Dr Maya Angelou was a spokesperson for black women and a civil rights activist alongside Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, as well as an author, poet, educator, producer, actress and filmmaker. Born in St Louis, she earned her living in early adulthood as a cook, nightclub dancer, sex worker, singer and actress. She wrote seven autobiographies, the first of which, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969. Her book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. She was awarded over 50 honorary degrees and received the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 amongst many other awards.
Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District, and it had a profound influence on him and his poetry. He went to Hawkshead Grammar School and St John’s College, Cambridge, and after leaving university he travelled to France, where the Revolution had begun. He was converted to the revolutionary cause, and in his autobiographical work, The Prelude, he recalled the hopes of a new world that the future seemed to promise. He died on the 23rd of April 1850.
To most Americans, George Washington is a remote figure encased in myth, more a monument than a man. So who was the first President of the United States? What we learn from contemporary accounts and modern historians is that Washington was a complex figure. Born a loyal subject of the British crown, he became the leader of a radical revolution. He was a victorious military leader, but relinquished the trappings of power to return to farming. Ultimately George Washington was a reluctant statesman who forged the institutions of a popular government that have endured for two centuries.
The Brontës were a prominent literary family living in England in the nineteenth century. The sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, wrote novels and poetry initially under masculine pseudonyms, receiving immediate critical attention for their stories. The sisters’ works have since come to be regarded as masterpieces of English literature; perhaps most notably, Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1848) Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Anne’s Agnes Grey (1847).
Philip Larkin was an English poet and novelist. He was educated at Oxford and later became a librarian at the University of Hull, Yorkshire. With his subtle yet devastating wit, Larkin wrote poetry that exposes the foibles of common people in modern times. He became well known after the publication of his third volume of verse, The Less Deceived (1955). Other notable poetry volumes include The Whitsun Weddings (1964), High Windows (1974), and Aubade (1980).
Franz Kafka was a Czech writer who wrote novels and short stories in German. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish family and worked at a government insurance office after earning his doctorate. Kafka had an extremely difficult relationship with his father in his childhood and youth; these frustrations surface often in his work, such as in the symbolic The Metamorphosis (1915). Other themes that feature prominently in Kafka’s writing include alienation, authoritarian oppression, and the futility of life.
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen, Virginia Woolf was an English writer and a prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Woolf began writing at a young age and published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. In 1917, she founded the Hogarth Press with her husband, Leonard Woolf. Some of her most famous works include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and the essay A Room of One’s Own (1929). Plagued by mental illness throughout her life, Woolf drowned herself at the age of 59.
James Joyce was an Irish novelist best known for his controversial masterpiece Ulysses (1922). After his education at a Jesuit school and later at University College, Dublin, Joyce moved away from Ireland in 1902, spending the rest of his life abroad in Trieste, Zürich and Paris. He faced many obstacles in his writing career, not least of which were financial difficulties, chronic eye problems and censorship issues. Nonetheless, he wrote many successful works such as Dubliners (1914), Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939).
T.S. Eliot was an American-English poet, playwright and literary critic. Born to a distinguished family in St. Louis, he studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford. In 1914, he moved to London, later becoming a British subject in 1927. Eliot published his first major poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in 1915, establishing himself as an influential poet of the modernist movement. This was followed by The Waste Land in 1922, a 434-line poem that devastatingly captured the post-war condition of society. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A Polish author who wrote novels and short stories in English, Joseph Conrad is often cited as one of the greatest novelists in English literature. Despite not speaking the language fluently until his twenties, Conrad steadily honed his craft to become a brilliant prose stylist. His experiences in the navy formed the basis for many of his novels, perhaps most prominently Heart of Darkness (1902), a novella about the cruel realities of colonisation. Conrad’s other works include Lord Jim (1900), Nostromo (1904), and The Secret Agent (1907).