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John Updike on Parenting, Agatha Christie in the Gossip Pages: First Mentions of Famous Authors in The Times

It felt only fitting, during the Book Review’s 125th anniversary, to delve into the archives and showcase the best, funniest, most surprising first mentions we could find.


The very first time Dreiser’s name appeared in the paper was as a byline: He profiled the artist James H. Dolph in November 1897, three years before the publication of Dreiser’s first novel, “Sister Carrie.” His literary gifts were evident in the piece, which began, “J.H. Dolph paints cats. It is by no means depreciative of the richer gifts of this extremely talented painter to say that he paints cats, for he paints dogs also.”

“Miss Edna Ferber, who describes a girl reporter’s life in her new novel, ‘Dawn O’Hara,’ is herself a newspaperwoman,” Hildegarde Hawthorne wrote in the Book Review’s gossip column, “Among the Authors,” on April 29, 1911. “She commenced her journalistic career at 17 on a paper in the town of Appleton, Wis., working as a reporter. She has since declared that ‘a year of foreign travel and a whole course in college couldn’t have crammed half so much into my head as did the 18 months of small-town journalism.’”

“T.S. Eliot of St. Louis, a student in the Summer School of Magdeburg University, arrived in London today with a number of students from Freiburg and other German universities which have been closed on account of the war,” The Times reported on Aug. 27, 1914. Eliot told the paper, “The German officials showed the students much consideration and helped us in every way, but traffic was interrupted by the military operations and there were few trains.” He added that he didn’t think he’d be returning: “Conditions are too unsettled for the few foreign students whose countries are not fighting Germany.”


In 1916, while he was at Princeton, Fitzgerald co-wrote a play with Edmund Wilson. Since the college only admitted men, men would often play women’s roles in university productions. The Times featured a photo of Fitzgerald in character for his role, calling him “the most beautiful showgirl in the Princeton Triangle Club’s new musical play, ‘The Evil Eye.’


In its gossipy Books and Authors column from Aug. 8, 1920, the Book Review reported, “An interesting story is told about how ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’ by Agatha Christie, a detective novel announced for Fall publication by the John Lane company, came to be written. The author had never before attempted to write a book, but made a wager that she could write a detective story in which the reader would not be able to pick out the murderer, although having knowledge of the same clues as the detective. She was at least successful enough to have her work chosen by The London Times as a serial for its weekly edition.”

The romance novelist came to the attention of The Times in November 1925. “It is difficult to guess what Barbara Cartland, a new playwright, who has been having a good deal of trouble with the censor, is driving at in ‘Blood Money,’ which opened on Monday night. Perhaps the censor’s excisions were responsible.”


He was singled out in a review of “The New Caravan,” a large, annual collection of new writing: “To continue with what seems immediately good there is a remarkably empathetic sketch by Richard Wright, a Negro born in 1909 in Mississippi, tactfully as well accurately written to display racial incompatibilities while naturally sympathetic with his own race. Mr. Wright has also done everything, ‘washed dishes, swept streets, dug ditches, portered, waited on tables, bus-boyed, bell-boyed, carried messages, off-barred in brick-yards, sold insurance, and clerked in the United States Post Office.’ … At present he is ‘busy with a novel’” — presumably “Native Son,” published three years later.

In 1939, the future novelist was mentioned in an article about a “Greek Games” competition between first- and second-year students at Barnard: “A messenger, Joan Roth, rushed in to say that Persephone still lived and a rejoicing group danced in. Eight tumblers did tricks before the crowd to distract the still disconsolate Demeter. The student acrobats included Betty Crum, Alberta Albig, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Wolfson, Miriam Szafir, Elizabeth Crane, Claire Lawler and Miss Holden.”


The writer and poet was first mentioned in a short item about the magazine Portfolio in 1945: “We liked also David Daiches’ article ‘The Future of Ignorance’ (he feels that it is bright), and an excerpt from the novel ‘Babylon’ by René Crevel, translated by Kay Boyle; and an effective little story by Gwendolyn Brooks called ‘We’re the Only Colored People Here.’”


Times readers met Ellison in February 1950, two years before the publication of “Invisible Man,” when he reviewed a novel called “Stranger and Alone,” by J. Saunders Redding. Ellison wrote that Saunders “presents many aspects of Southern Negro middle-class life for the first time in fiction — its parties and its struggles, its bedroom manners and its social rituals, its health and its neuroses.”


In a publishing news column, “In and Out of Books,” Allen Ginsberg talked to Harvey Breit about his friend Jack Kerouac, whose novel “On the Road” had just been bought by Viking. It was January 1957, and the two were about to head to Paris. “We don’t worry about money,” Ginsberg said, “‘We take a job, a stevedore job or something like that, rack up 300 bucks and then live on it and forget about the money. Don’t need any money. I’ve got the sleeping-bag, we all have them, and can flop in any park.”


Not long before his first novel, “The Poorhouse Fair,” was published, Updike — already an acclaimed short-story writer — was featured in a parenting article, “The Magic World of Words,” which discussed the best ways to spark a child’s love for language. Updike, the father of toddlers, told the paper in 1958, “When children are picking up words with rapidity, between 2 and 3, say, tell them the true word for something even if it is fairly abstruse and long. A long correct word is exciting for a child. Makes them laugh; my daughter never says ‘rhinoceros’ without laughing.”

Crichton’s debut in The Times? A freelance travel piece about Sunset Crater National Monument that, according to his memoir, he sold to the paper as a teenager. “Climbing Up a Cinder Cone,” which appeared on May 17, 1959, contained flashes of Crichton’s dry humor. “Starting from the ranger station at the base of Sunset Crater are two foot trails for visitors. One goes to the summit of the cinder cone and is recommended only if the climber has the time (an hour or more), the energy (in profusion) and a pair of old shoes (for wading through the deep layers of cinders).”


Months before Allende published her first novel, “The House of the Spirits,” The Times took note of her in a publishing news column. “First novels often come and go without notice, but ‘The House of the Spirits’ has been an incredible success in Europe,” Edwin McDowell wrote on Dec. 7, 1974. He went on to note that Allende, the niece of the slain Chilean president Salvador Allende Gossens, was drawing comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez.

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