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11 Writers Who Started Late

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Forget “under 30” or even “under 40” lists. Some of the world's most celebrated writers didn’t hit their literary stride until their mid-forties or later.

1. James A. Michener

The youngest person on the list, Michener is notable more for his output than his age. The Tales of the South Pacific author (whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book would later be adapted into a Broadway musical) wrote a staggering 40 books after the age of 40—nearly a book a year—after spending much of his life as a teacher.

2. Sherwood Anderson

Anderson held a handful of jobs—including newsboy and racetrack helper—during his youth in Clyde, Ohio before moving to Chicago to try and make it as a copywriter. He flailed and returned to a nearby town in his home state where he worked as a manager at a paint factory until 1912, when he decided to leave his job and family to pursue a career in writing. While the act and the way he did it (disappearing for four days and then reappearing in an untidy and troubled state) are hardly admirable, the gamble did pay off. He returned to advertising and was publishing novels by 1916. His best known work, Winesburg, Ohio came out when Anderson was 43-years-old, garnering the success and acclaim the aspiring writer so boldly sought. 

3. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Inspired by her daughter, Wilder began writing in her 40s, but she didn’t find great success until some 20 years later, when Little House in the Big Woods was published. The Little House books drew from Wilder’s life experiences, so maybe waiting gave her some extra time to gather material.

4. Raymond Chandler

Only Raymond Chandler would have coped with losing a job as an oil company executive three years into the Great Depression by deciding to write detective fiction. It’s a good thing he happened to be among the best the world has ever seen. His first short story was published a year later, in 1933, and his first novel, The Big Sleep, came out in 1939, when he was 44 years old. He would publish six more novels before his death in 1959, along with many more short stories and screenplays.

Despite his illustrious writing career, Chandler was never quite at ease in the publishing world. In 1949, he wrote to publisher Hamish Hamilton: “There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.”

5. Helen DeWitt

Like Chandler, DeWitt was 44 years old when she published her debut novel, 2000's The Last Samurai. After years spent juggling odd jobs and working simultaneously on many writing projects, she decided: “I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS.” Sounds like she was channeling her subject.

6. Marquis de Sade

The famous libertine, philosopher, politician and aristocrat had a lot going on, so it makes sense that he didn’t get around to a writing career until age 47. Even then, he only had time to write because he was in prison at the Bastille for crimes related to sexual deviancy (though he was imprisoned under a lettre de cachet obtained by his mother-in-law). That’s one way to eliminate distractions. It was there that he wrote his first novel, Justine, which wasn’t published until four years later, when de Sade was 51.

7. Wallace Stevens

Stevens worked for most of his life as a lawyer and later vice president of an insurance company. He was first published at age 35 in Poetry Magazine, though the majority of the work he is known for today was written after the age of 50. Stevens passed away in 1955, just a few months after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his Collected Poems at the age of 75.

8. Anna Sewell

Sewell’s only published work is the classic Black Beauty. She began writing it at age 51 while in declining health and dictated much of the novel to her mother.  At 57, she sold the book. Sewell died of hepatitis in 1878, just five months after the novel was published.

9. Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt's story attracted worldwide attention when Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996, especially when the memoir—which recounted his impoverished childhood in Ireland and an adulthood teaching in New York—went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was published when McCourt was 66 years old.

10. Harriet Doerr

Doerr spent the first four decades of her life in California before moving to Mexico, where her husband Albert was working to restore a family-owned copper mine. The years spent there ultimately helped inspire the works she penned after Albert’s death. Doerr returned to California when she was in her 60s, finished her education, and began writing. Stones of Ibarra, Doerr’s first novel, was published when the author was 74 years old. It went on to win a National Book Award. 

11. Millard Kaufman

A co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Kaufman began screenwriting in his early 30s, but his first novel (Bowl of Cherries) was published when he was 90 years old—a testament that it’s never too late to try something new.

Note: This article originally stated that Joseph Heller was 52 when Catch-22 was published. He was 38. 

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10 Facts About The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On its surface, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history. 

1. HUCKLEBERRY FINN FIRST APPEARS IN TOM SAWYER.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad, as well as the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians.  

