How an Author's Life Influences Literary Works

How an Author's Life Influences Literary Works
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  • 0:02 An Author's Life
  • 0:28 Emily Dickinson
  • 2:42 Langston Hughes
  • 4:21 Other Examples
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Every day, your gender, race, and other lifestyle factors affect what you think and how you act. This lesson describes the same phenomenon of how an author's personal life and background can influence his writing. We will explore the works of several different authors to see this in action.

An Author's Life

We are all influenced by the world around us, and have unique, individual experiences that affect our personality. In the same way, an author is influenced by his past when he writes. Gender, race and socioeconomic status also have a huge impact on his writing. Therefore, the more you know about the author, the better you can understand the messages central to his body of work. Let's look at a several examples of when a writer's personal life is entwined with their writing.

Emily Dickinson

A prime example of the influence of one's personal life on their writing is the American poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). Dickinson grew up in a prosperous family in Massachusetts. She lived a quiet and reserved life; in fact, she was a recluse, living in her father's house. She did not have a close relationship with her parents, who pushed a strong Christian doctrine on their daughter. Dickinson, however, withdrew from the world to live in seclusion, never marrying and having few friends.

Her life choices and ability to live within herself are reflected in her poetry, through a strong sense of imagination. The life experiences Emily lacked led her to delve deeply into her mind's eye. Note her acknowledgement of this in the stanza:

I dwell in Possibility -
A fairer House than Prose -
More numerous of Windows -
Superior - for Doors -

She states that she lives in a world where anything is possible in her imagination. Furthermore, since she lived a life void of a family, husband, children, or friends, she had a deeper appreciation for those things. In the following stanza from a different poem, look at how she judges the worth of something by its limits, similar to the limitation in her personal life:

Water, is taught by thirst.
Land - by the Oceans passed.
Transport - by throe -
Peace - by its battles told -
Love, by Memorial Mold -
Birds, by the Snow.

Her poetry also shows a strong Christian influence. She often speaks of the afterlife and reaching the paradise of Heaven:

'Heaven' - is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree -
Provided it do hopeless - hang -
That - 'Heaven' is - to Me!

In addition to the themes of her poetry, the syntax is also reflective of her secluded life. Dickinson does not conform to defined grammar and punctuation rules. Reread the previous stanzas of her poetry. Do you notice the overabundance of dashes and capitalization mid-sentence for common nouns? These unconventional techniques reflect her own unconventional choices in life. It might make her poems more difficult to comprehend, but it is as if you can enter her introspective mind through these free-form lines.

Langston Hughes

A second example of an author's personal life coming through in his writing can be seen with African American poet and novelist Langston Hughes (1902-1967). Hughes had ancestors that were slaves, and this heritage had a major impact on his work. In fact, he dedicated all his writing to the black experience in America.

Langston was raised by his grandmother, who ingrained in him a strong sense of pride in his heritage. In addition, he personally experienced the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, which was a cultural movement celebrating black traditions and customs. Hughes built his career around writing about black culture and making connections to his ancestors. Note those connections in the following stanza of one of his poems:

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