When two or more legendary writers gather together, there will be drama. There's something so compelling about famous literary salons and tight-knit artistic movements — Hemingway and Fitzgerald drank together! Zora Neale Hurston was in love with Langston Hughes! — and the more genuises you pack into one smoky bar, the more fascinating anecdotes you end up with.
Thankfully for me, you, and every lost young artist we know, there are plenty of books about these exciting groups of brilliant people, so that when we're done reading our favorite writer's fiction, we can turn to the even-more-fascinating truth. The following biographies and memoirs are more scandalous than tabloids (Lord Byron slept with who?!) and full of more insider literary references than a library (Edna St. Vincent Millay hung out with her?!). Pour yourself a smoky glass of Scotch before you crack these volumes open, and dream up what you'd say if you were invited to the party.
'The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature' by Ben Tarnoff
If you think San Francisco is cool today, you should have moved there in the 1860s, when the West still felt like a frontier and Mark Twain was just a struggling young writer. Twain and three writer friends — Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith — began a literary scene here that birthed an irreverent, all-American writing style, eventually leading to Twain’s immortalization and Coolbrith’s major gig as the first Poet Laureate of California.
'Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story' by Amanda Vaill
Gerald and Sara Murphy aren’t as well-remembered as their glittering group of friends, but without the Murphy’s emotional and financial support — as well as their legendary parties in 1920s Paris — Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, and other luminaries of the Lost Generation may not have produced the art we have today.
'Shakespeare and Company' by Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Beach ran a famous English-language bookstore called Shakespeare and Company in Paris from 1919 to 1940, and while she hung out with Lost Generation artists like Hemingway, she’s most famous for her work with the Modernists, especially James Joyce. This book is written by Beach herself — a rare opportunity hear about your favorite writers from a woman who knew them intimately.
'Bloomsbury Recalled' by Quentin Bell
Virginia Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell grew up around the famous Bloomsbury Group, a collection of writers and intellectuals in based in London during the first third of the 1900s. Members included Vanessa and Clive Bell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Duncan Grant, and E.M. Forster, all of whom Bell remembers, and writes about, personally.
'Kerouac and the Beats: A Primary Sourcebook' Edited by Arthur and Kit Knight
Everybody knows the Beat Generation: those unedited beatniks who roamed from Greenwich Village to San Francisco and back again, usually high. If you’re not in the mood to read any more Kerouac, this book offers portraits of a wide spectrum of influential Beat writers, as well as interviews, letters, excerpts of their work, and photographs. Plus, the cover is insanely hip, and that’s so Beat.
'Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career ' by George Plimpton
Truman Capote wasn’t really part of an angst- and art-filled literary movement, but he was the social butterfly to end all social butterflies. Capote knew everyone and everyone knew him. One of his social circles involved a fabulous gaggle of socialites who he called his Swans — before putting the scandalous details of their private lives into a book. This gossipy book of oral recollections from Capote’s acquaintances is the next best thing to being in his inner circle yourself.
'Wit's End: Days and Nights of the Algonquin Round Table' by James R. Gaines
The Algonquin Round Table was one of the most hilarious and terrifying literary groups in history. Stuffed to the gills with famous wits like Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx, columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, and more, the “Vicious Circle” — as they also called themselves — met for daily luncheons, witticisms, and sharp-tongued repartee at the Algonquin hotel for about a decade (1919-1929). Boring people need not apply.
'The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends' by Humphrey Carpenter
What do you get when C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien exchange writing? The greatest fantasy ever written, that’s what. Lewis and Tolkien are the two most famous members of a group called The Inklings, who loved to meet at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England from about 1930-1949 — where they discussed literature, faith, and maybe even the One Ring.
'The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s' by Humphrey Carpenter
The Angry Young Men were a group of male writers with a lot of frustrated feelings who popped up in mid-1950s Britain, comprised mainly of John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Colin Wilson, John Braine, and John Wain. The name was given to them by the media, which is always an interesting tactic, though not necessarily an effective one. Not all of these writers even knew each other, but all were fairly irate and characterized by outsider status.
'Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties' by Steven Watson
Andy Warhol’s brilliantly eccentric Factory was made up of a group of weirdos and avant gardists who congregated in New York during the mid-’60s. There were writers involved, sure, but mostly they all just collaborated on visual genres, including more than 500 artsy films. This book gives some of the lesser-known members of the Factory their due, though there are plenty of fascinating anecdotes from famed Factory names like Lou Reed, Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Paul Morrissey, and Warhol himself.
'When Harlem Was in Vogue' by David Levering Lewis
The Harlem Renaissance boomed through New York in the 1920s, bringing African-American writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and W.E.B. Du Bois to prominence. This book covers the history of the Harlem Renaissance in general, showing how the atmosphere and events of the movement inspired and enabled incredible creative achievements from black artists.
'Wildly Romantic: The English Romantic Poets: The Mad, the Bad, and the Dangerous' by Catherine M. Andronik
The artists of the Romantic movement may have been the original rock stars, and this soap opera-worthy book details all of their scandalous escapades. It’s written for young adults, but it’s pure fun — and a fantastic Rx for those who think the poetry of Keats and Shelley is stuffy and old-fashioned.
'Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde' by Steven Watson
Shortly before the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways of the world stole the show, a slightly older generation was busy changing the world. This book covers the avant-garde artists of 1913 to 1917 — everyone from Ezra Pound and Harriet Monroe to Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Not all of them congregated over tea and crumpets to discuss ideas, but they all influenced each other.