Why you should care
These writers, in their lives and their work, changed how people thought about literature.
Sure, many writers touch us by imitating life. But for these writers — who battled their way through literary and societal convention to become legends — their lives were art. Many of them lived glamorous, daring or dangerous lives, disrupting what was then accepted truths of genre and style. And they had an enormous amount of fun doing it, or at least some of them did.
Natalie Clifford Barney was born in Dayton, Ohio. But it was in Paris where she flourished, hosting salons for people like T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein and championing women’s writing at a time when women were barred from the upper echelons of French literary life. Barney, a writer herself, was also the inspiration for a character in Radclyffe Hall’s seminal lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness.
The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta was an enormous runaway hit for author John Rollin Ridge, aka Yellow Bird. But it was far from the most intriguing thing about his life: He was a staunch anti-abolitionist and slaveholder while at the same time advocating for the Cherokee cause, and he once allegedly committed murder over a horse.
Considered one of the most influential writers in Urdu of the 20th century, Ismat Chughtai gained notoriety over a short story known as “The Quilt.” It depicted not only sex, which was then taboo, but also female homosexuality, and landed Chughtai on trial for obscenity.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon didn’t just go for the sensational in her work — though she did pioneer the “sensation novel” with Lady Audley’s Secret, a wildly popular Victorian novel of murder and mayhem in polite society. She also led a sensational life, marked by a decades-long affair with her publisher … who was already married.
More Disruptive Literary Legends:
This Black Children’s Magazine Started Nearly 100 Years Ago — The Brownies’ Book hit presses in 1920, attempting to give marginalized kids a way to feel beautiful.
She Outsold Dickens, So Why Don’t We Know Her Name? — Marie Corelli’s weird and fascinating books, which mixed Victorian sensationalism, romance, technology and the occult, have been all but forgotten by history.
The Writer Getting Death Threats for Arab Eroticism — Ali al-Muqri’s provocative works dealing with feminism meant he had to flee Yemen for exile in Paris.
The Book That Shook France’s African Colonial Empire — René Maran was the first Black winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for his book Bataoula, which forced French readers to confront their country’s colonial crimes.