The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula

Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
chris2766/iStock

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

26 Amazing Books by LGBTQ+ Authors You Should Add to Your Bookshelf

iStock/Mitshu
iStock/Mitshu

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots coming up on June 28, it seems like the entire country is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. But what happens on July 1, when all the rainbow logos and flags get put away for the year? Don't worry—we've got a list of incredible books by LGBTQ+ authors to keep you occupied all year long. Like the queer community itself, this reading list is diverse and exciting, representing a wide variety of genres, time periods, and identities. Here are 26 great books to add to your bookshelf.

1. Fingersmith // Sarah Waters

The cover of 'Fingersmith'
Riverhead Books

Sarah Waters is the reigning queen of lesbian historical mysteries, and Fingersmith is her answer to Oliver Twist—only with more, well, twists. So-called "genre" stories rarely get recognized for major literary prizes, but Fingersmith not only won the Crime Writers Association's 2002 Historical Dagger award, and it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

Find it: Amazon

2. Eighty-Sixed // David Feinberg

The cover of 'Eighty-Sixed'
Grove Press

In the last few years, a host of historical novels have delved into the first wave of the AIDS crisis, from Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers to Joseph Cassara's House of Impossible Beauties. But no retrospective look captures the unknowability of the queer community's sudden descent into the plague years as well as David Feinberg's seminal Eighty-Sixed, which blends humor, fear, loss, and anger into a genuinely fun—if incredibly harrowing and sad—chronicle of the 1980s.

Find it: Amazon

3. Stone Butch Blues // Leslie Feinberg

The cover of 'Stone Butch Blues'
Alyson Books

Winner of the 1994 Stonewall Book Award, Stone Butch Blues is one of the earliest American novels told from the point of view of a genderqueer, trans-masculine person—a “stone butch,” in the parlance of the 1970s (when the majority of the book is set). Leslie Feinberg’s last words were “remember me as a revolutionary Communist,” and in that spirit, the 20th-anniversary edition of the book is free to download on hir website. (Feinberg used the pronouns ze/hir.)

Find it: Amazon

4. [insert] Boy // Danez Smith

The cover of '[insert] Boy'
YesYes Books

This first poetry collection from queer, black, nonbinary Midwesterner Danez Smith shows that the best spoken word poetry can also light up the page. Showing the true breadth of their talent and appeal, in the years since [insert] Boy (2015) was published, Smith has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and won a number of awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for their 2017 collection Don't Call Us Dead.

Find it: Amazon

5. I’ve Got a Time Bomb // Sybil Lamb

The cover of 'I've Got a Time Bomb'
Topside Press

In this whacked-out road novel, Sybil Lamb borrows deeply from her own experiences as an underground, always-on-the-move, crust punk trans artist—including the time she was beaten and left for dead after a gay wedding in New Orleans, causing her permanent brain damage. The result is surreal and disturbing, yet somehow still hopeful.

Find it: Amazon

6. The Color Purple // Alice Walker

The cover of 'The Color Purple'
Open Road Media

The Color Purple is a timeless American classic that has won accolades in print, on film, and on the Broadway stage. Yet it's not often recognized for the queer sexuality and unconventional family structures at its heart. If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in school, come back to it with adult eyes to find a beautiful story of queer resilience.

Find it: Amazon

7. Sketchtasy // Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The cover of 'Sketchtasy'
Arsenal Pulp Press

Young queer people might be prone to wax nostalgic about the 1990s (as many of us do). But Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s third novel, Sketchtasy, presents a different perspective on the decade, delving into the dangerous and confusing side of being a young queer outsider in Boston, America’s most parochial city, in the mid-1990s.

Find it: Amazon

8. I, the Divine // Rabih Alameddine

The cover of 'I, the Divine'
W. W. Norton & Company

Rabih Alameddine’s sumptuous prose would make a to-do list mesmerizing, but the real delight of I, the Divine is its experimental structure: The book takes the form of a series of attempted first chapters of the memoir of its protagonist. Alameddine is a master of using nonlinear forms to build powerful and unexpected narratives, and I, the Divine is one of his best.

Find it: Amazon

9. Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga // Michael McDowell

The cover of 'Blackwater'
Valancourt Books

Michael McDowell was only 49 years old when he died of AIDS in 1999, but he was already the “finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” as Stephen King put it. Although you may not know his name, you almost certainly know some of his writing, such as the script for Beetlejuice. Blackwater is McDowell’s six-part serial Southern gothic horror epic, which follows decades of one family’s haunted life along the Perdido River in Alabama.

