A History of Famous Literary Mentorships

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Most aspiring writers daydream about having a successful author drop into their life, recognize their talent, and help them get published. That might sound like a fairytale, but some of the book world’s most celebrated talents first burst onto the scene thanks to the guidance of established authors. In honor of the 10th anniversary of National Mentoring Month, we pay tribute to literature’s most fruitful mentorships. And we hope you’ll help continue this fine literary tradition by supporting non-profits such as Girls Write Now, 826 National, and The Young Storytellers Foundation.

Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison

After being introduced in 1936 by Langston Hughes himself, Richard Wright helped encourage Ralph Ellison’s burgeoning writing career by helping him to get a job with the Federal Writers’ Project. In this position, Ellison conducted interviews with Harlem residents, an enriching experience that directly influenced his best-known work, Invisible Man . Ellison later split with his mentor over ideology, reacting to Wright’s Native Son , which reflected anger over a repressive society, with Invisible Man’smore optimistic portrayal of African-American traditions as a positive force and sense of identity. “I understood that our sensibilities were quite different,” Ellison said of Wright. “And what I was hoping to achieve in fiction was something quite different from what he wanted to achieve.”

Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner

William Faulkner met Sherwood Anderson when the two were living in New Orleans in 1925. Anderson, then an established and influential short story writer, convinced Faulkner to change his focus from poems to novels, and further suggested that Faulkner write about the colorful Mississippi region where he was raised. The latter’s novel Soldier’s Pay was eventually published primarily due to Anderson advocacy, and, as a wry thank you, Faulkner later dedicated his 1931 novel Sanctuary to his mentor for “services rendered.”

Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather

In her late years, Sarah Orne Jewett, whose short stories are considered precursors to modern lesbian literature, befriended and mentored the young Willa Cather. Jewett persuaded Cather to concentrate on fiction rather than journalism, and further urged the young, self-conscious writer to not hide behind male narrators when portraying romantic feelings for women in her writing. Although Cather struggled to have the kind of transparency in her work that Jewett delighted in, she dedicated her breakthrough 1913 novel O! Pioneers to Jewett’s memory.

Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman

After reading Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing in 1984, Neil Gaiman was so taken with the comic series’ complex, detailed approach to the genre that he was inspired to try his hand at it. A year later, Gaiman sent Moore a book he co-wrote, and, to his surprise, the notoriously reclusive writer responded. The ensuing friendship led to a blossoming of Gaiman’s talent and stature through similarly ambitious series like Sandman . Although Gaiman has gone on to become as celebrated as his mentor, he remains humbly self-deprecating when discussing the initial response to their work: “The analogy of what happened to pop music in the 1960s was probably pretty accurate. Alan Moore got to be the Beatles and…I was Gerry and the Pacemakers.”

Henry James and Edith Wharton

These renowned chroniclers of upper class society first met in the 1880s, at which point they were both at opposite points in their lives: Henry James was at the tail end of his successful writing career, whereas Edith Wharton had just started hers. James was initially unimpressed with her writing after she sent him her first publication, but he reached out to Wharton after reading her short story “The Line of Least Resistance.” “I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you,” he wrote to her in 1900. “Use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts; they form a most valuable…beneficent engine.” His letter initiated an intimate friendship between the two that lasted until James’ death in 1916.

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

In 1915, Ezra Pound, then an esteemed poet and editor, discovered and advocated for the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry magazine. “He has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN,” Pound marveled in a letter to the literary journal. “The rest of the promising young have done one or the other but never both. Most of the swine have done neither.” Pound later worked closely with Eliot on “The Waste Land,” for which he received the masterpiece poem’s public dedication. The two were so close that Pound affectionately nicknamed Eliot “Old Possum.”

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett

These two Irishmen met in Paris in the ’20s when both were employed at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. After being introduced by a mutual colleague, Samuel Beckett befriended the renowned Ulysses author and served as his assistant on research for what would later become Finnegans Wake . Beckett was displeased, however, by how much his writing was reminiscent of Joyce. In a letter to him, Beckett observes about an early poem, “Of course it stinks of Joyce in spite of most earnest endeavors to endow it with my own colors.” This led the celebrated playwright to find a literary voice by creating one in opposition to his mentor’s. “James Joyce was a synthesizer, trying to bring in as much as he could,” Beckett once said. “I am an analyzer, trying to leave out as much as I can.”

Isaac Asimov and Gene Roddenberry

As one of science fiction’s most respected writers, it’s hardly surprising that Isaac Asimov wrote a letter to TV Guide in 1966 to dismiss the scientific accuracy of a new show called Star Trek. The show’s creator, screenwriter Gene Roddenberry, in turn responded with an impassioned defense of his series, to which Asimov contritely replied with praise for the show as being inventive and intellectually stimulating. The two soon formed a close friendship, with Asimov serving as an adviser on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and even attending the first Star Trek convention in 1972.

Raymond Carver and Jay McInerney

When legendary short story writer Raymond Carver met Jay McInerney in New York City in 1980, he convinced the fledgling writer that if he was serious about writing, he would have to devote himself to it full-time. McInerney responded by enrolling at Syracuse University, where Carver was an instructor. “Carver convinced me that writing was 90% perspiration,” McInerney recalled in an interview with Writer’s Digest after finding acclaim with novels such as Bright Lights, Big City and Story of My Life . “He used to call me up every day to see if I had been writing. And I used to hear his typewriter every day, down the street, clacking away. That was almost as inspiring as anything he said.”

Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Safran Foer

For the first and only time in her 32-year teaching career, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a letter to a student’s parents about their son’s prodigious talent for writing. That student was a young undergrad named Jonathan Safran Foer, whose senior thesis, for which Oates served as an adviser, later became his best-selling breakthrough novel Everything Is Illuminated . In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Foer stated that Oates’ investment in his work has spurred him to want to become a writing instructor himself. “I went into her class with no ambition to become a writer, and I left it wanting to be a writer because of the things she showed me,” he remarked. “Ever since, I always thought it would be nice to do that for someone else.”