The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School

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Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
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It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,/Or being hated, don't give way to hating."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
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Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

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A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
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When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
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The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
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"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
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Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
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Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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