Literary Friends, Enemies, or Frenemies?

Literary friendships and feuds are fascinating, especially when you start pondering what could have been.


Here at Read It Forward, we love books, yes, but we also really love their writers. From our interviews to our author essays, we love delving into the whole creation of the written word. You could even say we’re in awe of authors, if you wanted to get alliterative about it.

Because we love writers as well as readers, what started as a speculative fun chat about literary feuds and friendships became something we actually wanted to look into. These days, we can see the friendships and feuds of famous people on TV, social media, and as ads on the sidebar of an article you’re trying to read that has absolutely nothing to do with celebs, but that some complicated algorithm decided you were a match for. We decided to take a different approach and delve into some history. We researched the famous literary friends and enemies of yore—, as well as the less well-known—and found some pretty interesting stuff. For instance, did you know that Truman Capote and Harper Lee were good friends IRL? 

We didn’t stop there—oh, no. We became accidentally embroiled in a wonderful experiment of fan-fiction. We imagined the potential relationship between Louisa May Alcott and an author who became famous more recently. What about Harper Lee and a writer who passed away centuries ago? Crossing decades and genres, we’ve theorized, according to our research, how some of these famous authors may have felt about one another. Were they or would they have been friends, had they lived at the same time? Would they have existed as literary enemies? Or that tricky in-between state that all tight-knit communities tend to accrue in their midst, frenemies?

Collaborating with the talented author and illustrator Kate Gavino and her instantly recognizable portraiture style, we’ve put together the interactive piece of awesome you see below.

Click the white dots below to explore these (both real and pondered) literary friendships, rivalries, and everything in between:

James Baldwin and Toni Morrison

These two incredible artists, one deceased and one still living and writing, were not only great friends, but believers in the same causes. Fighting for equality, fighting to be seen and acknowledged, their interests aligned and they inspired one another. Morrison wrote, in a remembrance of her friend: “I thought I knew you. Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison and Sylvia Plath

Though there is no known overlap between these two writers, it is fair to say that their outlooks on the world were rather different, as they both struggled in very different ways with the vision of the white middle class woman. However, Plath’s ambivalence towards that traditional role that was thrust upon her might have made Toni Morrison respect her, as Plath addressed racial tensions in her poem “The Arrival of the Bee Box” where she wrote rather sacthingly–though of couse this is open to interpretation–of the role of whites in the dichotomy that existed especially during her time:

“I am no source of honey

So why should they turn on me?

Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary”

As for Ms. Plath, while probably distrusting Morrison somewhat precisely because she struggled with the tension between black and white, would at least have had a true appreciation of Morrison’s writing, its fearlessness and linguistic prowess.

Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath

There has long been a supposition of rivalry between these two women, both of whom struggled with mental illness, a fascination for and belief in death, and a deep desire to become poets. They understood one another well, their sympathy for each other’s plights coming through occasionally in poems that they wrote that reflected the other’s difficulties. Neither wanted to be the housewife of the 1950s and ‘60s. However, there is no proof of a rivalry, and in Sexton’s copy of Plath’s novel Ariel, the markup was not that of a scathing reviewer, but rather more of an academic. At Plath’s funeral, Sexton’s eulogy included what was clearly their greatest empathic connection: “[We had] talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb.”

Anne Sexton and James Baldwin

Once again, because of the time during which these two poets were writers and activists, there is a good chance that they wouldn’t have gotten along. When Anne Sexton taught high school English for a time, her curriculum didn’t include any authors of color. In much of James Baldwin’s writing, he “calls on white persons to work towards understanding the deepest obstacles within ourselves, the most fragile, deplorable dimensions of our psyche.” Sexton didn’t do this with regards to her attitude towards race, but as her reflections on World War II are considered so insightful, she would probably resent admitting to such “racial innocence.”

James Baldwin and Ralph Waldo Emerson

We’d like to think that if these two poets got together, they’d have a jolly old time. For one thing, Emerson was staunchly anti-slavery, the evidence starting as early as his journal writings in his youth. Baldwin, a staunch fighter for civil rights, would have appreciated this, as during his time, some hundred years away from Emerson, the fight for equality was still going on. Then, too, on an intellectual level, they were both varied writers and academics, though both men started out as poets in their earliest writings. We like to imagine them sitting in a jazz bar on the Lower East Side or maybe a cafe in Paris, away from the tourists, chatting away about politics, prose, and poetry.

