The Stories Behind 15 Poems We All Learned in School

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Poetry can seem impenetrable for many readers, but the best examples usually have a simple message behind all the flowery language and symbolism. Whether they're tragic or funny, romantic or frightening, the timeless ones are always anchored in the real world—you might just have to give them a careful read to find the meaning.

Part of the reason why certain poems can endure for centuries is because the poets themselves are inspired by the same types of issues we endure every day: love, loss, fear, rage. The best of these works have a backstory that's just as interesting as the verses themselves; here's the story behind 15 poems we all learned in school.

1. "INVICTUS" // W.E. HENLEY

Perhaps no other poet on this list put their struggles down on paper as succinctly as W.E. Henley did with "the age of Invictus." At 12, Henley was diagnosed with arthritic tuberculosis, which eventually required the amputation of one leg during his late teens, and the possibility of losing the other. Refusing this fate, when Henley was in his mid-twenties, he instead turned to Dr. Joseph Lister, who performed an alternative surgery that saved the leg.

It was during the years spent in the hospital that Henley wrote "Invictus," a stark proclamation of his resistance against life's trials and tragedies. "Out of the night that covers me," it starts, "Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul." The poem famously ends with "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul."

It's a poem that endures across all races and cultures. It was an inspiration to Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment and has been referenced in countless movies, television shows, and books ever since its publication in 1888.

2. "THE RED WHEELBARROW" // WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

A picture of a red wheelbarrow
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It was originally published without a title—simply known by the number XXII—but "The Red Wheelbarrow" has grown into one of the most memorable short poems of the 20th century. It sprung from the mind of William Carlos Williams, whose day job was as a doctor in northern New Jersey. It's only 16 words, but it paints an unforgettable picture:

"so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens."

Williams had said that the imagery was inspired by a patient of his that he had grown close to while making a house call. "In his backyard," Williams said of the man, "I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing."

It took some research and census records, but William Logan, an English professor at the University of Florida, finally discovered in 2015 that the man was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr. of Rutherford, New Jersey.

3. "IF—" // RUDYARD KIPLING

Rudyard Kipling portrait
Elliott & Fry, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There may be no more fitting national mantra for the British people than Rudyard Kipling's "If—." The poem, which champions stoicism, is routinely one of the UK's favorites in polls, with lines like "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same" and "If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew/To serve your turn long after they are gone" serving as a rallying cry for the stiff-upper-lip crowd.

For everything that Kipling put on the page, the story behind the poem is just as notable. Kipling was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson, a politician and adventurer responsible for leading the infamous Jameson Raid, a failed attempt over the 1895-96 New Year holiday to incite an uprising among the British "Uitlanders" in South Africa against the Boers, or the descendants of early, chiefly Dutch, settlers.

The raid was a catastrophe, and Jameson and his surviving men were extradited back to England for trial as the government condemned the attempt. He was sentenced to 15 months (though he was released early), but his actions had gained the respect of the people of England—Jameson was punished, but it was felt that he was betrayed by his own government, including Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who was widely suspected of having supported the raid during the planning but denounced it when it failed.

This theme can be read in Kipling’s words "If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you" and "If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,/Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,/Or being hated, don't give way to hating."

4. "JABBERWOCKY" // LEWIS CARROLL

Statue of Alice in Wonderland
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Long before Lewis Carroll introduced the nonsensical "Jabberwocky" in 1871's Through the Looking-Glass, he wrote a rough version of the poem in 1855 under the title "Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry." It appeared in the periodical he created to amuse his friends and family called Mischmasch.

The poem featured the stanza: "Twas bryllyg, and the slythy toves/Did gyre and gymble in the wabe/All mimsy were the borogoves;/And the mome raths outgrabe," which would remain (though slightly tweaked) in Looking-Glass years later as both the first and final stanzas.

When he wrote Looking-Glass, Carroll returned to the basic foundation of the poem, but he added the five middle stanzas that introduced the Jabberwock. The inspiration behind the monster itself has been said to be anything from Beowulf to a local folk monster called the Sockburn Worm from the village of Croft-on-Tees, where Carroll wrote.

