November 20 in Literary History: Leo Tolstoy Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 20th of November

1752: Thomas Chatterton is born. This proto-Romantic poet was dead before his eighteenth birthday, by his own hand. Chatterton has a serious claim to being the most precocious English poet who has ever lived. In his early teens, he fell in love with all things medieval, and invented the figure of the fifteenth-century monk Thomas Rowley, who would become the teenage boy’s alter ego. Thereafter, Chatterton would write the majority of his poems as Rowley, and even succeeded in passing them off as genuine medieval poems … for a while, at least.

He struggled to find a wealthy literary patron to support him: he sent some of his Rowley poems to Horace Walpole, but – ironically, given Walpole’s own fabricating habits – Walpole decided against publishing Chatterton’s ‘found’ poems because he suspected they might be forgeries.

Travelling to London in the hope of finding financial recognition there, Chatterton failed to make a living as a writer, and at the age of just seventeen, in August 1770, he committed suicide by poison – a phial of arsenic – in his Holborn Tolstoyflat. He would later be celebrated by a number of people including the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and John Keats, and the painter Henry Wallis, whose 1856 work The Death of Chatterton portrays the tragic doom of the young poet. (The model for the painting was none other than Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith.)

1820: The event that would later inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick: a sperm whale sinks the Essex, an American whaleship, in the southern Pacific.

1847: Henry Francis Lyte dies, having written the popular hymn ‘Abide with Me’ a few weeks before.

1910: Leo Tolstoy dies. The author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina left his wife in the middle of the night, and died of pneumonia at Astapovo railway station on 20 November 1910, aged 82. Here is some rare film footage of Tolstoy taken for his 80th birthday, two years earlier.

1923: Nadine Gordimer is born. This South African author once offered the sage advice that ‘the ideal way to write is as if oneself and one’s readers were already dead.’ She herself would die in July 2014, but not before she had won the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature as well as countless other awards and accolades.

1936: Don DeLillo is born. He is perhaps best known for his 1985 novel White Noise, a postmodern American classic whose working title was Panasonic (the Panasonic Corporation wouldn’t allow him to use the name).

And finally, as it’s Universal Children’s Day on 20 November, here are some great facts about famous writers and their schooldays.

Image: Graphite pencil drawing of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy; author: arzepence in 2011; Wikimedia Commons.

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