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
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.

Expert Contributor
Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

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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Additional Activities

The Lives of Authors - Shakespeare, Dickinson, African-American Writers, and Beyond

Further Reading:

1. Not only the author's particular life circumstances but also the time period in which that author lives is generally reflected in literary works. Consider the plays and poems of celebrated English writer William Shakespeare. Students often express some difficulty in understanding the language used by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. What makes the language, which is standard English of the early modern era, difficult to understand? Shakespeare's plays reflect the language of his time, and also the world views held by most citizens of sixteenth and seventeenth century England. Look up some information on marriage customs, class distinctions, or scientific views of this era. How might this new information help you better enjoy the plays?

2. Read a short story by a twentieth century African American writer. Some possible authors are Alice Walker, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Dubois, and Zora Neale Hurston. Read a bit about the author's background. Can you see elements of their life reflected in their fictional works? Pay attention, too, to the date the story was written. How does this information affect your response to the story?

3. In the lesson, you read a bit about Emily Dickinson and her poetry. If you look up feminist poets online, you will find a long list of female poets dating back to Sappho in the 6th century B.C. Choose one of these poets and read something about her life and a few examples of her poetry. Then research what the status of women might have been during their lifetime. How do you connect the poetry with this contextual information?

4. Read about the life of an author from a culture other than your own, one who is well-known and respected in their own country. Research what was happening in that country when this author lived and worked. How can you see the author's nationality and/or ethnic heritage in their work? Hint: some writers are extremely political in their fiction writing and some write more about domestic concerns like mental health or family relationships.

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