Find it: Amazon

10. We the Animals // Justin Torres

The cover of 'We the Animals'
Mariner Books

Justin Torres’s loosely autobiographical first novel follows three brothers growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s in a family that is at turns loving and violent. A beautiful coming-of-age story about being queer, brown, and working class, Torres fills his pages with gorgeous sentences that linger in your mouth, like, “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Find it: Amazon

11. Outline of My Lover // Douglas Martin

The cover of 'Outline of My Lover'
Soft Skull Press

Douglas Martin's exquisite, short, experimental roman a clef shines a queer light in an unexpected place: the indie music scene of Athens, Georgia, circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following a fey young man's limerent crush on a closeted rock star, Outline of My Lover was published by Soft Skull Press, a New York City underground institution whose earliest books were printed on pirated Kinko's copiers.

Find it: Amazon

12. This Bridge Called My Back // Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua

The cover of 'This Bridge Called My Back'
SUNY Press

If you love the concept of intersectionality, This Bridge Called My Back is the throwback read you need. Combining everything from poetry to memoir to theory, this slim anthology is one of the ur-texts that brought an explicitly anti-racist, women-of-color-centered, feminist lens to queer studies—without being so full of academic jargon you’ll want to throw it across the room.

Find it: Amazon

13. Conflict Is Not Abuse // Sarah Schulman

The cover of 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
Arsenal Pulp

Sarah Schulman is one of the queer community's fiercest public intellectuals, with a critical eye that has tackled topics as diverse as Palestinian liberation and American gentrification. With Conflict Is Not Abuse, she examines the “supremacist thinking” that undergirds everything from our current presidential administration to that Twitter fight you got in last week.

Find it: Amazon

14. I’ll Give You the Sun // Jandy Nelson

The cover of 'I'll Give You the Sun'
Speak

This beautiful young adult novel proves that writing for teens can be as poetic and lyrical as writing for adults—without losing the unputdownable quality that animates the best YA books. In alternating chapters, Nelson’s twin brother-sister narrators slowly circle the devastating secrets that transformed them from best friends into virtual strangers. We dare you not to cry at the end.

Find it: Amazon

15. 7 Miles a Second // David Wojnarowicz

The cover of '7 Miles a Second'
Fantagraphics Books

Following his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz has exploded back into cultural relevance. This posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Wojnarowicz’s friend, James Romberger, and originally published by DC Comics), turns his autobiographical stories of homelessness, sexual abuse, and AIDS into a fever dream of stream-of-consciousness prose and hallucinatory images.

Find it: Amazon

16. Trash // Dorothy Allison

The cover of 'Trash'
Penguin Books

Dorothy Allison is rightly famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which drew on her experiences growing up poor, Southern, queer, and sexually abused. But the novel’s protagonists, Bone and Shannon, made their debut in this early collection of Allison’s short stories, which won multiple Lambda Literary Awards in 1989.

Find it: Amazon

17. Written on the Body // Jeanette Winterson

The cover of 'Written on the Body'
Vintage International

The unnamed, ungendered protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s magical novel Written on the Body is both philosopher and seducer, approaching love as a conundrum to be sorted and a prize to be won. The result is a genderless eroticism that is both intellectual and physical. This one is best read with your lover(s).

Find it: Amazon

18. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls // T Kira Madden

The cover of 'Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls'
Bloomsbury Publishing

T Kira Madden’s lush, wild, and disturbing memoir seems to take every insane “Florida woman” Internet meme and explode it, revealing the tenderness, love, fear, pain, anger, and joy that nestle within stories of crazy nights and lost days. But Madden’s lyric prose and unique voice are what truly make this autobiography shine.

Find it: Amazon

19. Go Tell It on the Mountain // James Baldwin

The cover of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'
Vintage International

James Baldwin is one of the lions of 20th-century literature, renowned for his gorgeous writing, his gripping narratives, and his ability to grapple with some of the major social issues of his time. Go Tell It On the Mountain is his first book, the one that years later he would call “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Start here, and then read everything Baldwin wrote after.

Find it: Amazon

20. No Ashes in the Fire // Darnell Moore

The cover of 'No Ashes in the Fire'
Bold Type Books

Darnell Moore’s memoir of coming of age queer and black in Camden, New Jersey, is equal parts harrowing and beautiful. His ability to interweave his personal journey with the larger story of the structural racism and disenfranchisement faced by Camden residents makes No Ashes in the Fire fascinating on both a personal and political level.