Louisa May Alcott and Sylvia Plath

These women lived in different centuries and under different circumstances, of course, but it’s hard to see them liking one another. It’s hard to imagine Alcott, who due to her family’s poverty had to work as a teacher (and this despite her family being associated with so many of the greats, like Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller) getting along with what some might called the spoiled Sylvia Plath who got to go to Smith College. Besides, while Plath’s depression and suicide attempts (and her eventual success) were all too real, Alcott probably wouldn’t have believed it, and would have seen it as an indulgence. And Plath? What would Plath want with what she would have seen as a boring writer of realistic novels and stories?

Sylvia Plath and Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton wrote–little known fact–poetry in addition to her novels, novellas and short stories. Plath too was a versatile writer in that she wrote poetry and two novels as well. The two women were educated and had a disdain for societal norms, while also somewhat conforming to them. However, Wharton didn’t get published until she was forty, while Plath was published and died ten years before her own would-be fortieth birthday. While Wharton would surely have understood Plath’s plight and Plath would have likely understood Wharton’s loneliness, the fact was Plath was successful so much earlier than Wharton, and there’s nothing quite like author envy to ruin a relationship.

Edith Wharton and Henry James

James and Wharton were part of similar literary and social circles, though it took some time for them to establish any sort of correspondence. Once they did, however, despite James’ belief in Wharton as a writer, there were tensions. Wharton wrote that she was sick of the “continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James,” while he called her masterpiece, The House of Mirth, “better written than composed.” Despite James’ envy of Wharton’s wealth and her irritation at being seen as a James’ copycat, despite their continued artistic differences, their correspondence continued, and only became warmer. They took interest in one another’s personal lives, and their salutations were affectionate, with Wharton addressing James as “Cherest Maitre” and he addressing her as “Dear and unsurpassably distinguished old Friend!”

Henry James and David Foster Wallace

Henry James wrote: “I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.” David Foster Wallace said that “I just think that fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be human today isn’t art.” Despite DFW being in love with his theme (“what it is to be a fucking human being”) and Henry James being considered one of the great masters of literary realism, exploring human nature to its core; despite the fact that though their writing styles are wildly different in general, but also similar in that they both use run-on sentences that make perfect grammatical sense; despite the fact that both men were obsessed with themes of manhood and masculinity; despite all this, the lifestyles of these two men couldn’t have been more different, and as such, we don’t think they would be anything other than enemies. With James the proper gentleman, depressed though he often was, and DFW, also depressed, an avid pot-smoker, bandana-wearer, and some consider womanizer, it is all too plausible that, had they lived during the same time period, they would have written scathing articles and essays about one another’s work–maybe precisely because of their odd similarities.

David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison

While there is no evidence that Wallace and Morrison were even acquainted, there are some indicators that, if they ran in the same circles, they may be cause to believe they could have at least have been intellectual comrades. For one, DFW had Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in his personal library, which implies that he was a fan of her work. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, whose “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” DFW tried to do the same in his work: experiment with language–poetic and otherwise–and give life to an essential, and different, aspect of American reality: its violence, its sadness, its hypocrisy and privilege. It was said of him that he wasn’t surprised that Americans haven’t won the Nobel Prize in Literature since then (this is still true today): “Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions.” Whether or not DFW himself to be a one of those Great Male Narcissists is one of those hot debates that writers like to talk about after whatever class they take that forces them to read Infinite Jest. Toni Morrison, on her part, seemed to be in agreement with much of what we attribute to DFW’s life and death when she spoke at the Nobel Lecture in Literature: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Both writers valued writing through experience while also imagining and empathizing with those of others. So while Morrison may have seen DFW as another white male writer, and he might have been intimidated by her strength as both a writer and a woman, we would love to be a fly on the wall if one day in the future their ghosts end up having some discussions about books, writing, and the meaning of life (and death).

David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen

These two authors started out in similar places–indeed, Franzen’s early and unsuccessful work was much more experimental, much more post-modernist (or maybe even DFW’s coined post-post-modernist) than the sprawling literary sagas he’s become famous for. Despite their differences in style, it was known that they were friends, and Franzen spoke at the memorial service after DFW’s suicide. Their correspondence was more intimate to Franzen than meeting DFW in person. He said, “Having loved him at first sight, I was always straining to prove that I could be funny enough and smart enough, and he had a way of gazing off at a point a few miles distant which made me feel as if I were failing to make my case. Not many things in my life ever gave me a greater sense of achievement than getting a laugh out of Dave.” Franzen today has a stereotype of being a crotchety old man before his time, but with a love like this for the man he called Dave, it’s impossible to see him as fitting neatly into that box. As for DFW, he described Franzen’s The Corrections as “‘[f]unny and deeply sad, large-hearted and merciless,’ and ‘a testament to the range and depth of pleasures great fiction affords.’” Clearly, these two men had a great appreciation for one another.

