The Times of Their Lifetimes Were Similar

HeidiMany well-known authors were almost exact contemporaries of other well-known authors. In some cases, that was just a meaningless coincidence. In other cases, they had some things in common.

I thought about this yesterday after FINALLY reading Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I greatly enjoyed. Then I tried to think of a blog topic that beloved 1881 book evoked, but I had seemingly written them all before. Novels starring children — check. Orphans in literature — check. (Mostly) upbeat fiction — check. Etc. So, out of desperation, I eventually came up with the similar-time-alive thing.

Spyri lived from 1827 to 1901, making her a somewhat-older contemporary of Mark Twain (1835-1910). Not much in common between a sort-of-famous writer (Spyri) and a VERY famous writer (the brilliant Twain). Heck, Heidi is a heartwarming novel — complete with its plucky protagonist and friendly goats (see above image) — while the often-funny/often-scathing Twain didn’t really “do” heartwarming. ๐Ÿ™‚ But both authors created memorable young characters (of course Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in Twain’s case), and Spyri’s home country of Switzerland was among the many places the U.S.-based Twain visited.

Having almost the same 19th-century birth and death years were George Eliot (1819-1880) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). Both are among the very greatest novelists of all time, with their books’ many attributes including immense psychological insight. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda are among my five favorite novels.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) were near-contemporaries, too, but they didn’t have much in common I can think of other than both being extraordinary writers. One English, one French; one best-known for speculative fiction, the other best-known for naturalist fiction…

Also few similarities between French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). The former is best known for his rousing adventure novels (that were also literary in their way), while the latter often focused on moral issues and the like in a more subtle fashion. (If they had somehow collaborated, I suppose “The House of the Seven Musketeers” might have resulted. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

On the other hand, there were these exact contemporaries with a lot in common in their writing: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (also 1882-1941). Both are known for their modernist, nonlinear fiction — and they undoubtedly had some influence on each other’s work.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) died within days of each other, but Cervantes was obviously quite a bit older. Both are among literature’s most-iconic writers in different genres.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) and Toni Morrison (1931-2019) both wrote multi-layered novels featuring memorable relationships and strong social-justice elements — relating to race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Also, both didn’t see their first novels published until they were around 40, with Marquez working as a journalist and Morrison as a book editor before that.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) were both 27 when their first novels appeared, and each mostly spotlighted male characters in their fiction — though Hemingway had a more macho/misogynist attitude. Together, they were married seven times (Hemingway four, Steinbeck three). Also, both did war reporting during their lives.

Science-fiction connections? Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) and Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) were approximate contemporaries. Frank Herbert (Dune) and Isaac Asimov were also born in 1920, but didn’t live nearly as long as Bradbury — Herbert until 1985 and Asimov until 1992.

Then there’s this trio born within a year of each other: Colette (1873-1954), Willa Cather (1873-1947), and L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942). The first two are known for adult fiction, the third mostly for young-adult fiction — though Montgomery also wrote excellent “grown-up” novels such as The Blue Castle. Montgomery and Colette could be very funny in their books; Cather much less so. Cather and Montgomery both wrote powerful World War I novels (One of Ours and Rilla of Ingleside) — illustrating that the time period when authors are alive can lead to similarly themed content. Cather was gay (something only obliquely referenced in her fiction) while Colette was bisexual (more directly referenced in some of her novels).

Any other authors you’d like to mention who were roughly contemporaries?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning โ€œMontclairvoyantโ€ topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a controversial school principal incident and a supermarket that may or may not come to town — is here.

67 thoughts on “The Times of Their Lifetimes Were Similar

  1. A tangent concerning coincidental events:

    1492 was also the year King Boabdil surrendered Granada to the Spanish crown– Granada was the last Moslem territory left in Spain till then.

    1776 was also the year Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”.

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  2. Flaubert and Turgenev were contemporaries and correspondents. Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry James spent a summer together in a convalescent setting– a small village in England. Stevenson was there for his health, James was there for his ailing sister’s. The Turgenev-Flaubert connection did not surprise me when I read of it, but the Stevenson- James friendship– which was mutual, as was their high regard for each other, I did not anticipate.

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  3. The question of whether Dickens and Dostoevsky met, wrote or knew each others’ works has always fascinated me! I look forward to your upcoming themes, Dave. They are always so thought provoking, and must arise from your own natural curiosity. So relatable. BTW my copy of The Alice Network is on its turtle paced way from my local library ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thank you for the kind words, Mary Jo! I think most avid readers have a strong curiosity. ๐Ÿ™‚ Writers, too!