Find it: Amazon

21. Confessions of the Fox // Jordy Rosenberg

The cover of 'Confessions of the Fox'
One World

Transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel ping-pongs back and forth between a lost 18th-century manuscript that purports to be the true autobiography of Jack Sheppard (an infamous historical figure and thief) and the story of the beleaguered academic who finds the book in a library sale at his second-rate university. Rosenberg himself teaches 18th-century literature as well as gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for anyone who’s spent too long in academic circles, the present-day parts of this book will feel all too realistic.

Find it: Amazon

22. Dancer from the Dance // Andrew Holleran

The cover of 'Dancer From the Dance'
Harper Perennial

Nothing can recreate the hothouse nature of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS urban gay male life, with its heady mix of liberation and oppression all set to a throbbing disco beat—but Dancer from the Dance certainly comes close. It’s a portrait of shallow hedonism filled with unexpected depth and pathos.

Find it: Amazon

23. Leaves of Grass // Walt Whitman

The title page of a 19th-century copy of 'Leaves of Grass'
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library

If the last time you tried to read Leaves of Grass was in a high school English class, it deserves a second look. Whitman’s poems are queer, erotic, sensual, sexual, and sometimes downright dirty. As the poet himself wrote, “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men.”

Find it: Amazon

24. SCUM Manifesto // Valerie Solanas

The cover of 'SCUM Manifesto'
AK Press

If you only know Valerie Solanas from her attempt to shoot Andy Warhol or her recent cameo on American Horror Story, you’re missing out on one of the most outrageous feminist texts of the mid-20th century. Is SCUM Manifesto a Swiftian satire of Freudian misogyny, or actual propaganda for the violent overthrow of the patriarchy? Unclear. But either way, it's hard to put down a book that begins like this:

"'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex."

Find it: Amazon

25. The Queen of the Night // Alexander Chee

The cover of 'The Queen of the Night'
Mariner Books

Like the arias sung by Alexander Chee’s protagonist—a 19th-century opera diva with a hidden past—The Queen of the Night is lush, dramatic, passionate, and melodramatic (in the best way). This book is a confection for opera queens and Francophiles, but even tone-deaf readers will revel in its murders, affairs, intrigues, and mysteries. We've previously put Chee on our list of great Asian American authors to read, so suffice it to say we're big fans.

Find it: Amazon

26. Complete Poems // Marianne Moore

The cover of Marianne Moore's 'Complete Poems'
Penguin Classics

We might think of the terms asexual and aromantic as modern identity labels only recently recognized under the queer umbrella, but throughout history, there have been people who have lived queer lives very much in those modes—like the extraordinary poet Marianne Moore, one of the most talented (and longest lasting) of the Modernist poets of the early 20th century. Complete Poems gives readers a broad overview of her work, from her early, dense, Imagist pieces (often drawn from scientific sources, like 1936's "The Pangolin"), to her later, more accessible and popular work (like 1961's "Baseball and Writing").

Find it: Amazon

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Joy Harjo Named First Native American Poet Laureate

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images
Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

Since 1985, the United States has appointed poet laureates to promote the reading and writing of poetry among the public. As The New York Times reports, poet Joy Harjo now holds the prestigious title, making her the first Native American poet laureate in the country's history.

A member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, Harjo was born on Native land in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1951. She was introduced to poetry as a college student in New Mexico, and she further honed her skills as a graduate student in the distinguished creative writing program at the University of Iowa. Today she's the author of eight volumes of poetry, including She Had Some Horses, How We Became Human, and In Mad Love and War. She's also taught classes at UCLA and the University of Tennessee.

In her work, Harjo grapples with themes of tradition, loss, and myth-making. Her Native heritage has had a major influence on her poetry. She spoke of the honor of being named poet laureate in a statement: "I share this honor with ancestors and teachers who inspired in me a love of poetry, who taught that words are powerful and can make change when understanding appears impossible, and how time and timelessness can live together within a poem."

Harjo will take over the position of poet laureate from Tracy K. Smith, who held it for two years. As the United States' new poet laureate, Harjo will be responsible for raising "the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," according to the Library of Congress, which bestows the title. Official duties are kept to a minimum so poets can work on their own special projects that boost the medium's profile.

[h/t The New York Times]

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