Anne Bradstreet, America’s first published poet, died on this date in 1672. She was born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England. We don’t know exactly when she was born, but it was probably sometime in 1612. She married Simon Bradstreet when she was about 16 and left England with him two years later, in 1630, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually settled in Andover, Massachusetts, and raised eight children. Simon Bradstreet later became one of the early governors of the colony.
Somehow, despite the rigors of life in the new colony, Anne found time to write poetry for her family and close friends. Her brother-in-law took the poems to England without her knowledge, and they were published there as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts (1650). He assures readers on the title page that Anne didn’t shirk her wifely duties in the writing of the verses: “These poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments.” It was the first published work by a woman in America, and it was the only volume of her work published during her lifetime.
Bradstreet’s subjects were most often her devotion to her husband, her children, and God. Her later poems were shorter, and more focused on her daily life rather than conveying a set of virtues. She wrote about her fear of childbirth, the loss of her home to fire, and the death of her granddaughter. She also sometimes hinted at discontentment with her role as a Puritan woman. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1672.
It’s the birthday of American novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth McCracken (1966), born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in Newton. McCracken spent her childhood immersed in world record and reference books, which influenced her later decision to earn a master’s in library science from Drexel University. She was an indifferent student in high school and it wasn’t until college, when she took a playwriting course with Derek Walcott, that writing really took hold of her.
Her first collection of stories, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry (1993), originally written while she was a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was published to great acclaim. She followed that with two novels, The Giant’s House (1996) and Niagara Falls All Over Again (2001). Her work is filled with striking metaphors, playful language, and an affinity for puns. McCracken, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, says: “Some young writers mistake humorlessness for seriousness. They remove all traces of humor as though with a scalpel, and the patient doesn’t survive the story. Well, life likes jokes; life is constantly making jokes, even at the most inopportune moments. Probably particularly then.”
McCracken’s first child died in utero a week past her due date. She and her husband had been living in a farmhouse in Bordeaux, France. They’d only ever called their son “Pudding,” and that’s what they put on his death certificate. Just a few weeks after she had her second child, McCracken began writing about the death of Pudding and didn’t stop for several weeks. She said, “I couldn’t manage to give him a life, but at least I could write his biography.” That book was published as the memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (2008). McCracken’s latest book is a collection of short stories, Thunderstruck (2015).
It’s the birthday of Henry Louis Gates Jr., born in Keyser, West Virginia (1950). He is a scholar, a literary critic, a historian, and a television host. “When I was a kid growing up,” he said, “my friends wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I wanted to be a Rhodes scholar. I didn’t know why. I just wanted to go to Harvard or Yale and I wanted to go to Oxford or to Cambridge.” He studied history at Yale, and was the first African American to receive a Mellon Fellowship, which took him to Cambridge, where he earned his Ph.D. While he was in England, he fell in love with the study of literature. In the 1980s, he became co-director of the Black Periodical Literature Project, collecting overlooked or ignored 19th-century manuscripts. In 1983, he republished what at that time was believed to be the first novel by an African American in the United States: a book called Our Nig, by Harriet E. Wilson (originally published in 1859).
Some years later, Gates heard of a story of a slave’s life written by a woman named Hannah Crafts. Crafts had escaped from slavery and took with her the makings of a novel based on her own life. She wrote about the distinctions slaves made among themselves based on skin color, house-versus-field jobs, and class. She wrote about sex but argued against slaves marrying and having children on the grounds that slavery is hereditary and can’t be escaped. She portrayed the relationship of a white mistress and black slave as full of mutual intimacy.
As with Harriet Wilson’s book, people assumed that the novel was really written by a white author who was adopting the persona of a slave. Gates didn’t believe that white authors would pretend to be black in the mid-19th century. He was convinced the manuscript had been written sometime between 1853 and 1861, and that it may have predated Wilson’s book, which would make it the first novel by an African-American woman. He won the manuscript at a New York auction for $8,500; it was recently valued at $350,000. Gates gave Crafts’ manuscript the title The Bondwoman’s Narrative and published it in 2002. It quickly became a national best-seller.