Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) - The Art Collector
Born into a wealthy, Jewish family, Gertrude travelled widely as a child. Her mother died when she was fourteen, and her father when she was seventeen. She attended Radcliffe College (Harvard's school for women) where she studied psychology. Moving to France with her brother, they began collecting new, abstract art extensively. Her home became a meeting place for artists and intellectuals, whom she labelled "the lost generation". They came to visit every Saturday evening.
Stein was controversial for a number of reasons. She was bisexual, having various affairs with women, before eventually marrying. During the Nazi occupation of France, Gertrude, a Jew, became close friends with the Vichy government that sent 75,000 Jews to Auschwitz, of which only 3% survived. Some say she collaborated with the Nazis to save her life. It didn't work, she died of stomach cancer in 1946.
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) - The Socialist
Born of Swedish immigrants, Carl spent most of his youth as a manual labourer, working as farmer, coal miner, bricklayer, and porter before finally getting a job as a journalist, and beginning his career as a writer and poet. He was a member of the American Socialist Party. He earned three Pulitzer Prizes, and was the first white man to earn a Silver Plaque Award from the NAACP as a "major prophet of civil rights in our time."
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) - The Pediatrician
An important poet, as well as a doctor in New York, he felt overshadowed by T.S. Eliot, whose work was more intellectual and more popular. Williams's poems were simpler and more "American". Still, he won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The American Poetry Society gives an award in poetry every year in his name - the William Carlos Williams Award.
Ezra Pound (1885-1972) - The Poet's Friend... and a Fascist
One of America's most controversial literary figures, Pound is credited with being the single greatest force for modernist literature. He began the movement of Imagism in poetry - trying to put pictures in the reader's mind. As a literary editor, Pound helped launch the careers of James Joyce, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. In 1925 Hemingway wrote, "He defends [his friends] when they are attacked, he gets them into magazines and out of jail. ... He introduces them to wealthy women. He gets publishers to take their books. He sits up all night with them when they claim to be dying ... he advances them hospital expenses and dissuades them from suicide."
Politically, Pound blamed England for WWI, and moved to Italy where he vigorously supported Mussolini, giving hundreds of radio broadcasts during WWII where he criticized America, capitalism, and Jews. When the American army invaded Italy, they arrested him. After three weeks outdoors in a steel cage, Pound suffered a mental breakdown, and spent the next twelve years in a psychiatric hospital in Washington DC. He spent the rest of his life in Italy. According to the poet Allen Ginsberg, Ezra regretted his decisions later in life, particularly his anti-semitism.
Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) - The Rebel? Feminist Icon?
A promising young poet from Pennsylvania, at a young age she and Ezra Pound were engaged to be married, but her father broke it off. Hilda's life and work were shaped by the horrors of WWI, where her brother died, she miscarried, and her husband returned shell shocked and traumatized. They soon separated. Like Gertrude Stein, she was also openly bisexual, having numerous affairs throughout her life. She was the first woman to earn a medal from the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) - "Unless you love someone, nothing else makes sense."
Poet, painter, and playwright, e e cummings (how he wrote his name) began writing poetry at eight years old. He graduated from Harvard. During WWI, Cummings volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. He was arrested for writing anti-war letters to his family, and imprisoned for three months. He wrote a book about it, The Enormous Room, which Fitzgerald praised. He was then released and reassigned in the American army. Cummings soon gained popularity for his avant garde poems, famous for their unique and playful syntax, and erotic themes. He was also a portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine. Another great quote from him, "Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go."
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) - Voice for Equality
An African-American poet, he suffered from racism and a broken home. His father left his family, choosing to live in Cuba and Mexico to escape America's racism. He helped pay for Langston's university, but only if he would study engineering. Langston tried for a year, but dropped out, realizing it wasn't for him. Langston wrote poetry while doing a variety of jobs, including military service, and travelling widely. He was the foremost writer of jazz poetry, and the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American art and literature, centred in Harlem, New York. City College of New York gives a Langston Hughes Award every year for the best African-American writers.
W.H. Auden (1907-1973) - The Oxford Professor
Auden was a British poet who became famous in the 20's and then moved to America, during WWII. Auden's life seems fairly uneventful. He liked to travel. Auden was one of those intellectuals who's good at conversation, so people loved to hear his opinions on any topic. His poetry consisted of a range of styles, focusing on love, nature, religion, and politics. Three weeks a year, he went to Oxford to teach poetry. Some in Britain felt betrayed that he moved to NYC and became an American citizen.