So where did Carroll get the name Jabberwock from? The author himself later explained it by saying "The Anglo-Saxon word 'wocer' or 'wocor' signifies 'offspring' or 'fruit'. Taking 'jabber' in its ordinary acceptation of 'excited and voluble discussion,' this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited discussion.'"

If all that still sounds like nonsense to you—well, that's probably how he wanted it.

5. "WE REAL COOL" // GWENDOLYN BROOKS

A picture of a pool table
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Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and became "Poet Laureate" in the 1985–86 term (back when the position was properly called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress). Despite all the accolades, Brooks might be best known to casual readers for the poem "We Real Cool," a brief, four-verse piece that depicts the lives of young people playing pool, drinking gin, and "singing sin."

Brooks was inspired to write the poem when she was walking through her neighborhood and noticed seven young boys at the local pool hall during school hours. As she said during a live reading of the poem, she wasn't so much concerned with why they weren't in school, she was more curious with "how they feel about themselves."

Apparently the answer is "real cool."

6. "THE RAVEN" // EDGAR ALLAN POE

The front of Edgar Allan Poe house
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A lot of real-life inspiration went into Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." First, there was the fact that his wife was deathly ill with tuberculosis during the time of writing and publication. Then, the raven itself was partly inspired by one owned by Charles Dickens, who had also been inspired to include it in his own book, Barnaby Rudge. (Rudge's raven even coaxes a character to exclaim "What was that? Him tapping at the door?" Similar to Poe's "rapping at my chamber door" raven.)

But while so many great works have backstories that are more legend than fact, Poe detailed his writing process of "The Raven" in the essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he revealed in meticulous detail how he came up with the tone, rhythm, and form of the poem, even going as far as to claim he decided on the refrain of "nevermore" because "the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant."

7. "THE ROAD NOT TAKEN" // ROBERT FROST

Poet Robert Frost posing for a photo
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For "The Road Not Taken," poet Robert Frost found inspiration in his friend, English literary critic Edward Thomas. It was originally conceived as sort of an inside joke at Thomas's expense, a callback to the fact that Thomas would always regret whatever path the two of them would take when out walking together.

It's a very human instinct to regret or overthink our choices and wonder—often in vain—what the alternative would be like. While many people tend to think the poem is about the triumph of individuality, some argue that it's really about regret and how we either celebrate our successes or blame our misfortunes on our seemingly arbitrary choices.

When you read it like that, saying "And that has made all the difference" smacks of a bit more irony than it did back when you first read it in high school.

8. "THE NEW COLOSSUS" // EMMA LAZARUS

An image of the Statue of Liberty
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When Emma Lazarus wrote "The New Colossus" in 1883, it was only meant to be part of an auction to raise money for the foundation for the Statue of Liberty. It sold for $1500—not bad for a 105-word sonnet written in two days—but though it was printed in some limited-release pamphlets by the fundraising group, the poem wasn't read at the dedication of the statue in 1886.

Unfortunately, Lazarus never got to see how far and wide her words would resonate—when she died in 1887, her New York Times obituary didn't even mention the poem. It was only well after the statue had been completed that "The New Colossus" was added to its base, thanks to the urging of Lazarus's friend and admirer Georgina Schuyler. Then, slowly, "Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" entered the public lexicon and became ingrained as part of America's national identity.

9. "O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!" // WALT WHITMAN

A photograph of Walt Whitman
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Walt Whitman witnessed the Civil War up close. Though he was already in his forties during the fighting, he volunteered at hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area—sometimes he would bring food and supplies to the soldiers, other times he just kept them company.

Seeing the schism the war had caused, Whitman began to take a genuine interest in, and found a deep respect for, the burden President Abraham Lincoln was dealing with. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Whitman channeled his grief into a number of poems, the most famous being "O Captain! My Captain!"

The poem was a metaphor for what the country had just been through—America itself as the ship that had just weathered a great storm, and Lincoln as the fallen captain, whose "lips are pale and still."

