Before They Were Famous: William Faulkner

William Faulkner, one of the most distinguished modernist authors, received two Nobel Prizes for fiction and one for literature. Over the course of his writing career, he earned a robust reputation for not only his novels, which openly confronted controversial issues rooted in the rural south, but also his poetry, short stories, and screenplays. Despite his prowess as a literary juggernaut, Faulkner — much to the surprise of many of his most avid fans — encountered a number of personal and professional rejections during his early life.

Faulkner lacked an interest in formal education, dropping out of high school at a young age to pursue a career. To support himself, he worked as a bank clerk in the southern town of Oxford and wrote in his free time. Inspired by Algernon Swinburne, John Keats, and A. E. Housman, much of Faulkner’s earliest works were poems, a good number of which were addressed to his love interest, Estelle Oldham. Despite the young writer’s best efforts, Oldham’s parents disapproved of the couple’s courtship and encouraged their daughter to seek a suitor with better financial prospects.

In 1918, Faulkner attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army with the hopes of pursuing a career as a pilot. However, his application was denied when he failed to meet physical requirements. Determined to see action, Faulkner travelled to Toronto, Canada. Claiming to be an English citizen, he successfully joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unfortunately, by the time he reached France, the first World War had ended.

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Before They Were Famous: J.R.R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien

Due to the rapidly growing success of a major motion picture franchise, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series remains exceedingly popular with a contemporary audience. Loved by (literally) millions of readers worldwide, Tolkien has been long celebrated for his vivid imagination. However, fans might be surprised to learn about his less commercially popular contributions to literature.

An avid lover of language, Tolkien received an undergraduate degree from Exeter College in English in addition to earning two degrees from Oxford University.

He served briefly in World War I as a Second Lieutenant but, after being discharged, rekindled his romance with words. His first civilian job was at the famous Oxford English dictionary. An academic at heart, Tolkien dedicated much of his life to teaching English and Literature at universities, including his beloved alma mater, Oxford.

Beowulf Adaptation

Within the literary realm, he was fairly renowned, establishing friendships with other well-known writers including author of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis. He enjoyed a long career as a critic and theorist, introducing perhaps one of the most influential analyses on Beowulf to date. In 1936, Tolkien delivered his lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and Critics,” dramatically redirecting scholarship on one of England’s most historically significant poems.

While Tolkien remains perhaps best loved for his fictional works, his contributions to academia continue to influence scholars. They are a lasting testament to his profound understanding and love of both language and writing.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

Before They Were Famous: Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Despite her status as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee remains a mystery to many readers. Lee has earned a reputation for being notoriously private, living in hermit-like seclusion for many years. However, her recent decision to release a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired me to re-examine this writer’s early life and career.

With an intense interest, I began an investigation into Lee’s life, uncertain of what I might reveal. However, much of what I uncovered seemed entirely expected. In her youth, Lee was regarded as a tomboy who fought with other children on the playground and talked back to teachers. Even well into college, she resisted conformity and never quite fit in even at Alabama University, where she joined a sorority.

Lee dropped out of law school in order to pursue her true passion–writing. But she spent a great deal of time working odd jobs in New York before ever being published. Finding herself in a most curious circumstance, the would-be author received a gift from a close friend of which many writers could only dream.

As a Christmas present, Broadway lyricist Michael Brown insisted on supporting Lee fully for a year so that she would have the opportunity to work on her first novel. By the end of this time, Lee had completed the manuscript for To Set a Watchmen, later retitled Atticus and then, eventually, To Kill a Mockingbird. An instant success, the book was widely acclaimed and even earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize the year after its publication.

Though perhaps what is most amazing about this story is that the book’s creation is owed almost entirely to the generosity of a seldom-acknowledged friend. In its own way, the coming-of-age story we have all come to know and love as To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an uncanny sort of Christmas miracle. As a fan of the original novel, I can only hope that its sequel will be a compelling revival, though it certainly seems too full of all the exciting promise of an unexpected gift.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager