.

But more than merely recording public life and her private reflections, Nin’s journals exude a remarkable faith in the creative spirit, a kind of optimism about life and the wisdom of the heart even in the direst of circumstances, from world wars to life in poverty to repeated professional rejection. Hers was a tireless quest for wholeness and integration, blending a cultural insider’s perceptiveness with an outsider’s sensitivity – an immigrant, a woman, a struggling writer, who at one point even founded her own press in order to self-publish her and her literary friends’ work, learning to operate a heavy letterpress machine and painstaking typesetting the books by hand. 

Nin was also a relentless champion of the female spirit, poetically venerating “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world” in a 1944 diary entry – a sentiment from which this very project borrows its title.