10. "SHE WALKS IN BEAUTY" // LORD BYRON

A row of books by Lord Byron
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The story behind the lyrical poem "She Walks in Beauty" is as lovely as the verse Lord Byron weaved. In June 1814, Byron attended a London party where he first saw Anne Wilmot, his cousin's wife. She was wearing a striking black mourning dress that was adorned in spangles, and her beauty inspired Byron's poem, most famously its first four lines:

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.”

Some have interpreted the "cloudless climes and starry skies" as a description of the famous dress that drew Byron's attention to Mrs. Wilmot.

11. "THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS" // LANGSTON HUGHES

Poet Langston Hughes

He was just 19 when he published this poem, but Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of his most well-known works. The idea came to him while he was traveling by train to Mexico City to visit his father—specifically, as he was crossing the Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.

In the poem, the narrator speaks of rivers—how they're ancient, older than humans themselves. He also says, despite this, he knows rivers. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers." He's bathed in the Euphrates, built a hut on the Congo, looked upon the Nile, and heard the singing of the Mississippi. These rivers have important links to human history, to new societies, to African Americans, and to slavery. And all it took was a simple train ride to find the ties that bind them all together.

12. "TULIPS" // SYLVIA PLATH

A field of red and white tulips
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"Tulips" has a simple enough backstory—it was inspired by a bouquet of flowers Sylvia Plath received while in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. But Plath turned the event into one of her most renowned poems, beginning with the line "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."

Sprinkled throughout are visuals of the red tulips and the white, sanitary hospital, staffed with a never-ending army of nurses.

"The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds."

So much of Plath's life and work revolved around tragedy, and "Tulips" is one of the most discussed windows into her personality.

13. "OZYMANDIAS" // PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

A crumbling statue
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Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley traveled in an elite literary circle that included the likes of Lord Byron and John Keats. So what would a group of young intellectual writers do to stimulate their interest and spark their creativity? Well, they'd compete, of course.

One of Shelley's most famous poems, "Ozymandias," was likely born out of a competition between himself and writer Horace Smith (very similar to the 1816 competition between Shelley, his soon-to-be wife Mary Shelley, Byron, and physician John Polidori over who could write the best horror story—Mary's Frankenstein was the winner there). The goal was to write dueling poems on the same concept—the description of a statue of Ramses II (also known as Ozymandias) from the works of Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. Most important was the statue's inscription: "I am Osymandias, king of kings; if any would know how great I am, and where I lie, let him excel me in any of my works."

Shelley described Siculus's same statue but in decay, a boastful monument now left to rot. This would serve as a warning that no matter how powerful one may think themselves to be, we're all helpless to the scourge of time. For a political writer such as Shelley, the imagery was too perfect.

Shelley's version of "Ozymandias" appeared in The Examiner in 1818 almost a month before Smith's, which, by the rules of these arbitrary competitions, likely led to Shelley being victorious.

14. "DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT" // DYLAN THOMAS

Poet Dylan Thomas
Gabriel Hackett, Getty Images

In one of the most cherished poems about mortality, Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to fight back against the inevitability of death and immortalized the refrain "Do not go gentle into that good night." Published in 1951, the poem focuses on a son urging his father to be defiant ("Rage, rage against the dying of the light") and arguing that while all men eventually die, they don't have to do so resignedly. The poem was released shortly before Thomas's own death in 1953 at the age of 39 and is still studied in schools and referenced in popular culture.

15. "A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS" // DISPUTED

Santa Claus leaving presents
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Everyone knows the poem—"'Twas the night before Christmas" and all that—but scholars can't quite agree on the author. Some say it was a poet and professor named Clement Clarke Moore, who allegedly wrote the piece for his kids before his housekeeper sent it in to New York's Troy Sentinel for publication in 1823 without his knowledge.

On the other side is Henry Livingston, Jr., whose family said they were reciting this poem 15 years before it was published in the Sentinel. Unfortunately, any proof they had was gone when their home—which allegedly contained handwritten versions of the poem that predate Moore's—burned down.

For now, it's Moore who officially gets credit for the cherished poem, but it's not without a bit of holiday controversy.