      That IS a fascinating question abut Dickens and Dostoevsky — two colossuses of 19th-century literature. Their respective work feels quite different, but they of course had in common both being very ambitious with their novels — especially their mid- and late-career books.

      I know Dickens and Mark Twain had a connection — Twain was in the audience when Dickens spoke in the U.S. during an 1867-68 tour. Not sure they actually met, though.

      Ha — your description of the frustratingly slow arrival of “The Alice Network.” A terrific novel worth waiting for!

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  4. Well Dave!!!!
    You just gave me a bunch of whole new authors. Your research is quite deep. Can you also write about the classical horror and mystery writers. There are pretty famous horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein. Similarly in the mystery genre, there are great tycoons such as Sherlock who dominate this genre. But there are are many who have written quite formidable stories but are not that famous.
    Also, the fourth part of my series THE GHOST OF ROOM 424 is out now. And it is much more horror than the last parts and unveils many mysteries and my theories about paranormal. Please check it out too.
    THANK YOU!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Heidi!!! I loved that book when I was a kid ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ As I’ve been searching for more upbeat reads lately, you’ve reminded me that’s a good one for me to find a copy of and re-read. I also appreciate the Hemingway/Steinbeck mention. I enjoy Hemingway a lot, and Steinbeck ranks quite high on my favorite authors of all time list. As for contemporaries, I might throw a couple modern authors in there, and these two ladies have rapidly worked their way up on my favorites list as well. Kate Quinn (as I’m sure you well know by now!) and Ruta Sepetys. Both write female-centered stories around the world wars, although Sepetys tackled the Spanish Civil War with her most recent work. Both have really mastered the art of historical-fiction storytelling, bringing the events back to life in a very real way. And both keep me turning the page, although I might have to say that Kate Quinn is a bit better with action writing, where Sepetys really excels in the character/human thought process of it.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! “Heidi” is definitely upbeat, except for the middle portion of the novel in Frankfurt. I agree that it’s nice to read or reread something like that in this miserable year of 2020!

      I LOVED the two Kate Quinn novels you recommended: “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress.” If Ruta Sepetys is in Quinn’s class as a writer, she must be excellent indeed!

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  6. How about Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver? Bukowski was older than Carver, but they did write at the same time. They both wrote about ordinary people and alcoholism but with different effects. Carver’s work leaves me feeling empty and sad, while I need to take a shower after reading Bukowski.

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  7. Fascinating information as always, Dave! I have absolutely no memory of reading Heidi OR Pollyanna OR Pippi Longstocking, so I must not have. However, your writing always sends me on Google searches to find out more about the authors you mention.

    Reading about Fitzgerald and Zelda always makes me so sad! I had forgotten how talented Zelda was in her own right. She wrote as well as painted! I had also forgotten they had a daughter. She said about her parents: “I have never been able to buy the notion that it was my father’s drinking which led her to the sanitarium. Nor do I think she led him to the drinking.”

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! I know what you mean about Google searches. I often enjoy doing them after seeing comments here. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, Zelda Fitzgerald was quite talented in her own right. She and F. Scott Fitzgerald definitely had troubled lives. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Their daughter at least had a somewhat-less-troubled life, and a somewhat longer one — she lived until 1986.

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            • Not right and not fair. So much wasted potential in that couple, though F. Scott of course was able to fill some of his. “Tender Is the Night,” his last completed novel, seems very autobiographical. Mostly excellent book, but often painful to follow the lives of the characters based on him and Zelda.

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          • Zelda Fitzgerald did make an over-late though dedicated try at ballet, and could not come up to professional grade, but years ago, I saw one of her few extant paintings, done while she was under care. It was a still life of flowers and I thought it was very good, its colors skillfully rendered, the composition too. I have never run across anything she wrote.

            Good thing, I guess, F. Scott had no attic, or he might have done a Rochester. Not his finest hour. Not even close.

            Some of his correspondence with Scottie made it into “The Crack-Up”. I remember getting a good laugh out of his grousing over bills she had run up at ‘Peck & Peck & Peck &Peck’, and from his observation, after a lifetime in letters, that all the English one really need to know was : ‘Yeah’, ‘Naw’ and ‘Gimme the Meat.’

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            • Thank you, jhNY! Trying ballet at an “advanced” age, and showing painting skill — that shows guts (desperation?), and some talent.