2. HUCKLEBERRY FINN MAY BE BASED ON MARK TWAIN'S CHILDHOOD FRIEND.

Twain said Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood playmate whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” he wrote in Autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had." 

However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain admitted it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”

3. IT TOOK TWAIN SEVEN YEARS TO WRITE THE NOVEL.


University of Virginia

Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.

In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn. In August 1883, he wrote: “I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days; I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884. 

4. LIKE HUCK, TWAIN CHANGED HIS VIEW OF SLAVERY.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell,” and tears the letter up. 

As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, his uncle owned 20 slaves. In Autobiography, Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.”

At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and housed Frederick Douglass.

5. EMMELINE GRANGERFORD IS A PARODY OF A VICTORIAN POETASTER.

Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas."

6. A PENIS DRAWING ALMOST RUINED THE BOOK.


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Twain, who ran his own printing press, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants. 

According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.

7. MANY CONSIDER HUCKLEBERRY FINN THE FIRST AMERICAN NOVEL.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." 

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or "it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote. 

8. THE END OF THE BOOK IS OFTEN CONSIDERED A COP-OUT.


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A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

9. THE BOOK IS FREQUENTLY BANNED.


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Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachussets in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist.

In 2011, Stephen Railton, a professor at University of Virginia, published a version of the book that replaced that offensive word with “slave.” Soon after appeared The Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with “hipster.” The book's description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

10. TWAIN HAD SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BOOK'S CENSORSHIP.

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as librarian wrote Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said 'sweat' when he should have said 'perspiration.'" Here’s Twain’s reply: 

DEAR SIR:

I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so.

Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defence of Huck's character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. 

If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children's Department, won't you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship?

Sincerely yours,

S. L. Clemens

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between a Novella and a Short Story?
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We typically put fiction into one of two categories: It's either a short story, or it's a novel. But there is another variation that lands somewhere in between the two. Yes, the novella. What exactly separates a short story from a novella from a novel, you ask?

As with most art forms, the label is somewhat malleable. When it comes down to it, though, it's all about word count. Atonement author Ian McEwan, discussing his love of the form in The New Yorker in 2012, defined the novella as being between roughly 20,000 and 40,000 words. Writer's Digest says it can run up to 50,000 words. Around 30,000 is more typical.

Anything more than that 50,000 words is probably a full novel. Short stories, which are designed to be read in one sitting, are usually only a few thousand words long and written for publication in a magazine or as part of a collection. The highest word count many literary magazines will publish is around 10,000, but most stories are even shorter, under 7500 words or so.

This leaves the novella in a weird in-between space where it's too long to publish in a magazine or literary journal and too short to publish as a book. (Yes, there's another in-between category for those stories between 10,000 and 20,000 words: the "novelette.") For publishers, putting out a novella isn't a very attractive option. Novellas look pretty small once they're bound, and customers aren't always keen on spending hardcover prices for teeny-tiny volumes.

Some of the difference between the forms is just marketing, though. Novellas have been around since the Middle Ages, and some standard English class assignments are on the list. Even if you don't know it, you've surely read one, probably thinking that it was just an extra-long short story or a rather short book. Perhaps it was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, or Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Maybe it was Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome or H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. All can be classified as novellas.

Despite the fact that these novellas turned into classics, you probably don't see a lot of contemporary examples at your local bookstore. Even the most popular writers have trouble finding a publisher willing to take on their in-between length stories. Stephen King, or example, struggled to get them out into the world until he finally published Different Seasons, a collection of four of his novellas, in 1982. And that had nothing to do with the quality of those stories; one was later adapted for the screen as The Shawshank Redemption.

In the afterword to the book, he wrote of the trouble he faced getting the novellas published because they were "too long to be short and too short to be really long." When he pitched his editor on a book of novellas, King recalled, the editor was polite, but "his voice says some of the joy may have just gone out of his day." In the end, he got the book published, but even for a hugely popular author, it was an uphill battle. Even for the biggest names in publishing, it seems, the novella is a no-go.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't seek them out; according to McEwan, they're the "perfect form of prose fiction." Even if they go on a little longer than 10,000 words.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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