13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born on June 25, 1903, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. He was a prankster.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. He worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. He once got himself arrested. On purpose.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. He had knuckle tattoos.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. He had a goat named Muriel.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. He coined the term "Cold War."

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. He really hated American fashion magazines.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

This story has been updated for 2019.

26 Amazing Books by LGBTQ+ Authors You Should Add to Your Bookshelf

iStock/Mitshu
iStock/Mitshu

With the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots coming up on June 28, it seems like the entire country is celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride. But what happens on July 1, when all the rainbow logos and flags get put away for the year? Don't worry—we've got a list of incredible books by LGBTQ+ authors to keep you occupied all year long. Like the queer community itself, this reading list is diverse and exciting, representing a wide variety of genres, time periods, and identities. Here are 26 great books to add to your bookshelf.

1. Fingersmith // Sarah Waters

The cover of 'Fingersmith'
Riverhead Books

Sarah Waters is the reigning queen of lesbian historical mysteries, and Fingersmith is her answer to Oliver Twist—only with more, well, twists. So-called "genre" stories rarely get recognized for major literary prizes, but Fingersmith not only won the Crime Writers Association's 2002 Historical Dagger award, and it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

Find it: Amazon

2. Eighty-Sixed // David Feinberg

The cover of 'Eighty-Sixed'
Grove Press

In the last few years, a host of historical novels have delved into the first wave of the AIDS crisis, from Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers to Joseph Cassara's House of Impossible Beauties. But no retrospective look captures the unknowability of the queer community's sudden descent into the plague years as well as David Feinberg's seminal Eighty-Sixed, which blends humor, fear, loss, and anger into a genuinely fun—if incredibly harrowing and sad—chronicle of the 1980s.

Find it: Amazon

3. Stone Butch Blues // Leslie Feinberg

The cover of 'Stone Butch Blues'
Alyson Books

Winner of the 1994 Stonewall Book Award, Stone Butch Blues is one of the earliest American novels told from the point of view of a genderqueer, trans-masculine person—a “stone butch,” in the parlance of the 1970s (when the majority of the book is set). Leslie Feinberg’s last words were “remember me as a revolutionary Communist,” and in that spirit, the 20th-anniversary edition of the book is free to download on hir website. (Feinberg used the pronouns ze/hir.)

Find it: Amazon

4. [insert] Boy // Danez Smith

The cover of '[insert] Boy'
YesYes Books

This first poetry collection from queer, black, nonbinary Midwesterner Danez Smith shows that the best spoken word poetry can also light up the page. Showing the true breadth of their talent and appeal, in the years since [insert] Boy (2015) was published, Smith has appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and won a number of awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for their 2017 collection Don't Call Us Dead.

Find it: Amazon

5. I’ve Got a Time Bomb // Sybil Lamb

The cover of 'I've Got a Time Bomb'
Topside Press

In this whacked-out road novel, Sybil Lamb borrows deeply from her own experiences as an underground, always-on-the-move, crust punk trans artist—including the time she was beaten and left for dead after a gay wedding in New Orleans, causing her permanent brain damage. The result is surreal and disturbing, yet somehow still hopeful.

Find it: Amazon

6. The Color Purple // Alice Walker

The cover of 'The Color Purple'
Open Road Media

The Color Purple is a timeless American classic that has won accolades in print, on film, and on the Broadway stage. Yet it's not often recognized for the queer sexuality and unconventional family structures at its heart. If you haven’t read this book since it was assigned to you in school, come back to it with adult eyes to find a beautiful story of queer resilience.

Find it: Amazon

7. Sketchtasy // Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The cover of 'Sketchtasy'
Arsenal Pulp Press

Young queer people might be prone to wax nostalgic about the 1990s (as many of us do). But Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s third novel, Sketchtasy, presents a different perspective on the decade, delving into the dangerous and confusing side of being a young queer outsider in Boston, America’s most parochial city, in the mid-1990s.

Find it: Amazon

8. I, the Divine // Rabih Alameddine

The cover of 'I, the Divine'
W. W. Norton & Company

Rabih Alameddine’s sumptuous prose would make a to-do list mesmerizing, but the real delight of I, the Divine is its experimental structure: The book takes the form of a series of attempted first chapters of the memoir of its protagonist. Alameddine is a master of using nonlinear forms to build powerful and unexpected narratives, and I, the Divine is one of his best.

Find it: Amazon

9. Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga // Michael McDowell

The cover of 'Blackwater'
Valancourt Books

Michael McDowell was only 49 years old when he died of AIDS in 1999, but he was already the “finest writer of paperback originals in America today,” as Stephen King put it. Although you may not know his name, you almost certainly know some of his writing, such as the script for Beetlejuice. Blackwater is McDowell’s six-part serial Southern gothic horror epic, which follows decades of one family’s haunted life along the Perdido River in Alabama.

Find it: Amazon

10. We the Animals // Justin Torres

The cover of 'We the Animals'
Mariner Books

Justin Torres’s loosely autobiographical first novel follows three brothers growing up in upstate New York in the 1980s in a family that is at turns loving and violent. A beautiful coming-of-age story about being queer, brown, and working class, Torres fills his pages with gorgeous sentences that linger in your mouth, like, “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Find it: Amazon

11. Outline of My Lover // Douglas Martin

The cover of 'Outline of My Lover'
Soft Skull Press

Douglas Martin's exquisite, short, experimental roman a clef shines a queer light in an unexpected place: the indie music scene of Athens, Georgia, circa the late 1980s and early 1990s. Following a fey young man's limerent crush on a closeted rock star, Outline of My Lover was published by Soft Skull Press, a New York City underground institution whose earliest books were printed on pirated Kinko's copiers.

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12. This Bridge Called My Back // Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua

The cover of 'This Bridge Called My Back'
SUNY Press

If you love the concept of intersectionality, This Bridge Called My Back is the throwback read you need. Combining everything from poetry to memoir to theory, this slim anthology is one of the ur-texts that brought an explicitly anti-racist, women-of-color-centered, feminist lens to queer studies—without being so full of academic jargon you’ll want to throw it across the room.

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13. Conflict Is Not Abuse // Sarah Schulman

The cover of 'Conflict Is Not Abuse'
Arsenal Pulp

Sarah Schulman is one of the queer community's fiercest public intellectuals, with a critical eye that has tackled topics as diverse as Palestinian liberation and American gentrification. With Conflict Is Not Abuse, she examines the “supremacist thinking” that undergirds everything from our current presidential administration to that Twitter fight you got in last week.

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14. I’ll Give You the Sun // Jandy Nelson

The cover of 'I'll Give You the Sun'
Speak

This beautiful young adult novel proves that writing for teens can be as poetic and lyrical as writing for adults—without losing the unputdownable quality that animates the best YA books. In alternating chapters, Nelson’s twin brother-sister narrators slowly circle the devastating secrets that transformed them from best friends into virtual strangers. We dare you not to cry at the end.

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15. 7 Miles a Second // David Wojnarowicz

The cover of '7 Miles a Second'
Fantagraphics Books

Following his 2018 retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York, the late artist and activist David Wojnarowicz has exploded back into cultural relevance. This posthumous graphic novel (illustrated by Wojnarowicz’s friend, James Romberger, and originally published by DC Comics), turns his autobiographical stories of homelessness, sexual abuse, and AIDS into a fever dream of stream-of-consciousness prose and hallucinatory images.

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16. Trash // Dorothy Allison

The cover of 'Trash'
Penguin Books

Dorothy Allison is rightly famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which drew on her experiences growing up poor, Southern, queer, and sexually abused. But the novel’s protagonists, Bone and Shannon, made their debut in this early collection of Allison’s short stories, which won multiple Lambda Literary Awards in 1989.

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17. Written on the Body // Jeanette Winterson

The cover of 'Written on the Body'
Vintage International

The unnamed, ungendered protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s magical novel Written on the Body is both philosopher and seducer, approaching love as a conundrum to be sorted and a prize to be won. The result is a genderless eroticism that is both intellectual and physical. This one is best read with your lover(s).