              Yes, F. Scott seemed to be a mixed bag as a person — including having a compassion deficit. Could have been his nature, the early fame, etc. It IS hard dealing with people with mental illness (my family/extended family has some experience with that), but…

              Funny last paragraph!

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  8. Ah Heidi… I loved that book as a kid. I will tell you what I loved about that book and also the Twain books cos you have mentioned these authors as contemporaries. They took you to another world. Very diff worlds. As you say, Twain was funnier and more scathing and Auntie was far more ready with the wallop than Grandad. Little Women at that time also came into that category of a diff family life for me. Okay, so writers who were contemporaries (and prob did influence each other)… for me would include the many members of the hard boiled school, I’m awfully fond of the hard boiled school, Hammett, McCoy, Burnett, Cain, Chandler, but in a very different classroom here there’s Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck (when he wrote ‘shorts’ ). They were all born roughly about the same time and some died about the same time too. Many of them worked in Hollywood. Not just cos their books were ideal screen fodder of the 30s-50s, but on other scripts. I gather a broke Fitzgerald worked disastrously on GWTW a book he was less than flattering about. A fascinating post Dave. And glad you finally read Heidi.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      Terrific/relevant mention of the “hard-boiled” school of authors. Definitely near-contempories who undoubtedly had some influence on each other’s writing and made some similar career choices (Hollywood, etc.). I had no idea F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on the “Gone With the Wind” movie, however disastrously. He was clearly in bad straits economically, and alcoholically, in the latter 1930s — though “The Last Tycoon” was shaping up to be an excellent novel when left unfinished at his death.

      Yes, both “Heidi” and Mark Twain’s work and any great novel can take a reader to another world — which reminds me of Twain being a character on a memorable episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Oh my, I never saw that episode. We always like the old Star Trek. It was wonderfully cardboardy sets and all. Yeah Fitzgerald was in a bad way at that time, broke and ill. He thought screenwriting was a way of getting a steady income. A lot of his contemporaries were already there churning them out. Again, not just cos they had their own books on the screen. And he did work on full scripts but that one ??? I think that was short and sweet. Mind you that one used up a ton of writers and directors. And it was a pity re the Last Tycoon.

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        • Yes, the earlier “Star Trek” shows were of their lower-production-values time — until the later TV series and the later movies got increasingly sophisticated-looking.

          It’s amazing how some films that use multiple directors and multiple writers can sometimes turn out really well — also the case with “The Wizard of Oz.” Usually, the ability/vision of one director and one writer works best.

          F. Scott Fitzgerald definitely did a number on his life — so short. But he of course churned out many memorable stories and a few great novels in those 44 years.

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    • If you’re fond of hard-boiled fiction, perhaps you have already run across Carroll John Daly, the most popular of all who contributed to “The Black Mask” magazine ( a magazine founded by HL Mencken and others from “The Smart Set”, who saw the detective magazine as a way to fund their more consciously literary efforts). One of his stories, ‘Three Gun Terry’ was reprinted in “The Black Mask Boys”, and there is a Nash novella included in “The Big Book of Pulps”. It is my firm opinion that Nash had no small influence on most who followed him.

      Also, for a thinly-veiled account of an even more disastrous foray of Fitzgerald in the movie game, see Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted.” Young Budd and spent Scott took a train across the country to witness the winter carnival at Dartmouth so as to prepare to write a screenplay, and Scott fell spectacularly off the wagon en route. The names in the novel were changed, but much of the story, especially the train trip, are probably a recounting, and not so much fiction.

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  9. I loved Heidi as a child, Dave, and it continues to remind me that hope and kindness build resilience. What came to mind was another book that I enjoyed as a child, Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter which was written in 1913, also considered a childrenโ€™s classic:Pollyanna. Pollyanna was an orphan who came to live with her strict aunt. She cheered the entire village (the Glad Game) and then had a tragic accident where she loses the use of her legs. Hereโ€™s a quote from Pollyanna, which will give you the thought behind the plot. โ€œWhat men and women need is encouragement. Their natural resisting powers should be strengthened, not weakened…. Instead of always harping on a man’s faults, tell him of his virtues.โ€ Heidi and Pollyanna are in sharp contrast to Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, who is unconventional and superhumanly strong โ€“ able to lift her horse one-handed. As a child I felt a sense of personal strength when I read these books. For all three characters have a strong belief is living boldly and disrupting the status quo. Thank you for a wonderful journey through all the amazing writers that have given us many hours of enjoyment and reflection.

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