Jonathan Franzen and Henry David Thoreau

These two authors’ books are vastly different, and they’ve been compared strangely to one another in responses to two New Yorker articles written more than a decade apart, the first a takedown of sorts of Thoreau, which one writer believes reduced the famous transcendentalist to “to some creepy mix of Jonathan Franzen and Bill Cosby.” The other article, from 2015, has Franzen writing despondently about climate change, but specifically about his favorite topic: birds. Another blogger wrote that “Franzen’s piece, the best response to this calamity that I’ve read, brings us back to Henry Thoreau – not by specific mention, but by its suggestion that local attention and conserving work can be redemptive, can be a daily way forward in a difficult time.” So while they’ve been compared now both negatively and positively, they both cared about nature, though as their literary sensibilities were quite different, we can’t see them being bosom buddies.

Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the August 1862 issue of The Atlantic, Emerson wrote a deeply felt memorial of Henry David Thoreau. Specifically, in terms of their friendship, Emerson wrote passionately that Thoreau was “a friend, knowing not only the secret of friendship, but almost worshipped by those few persons who resorted to him as their confessor and prophet, and knew the deep value of his mind and great heart.” This isn’t to say their friendship was easy. Emerson quoted another friend of Thoreau’s who said, “I love Henry […] but I cannot like him.” Still, every friendship has its ups and downs, its difficulties and rough patches, but the friendship between these two idealists and transcendentalists is still famous today.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller

Although during their lifetime it seems that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were friends, things got complicated after the latter’s death, which we believe may count them as frenemies by today’s standards. But first, the good stuff. Emerson wrote about Fuller– whose influential book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, is considered an early feminist text–in his journal, noting that she was “[a] very accomplished and very intelligent person.” He asked her to edit The Dial, his transcendentalist journal. According to a book by Daniel Bullen, Fuller, who was raised rather radically for her time, with a full education, was interested in an intimate relationship with Emerson, which he rebuffed. Moreover, when Fuller died, Emerson was asked to write a biography of her life, in which he heavily sanitized the complications of Fuller’s less than innocent feminine flower life. Such an independent and intelligent woman would not, we think, have appreciated that (plus, no one likes being rejected).

Margaret Fuller and Richard Wright

Though their lives didn’t overlap, Fuller was a great activist, which we believe Wright would have approved of. She spent a night in Sing Sing prison, documenting the horrific state of the female prisoners there and believed in reforming the prison system altogether. She also referred to slavery, which was still an institution alive and well in her lifetime, a “cancer,” and believed that abolitionists and feminists shared a similar line of reasoning. Wright was himself a controversial author of his time, even though, like Fuller, he was respected by his peers and received great recognition for his work. Though he became part of a different literary movement (Existentialism) from Fuller (Transcendentalism), they both belonged to intellectual sets and would, we believe, have had incredibly lively conversations if Fuller could time travel to Wright’s time.

Richard Wright and James Baldwin

Although the two writers were expats and started as friends, fellow black men having left a United States that didn’t want them, their friendship ended when Baldwin published a criticism of Wright’s Native Son, castigating Wright for portraying a stereotypical angry black man. Baldwin said that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” Wright disagreed with the second half of this comment, not believing in the restraint of rage against racist institutions. Their feud after Baldwin’s criticism of Wright is the stuff of well known literary gossip.

Truman Capote and Harper Lee

Next door neighbors who met when they were five years old, Capote and Lee grew up to be as different as can be in their careers. Capote was a prolific writer and an extrovert who courted public eye and Lee was a shy woman who became known as the brilliant recluse who wrote a perfect novel. As children, they wrote stories together. Later in life, Lee served as a research assistant in the murders that Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood. Lee later helped edit it and it was dedicated to her as well as to Capote’s longtime partner.

Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway

Gertrude Stein, openly living with a woman in France, was known to be one of the intellectual bigwigs of the time of American expats writing the Great American Novels. Though Hemingway regularly attended the literary salons thrown by Stein, and at first regarded her as a mentor, they later drifted apart, and each wrote about the other in unflattering terms (if you’ve watched Midnight in Paris you’ll see a pretty accurate, though parodied, representation of Stein and Hemingway’s relationship when it was good). And yet Gertrude Stein still served as godmother to Hemingway’s son, Jack. Though their literary quarrel spanned decades, they made up after World War II, not long before her death in 1946.

Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Cavendish

With Hemingway’s spare style and lack of sentimentality, as well as the misogyny often attributed to him, it’s hard to see Margaret Cavendish warming to him. Cavendish was both incredibly ambitious and quite prolific, and her prose was miles away from Hemingway’s. Cavendish wrote this, after all: “We are become like worms, that only live in the dull earth of ignorance, winding our selves sometimes out by the help of some refreshing rain of good education, which seldom is given us, for we are kept like birds in cages, to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad, to see the several changes of fortune, and the various humors, ordained and created by nature, and wanting the experience of nature, we must needs want the understanding and knowledge, and so consequently prudence, and invention of men.” This is one long sentence, one Henry James or Edith Wharton may be proud of, but Hemingway (who wrote more like this: “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”) would most likely be critical.

Margaret Cavendish and Dorothy Parker

Both Parker and Cavendish were wits, and unconventional ones of their time too. Parker was outgoing while Cavendish was shy in public to the point of awkwardness, but as with Truman Capote and Harper Lee, friendships needn’t depend on similarity in temperament. Cavendish wrote that “Women’s Tongues are as sharp as two-edged Swords, and wound as much, when they are anger’d,” and Parker proved this to be quite true with her searing commentary on others. She also had her own thing to say about sharpness and wit: “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” Can’t you just see them now, sharing a bottle of wine, gin, or whatever else was handy, and discussing the finer points of male presumption?

Dorothy Parker and Nathaniel Hawthorne

Though Hawthorne died decades before Parker was born, and their writing is separated by further careers, it’s hard to think of two writers less suited to one another. While Hawthorne’s stories and novels often had a moralistic and puritanical bent to them, Dorothy Parker, both in her writing and in her life, was uninhibited, a partier, a serial dater, and generally opposed to the kind of sermons Hawthorne would have likely given her. Or perhaps he would have been too scandalized to even attend the same parties she did. Parker would probably needle him, trying to get a rise out of him with her quick wit while he would probably stand there still as a stone, trying to ignore her. Certainly they would make for amusing barstool neighbors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott was educated not only by her transcendentalist father, but also by many of his friends (Ralph Waldo Emerson among them). Though it’s likely that Hawthorne was one of the friends-of-daddy to have given lessons to Alcott, the fact that neither one of them wrote about the other makes it equally likely that Alcott didn’t have the best memories of Hawthorne and that he had few if any of her. Funnily enough, Hawthorne and his family bought the Alcotts’ house in Concord, Massachusetts from them when Louisa May was 20 years old. In a time where women lived with their families until they were married (and this house had been the first where Alcott had her own room), it’s also likely to think that Alcott may have resented Hawthorne’s purchase of her family abode. But, of course, she would have had to have been polite and nice to him, since he was a family friend.

Truman Capote & James Baldwin

While we know that they met, we don’t know whether they were actually friends, though as one writer put it, “Before the collective closet burst open, Truman Capote and James Baldwin were two authors who spoke to gay America not only through their writings, but also with the force of their fearless personalities.” Plus, Truman Capote, sass-master that he was, said that “It’s possible to be greatly gifted and grievously stupid,” but followed up with, “Jimmy Baldwin is one writer who is also a deeply intelligent man.” Sure, this doesn’t mean that Baldwin would have – or did – like Capote back, but we like to imagine the two men sitting around and discussing matters of great intellect while also calling one another Jimmy and Tru.

Harper Lee & Gertrude Stein

We have no evidence linking these two writers together, but their outlooks were so incredibly different that we can’t imagine them being anything but incredibly disdainful of one another. Harper Lee’s one novel (not counting the recent publication of Go Set a Watchman) was something she considered perfect enough to stand on its own and to never follow up. On the other hand, Gertrude Stein was known to be a great editor of other writers’ work. Lee’s writing was realistic; Stein’s was bizarre and often surreal. While they did both tackle issues of outsiders as well as racial tensions, their styles and personalities simply don’t seem to mesh well together.

Louisa May Alcott & Ralph Waldo Emerson

Louisa May Alcott was no slouch, despite the fact that she’s sometimes remembered as a morality-tale-teller (though in this writer’s humble opinion, Little Women is less a morality tale and more of a bildungsroman). She was an avid reader with a radical streak, and while Emerson may have been older than her by quite a bit, he was a friend of the family. She wrote: “When the book mania fell upon me at fifteen, I used to venture into Mr. Emerson’s library and ask what I should read, never conscious of the audacity of my demand, so genial was my welcome.” Plus, he provided inspiration for her own views: “In all reforms he was among the foremost on the side of justice and progress.”

Illustration by Kate Gavino.

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About Ilana Masad

ILANA MASAD is a queer writer of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, an interview podcast featuring fiction writers, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers, comes out May 2020.

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