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18. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls // T Kira Madden

The cover of 'Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls'
Bloomsbury Publishing

T Kira Madden’s lush, wild, and disturbing memoir seems to take every insane “Florida woman” Internet meme and explode it, revealing the tenderness, love, fear, pain, anger, and joy that nestle within stories of crazy nights and lost days. But Madden’s lyric prose and unique voice are what truly make this autobiography shine.

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19. Go Tell It on the Mountain // James Baldwin

The cover of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'
Vintage International

James Baldwin is one of the lions of 20th-century literature, renowned for his gorgeous writing, his gripping narratives, and his ability to grapple with some of the major social issues of his time. Go Tell It On the Mountain is his first book, the one that years later he would call “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Start here, and then read everything Baldwin wrote after.

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20. No Ashes in the Fire // Darnell Moore

The cover of 'No Ashes in the Fire'
Bold Type Books

Darnell Moore’s memoir of coming of age queer and black in Camden, New Jersey, is equal parts harrowing and beautiful. His ability to interweave his personal journey with the larger story of the structural racism and disenfranchisement faced by Camden residents makes No Ashes in the Fire fascinating on both a personal and political level.

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21. Confessions of the Fox // Jordy Rosenberg

The cover of 'Confessions of the Fox'
One World

Transgender writer Jordy Rosenberg’s stunning debut novel ping-pongs back and forth between a lost 18th-century manuscript that purports to be the true autobiography of Jack Sheppard (an infamous historical figure and thief) and the story of the beleaguered academic who finds the book in a library sale at his second-rate university. Rosenberg himself teaches 18th-century literature as well as gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and for anyone who’s spent too long in academic circles, the present-day parts of this book will feel all too realistic.

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22. Dancer from the Dance // Andrew Holleran

The cover of 'Dancer From the Dance'
Harper Perennial

Nothing can recreate the hothouse nature of post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS urban gay male life, with its heady mix of liberation and oppression all set to a throbbing disco beat—but Dancer from the Dance certainly comes close. It’s a portrait of shallow hedonism filled with unexpected depth and pathos.

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23. Leaves of Grass // Walt Whitman

The title page of a 19th-century copy of 'Leaves of Grass'
Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library

If the last time you tried to read Leaves of Grass was in a high school English class, it deserves a second look. Whitman’s poems are queer, erotic, sensual, sexual, and sometimes downright dirty. As the poet himself wrote, “I am for those who believe in loose delights—I share the midnight orgies of young men.”

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24. SCUM Manifesto // Valerie Solanas

The cover of 'SCUM Manifesto'
AK Press

If you only know Valerie Solanas from her attempt to shoot Andy Warhol or her recent cameo on American Horror Story, you’re missing out on one of the most outrageous feminist texts of the mid-20th century. Is SCUM Manifesto a Swiftian satire of Freudian misogyny, or actual propaganda for the violent overthrow of the patriarchy? Unclear. But either way, it's hard to put down a book that begins like this:

"'Life' in this 'society' being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of 'society' being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex."

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25. The Queen of the Night // Alexander Chee

The cover of 'The Queen of the Night'
Mariner Books

Like the arias sung by Alexander Chee’s protagonist—a 19th-century opera diva with a hidden past—The Queen of the Night is lush, dramatic, passionate, and melodramatic (in the best way). This book is a confection for opera queens and Francophiles, but even tone-deaf readers will revel in its murders, affairs, intrigues, and mysteries. We've previously put Chee on our list of great Asian American authors to read, so suffice it to say we're big fans.

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26. Complete Poems // Marianne Moore

The cover of Marianne Moore's 'Complete Poems'
Penguin Classics

We might think of the terms asexual and aromantic as modern identity labels only recently recognized under the queer umbrella, but throughout history, there have been people who have lived queer lives very much in those modes—like the extraordinary poet Marianne Moore, one of the most talented (and longest lasting) of the Modernist poets of the early 20th century. Complete Poems gives readers a broad overview of her work, from her early, dense, Imagist pieces (often drawn from scientific sources, like 1936's "The Pangolin"), to her later, more accessible and popular work (like 1961's "Baseball and Writing").

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