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Connecticut has produced a wealth of literary talent over the centuries, from Mark Twain to Wally Lamb. In their newest co-venture, "Literary Connecticut: The Hartford Wits, Mark Twain and the New Millennium," English professors and husband-and-wife team Eric D. Lehman and Amy Nawrocki shine a light on the famous and not-so-famous novelists, poets and playwrights who have contributed to the richness of the nation's literary landscape.
Lehman and Nawrocki (also co-authors of "A History of Connecticut Food" and "A History of Connecticut Wine") talked about their new book in a recent Daybreak interview.
Q: You draw very personal portraits of these writers. Was that your intent versus just talking about their accomplishments?
Nawrocki: We wanted to make them real people so our readers would feel connected to them. We like to connect people stories and weave in the work they've done, concentrating on their work in Connecticut.
Q: In the preface you say, 'You will encounter some of the most important figures in American literature here and some you never heard of.' You discuss two of these in the first chapter - Sarah Knight, who lived in Norwich and was one of America's first female authors, and poet Aaron Cleveland of Haddam - President Grover Cleveland's great grandfather. Did you know of these authors before you started to do the research for the book and did you discover any other writers you hadn't heard of?
Lehman: I didn't know anything about Aaron Cleveland. What I was most surprised about were a few figures who passed through here, (such as) F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wrote one of his books in Westport.
Nawrocki: Some of the writers were obvious. We had a template of who we wanted to include - Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Eugene O'Neill, etc. We knew we wanted to include Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who was born in Hartford and spent the last 13 years of her life in Norwich). But we didn't have any idea of the extent that her activism was really widespread, beyond literature. Besides novels and poetry she wrote science fiction and books about politics, equal rights and equal education for women. She moved civil rights in general forward and for a woman (of that era) that was pretty remarkable.
Q: Why do you think four out of five of the most respected dramatists of the 20th century - Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee - lived in Connecticut?
Lehman: We have many great theaters here in Connecticut - and are also close to New York City. Arthur Miller didn't want to live in New York - he came out to Connecticut to live. They were influenced by their peers to come here.
Q: You note in the book that since James Merrill's death in 1995, his apartment in Stonington has been a place for writers to live and work, as specified in his will. Stephen Vincent Benet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his epic Civil War poem, 'John Brown's Body,' was buried in Stonington where he owned the historic house of Captain Amos Palmer. William Meredith lived in Uncasville and taught at Connecticut College from 1955 to 1983. Why do you suppose there such a strong southeastern Connecticut connection among poets?
Nawrocki: I think particularly for Merrill, who wanted to see the changing seasons as well as the changing light, it's beautiful and he had privacy. Many of them had traveled widely. They found a home and place to create work in the beauty of Connecticut.
Lehman: Also because of our great university system and an educated population that actually likes their work. We're one of the most educated states. We have a huge concentration of colleges to read at; people actually come to poetry readings. You can live in a very comfortable small town, semi-rural setting and still be close enough to Boston and New York where publishers are, too.
Q: What are some other things people will be surprised to learn about in the book?
Lehman: We think of William Gillette (of Hadlyme) as an actor but people don't realize he was also a writer. He (not only) acted in but wrote 'Secret Service' and 'Sherlock Holmes.' And those were the most popular plays at the end of 19th-early 20th century. We wanted to focus on that, too. We didn't want to just pick the most critically acclaimed authors but also popular authors of their time.
(Norwich native) Lydia Sigourney was the most popular poet of the early 1800s. They don't teach her in English classes. Or Fitz-Greene Halleck of Guilford. Again, he's not read today and not popular today, but at the time he was very popular. Abe Lincoln loved his poetry. Those two were giants of American literature, and today are mostly forgotten.
Anna Hempstead Branch from New London is an example of a poet that, like Wallace Stevens, changed the way poetry was found on the page. She was compared to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was very popular at the time, very gifted, but gets lost in the shuffle.
This is a history book, so these writers were very important historically. Who people were reading was important to understanding the history of our country and our state. In America we tend to throw away the people who don't match our contemporary tastes - we didn't want to do that in this book.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Lehman: I think that Connecticut should be proud of its tradition of literature. We're a very small state. Look at states with larger populations than us and they don't have nearly as many great writers as we do. We should be really proud of that and promote that ... and teach it in schools. Mark Twain and Harriett Beecher Stowe are taught in the schools but more of these authors should be focused on - New London's Eugene O'Neill is not a minor figure. After Shakespeare, O'Neill's plays have been performed the most in the world. 'Our Town' by Thornton Wilder was one of the most performed plays in the 20th century. We need to teach people about Noah Webster - why it was important that he changed English language to American English. Ann Lane Petry from Old Saybrook was the first African-American writer to sell a million copies, so why not teach her book "The Street," which sold that many?
Eric D. Lehman and Amy Nawrocki, the authors of “Literary Connecticut”
(History Press), will give readings and book signings at the following locations:
June 15: 3 to 4 p.m., Essex Books, 104 Main St., Ivoryton; (860) 767-1707
June 29: 1 to 3 p.m. Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St. Mystic; (860) 536-3795