Classics to Read in May

Literary Birthdays Guide the Way!

By Robert Chambers, editor. (Chambers Book of Days) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

May 3rd: Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527): Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian Renaissance writer and historian. He was also a noted politician, philosopher, and humanist. His experience working as an official for the Florentine Republic provided him with the foundation he needed to become one of the most noted founders of modern political science and political ethics. Aside from historical and political writing, he wrote comedies and poetry.

It was not until after he left political service that he wrote his masterpiece, The Prince (1513).

May 6: Sigmund Freud (1856 1939): Although he is best known as the founder of modern Psychology and psychoanalysis, Freud is also important to literary studies, and many of his works can be considered classics in their own right. Indeed, in her magnum opus, Sexual Personae (1990), Camille Paglia wrote that "Freud has no rivals among his successors because they think he wrote science, when in fact he wrote art." Recommended reading includes The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and The Ego and the Id (1923).

May 19: Lorraine Hansberry (1930 - 1965): Hansberry is best known for her classic play, A Raisin in the Sun; however, her short but remarkable life is notable in many ways. Hers was the first play written by a black (and likely lesbian) woman to be performed on Broadway.

In addition, her family was involved in a landmark anti-segregation case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Hansberry v. Lee). Hansberry wrote for a newspaper in New York City, where she was a part of the intellectual movement that included W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, among others.

May 20: John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873): A British philosopher, political economist and civil servant, Mill was a proponent of utilitarianism and helped advance the theory of the scientific method.

As a Member of Parliament, Mill was s significant voice for liberal political philosophy. His idea of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. Important works include On Liberty (1859), Utilitarianism (1863), and On Nature (1874).

May 25: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882): One of the greatest American essayists, as well as founding father of Transcendentalism, Emerson is best known for works such as “Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” and “The American Scholar.” Emerson was also a poet, lecturer, and champion of individualism. He was a renowned critic who began his work in religious studies but later turned to general considerations on freedom and individuality.

May 29: T.H. White (1906 - 1964): White was an English author best known for his contribution to Arthurian legend, a type of mode inspired by the Medieval Chivalric Romance. Indeed, White’s master’s thesis was a study of Thomas Malory’s classic, Le Morte d’Arthur. His masterpiece, The Once and Future King (1958) is a collection of novels in his Arthurian sequence. Perhaps the most memorable and widely-known of this series is the first novel, The Sword in the Stone, which has become a staple of popular folklore, inspiring countless film adaptations including the popular Disney version.

May 31: Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892): Whitman is often referred to as “America’s Poet,” but he was also a journalist, teacher, and essayist. In addition, he was a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War, the experiences of which are reflected in many of his poems. He also wrote one novel, Franklin Evans (1842), which reflected his positive views (at the time) regarding the temperance movement; it is an interesting piece of literature from a historical and biographical perspective, though most critics agree it does not reflect Whitman’s talent. Whitman is further known for his egalitarianism and abolitionist tendencies, although these traits, like so much pertaining to Whitman's persona as a man and poet, are often contradictory. Whitman’s most famous work is his lifetime poetic project, .

Other famous literary birthdays this month include: Jamaica Kincaid, J.M. Barrie, Michael Chabon, Bruce Chatwin, Gary Wills, and Thomas Pynchon.