Famous Writers’ Report Cards: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, E.E. Cummings & Anne Sexton


“It’s not about the grade,” I’d say to per­turbed stu­dents ask­ing me to change theirs: “it’s about what you learned.” No one will care what you got in first-year Eng­lish Com­po­si­tion; they’ll care if you can write a sen­tence, a para­graph, a pro­fes­sion­al, ele­gant, or mov­ing text. All of this is true, and yet (of course I nev­er told them this) I still remem­ber every grade I earned in every class I took in high school, col­lege, and grad­u­ate school. Obses­sive? Maybe. But it’s also symp­to­matic of that same com­pul­sion that dri­ves stu­dents to try, by any means, to get pro­fes­sors to bump their grades up at the end of the semester—fear of the “per­ma­nent record.” Like Sein­feld’s Elaine, strug­gling to expunge a black mark from her med­ical chart, we all fear the reams of documents—or archives of data—that cat­a­logue our every mis­step, stum­ble, fail­ure or faux pas.


In many cas­es, this anx­i­ety is jus­ti­fi­able, but as you can see here, the occa­sion­al bad mark didn’t stop famed writ­ers Nor­man Mail­er or E.E. Cum­mings from achiev­ing lit­er­ary great­ness, even if those grades remain, in ink, on record today. See Mailer’s first-year Har­vard Col­lege report card at the top of the post, aca­d­e­m­ic year 1939–40. The bear­ish nov­el­ist did well, but for the C in his sec­ond semes­ter of Engi­neer­ing Sci­ence. Just above, we have Cum­mings’ report card from what is like­ly his fifth grade year giv­en his age of 11 at the time. The 1905-06 grad­ing sys­tem looks for­eign to us now, but the C that Cum­mings received that year prob­a­bly did not put him at the top of the class. Nor, I’m sure, did his 61 absences.


Ernest Hem­ing­way, on the oth­er hand, had lit­tle rea­son to hide the high school report card above, but if you look close­ly, you’ll see that the col­umn of straight A’s does not mean what we might think. The Oak Park and Riv­er For­est Town­ship High School only gave two let­ter grades, A for “Accept­ed” and D for “Defi­cient.” Still, Hemingway’s numer­i­cal per­cent­ages show his schol­ar­ly apti­tude, though his 75 in Latin may have haunt­ed him.


Hemingway’s mod­ernist con­tem­po­rary William Faulkn­er, you may know, strug­gled in school after the fourth grade, and even­tu­al­ly dropped out of high school after the 11th (though his father’s job at Ole Miss meant he could enroll there for the three semes­ters he attend­ed). The sev­enth grade report card above does not show us his grades, and Faulkner’s teacher neglect­ed to fill in the “Espe­cial­ly Good In” and “Espe­cial­ly Poor In” box­es. Nev­er­the­less, Faulkn­er (then William Falkn­er), did well enough to move up, and his moth­er signed off on each month of the term but the last.


Final­ly we bring you the report card of Anne Sex­tonnée Harvey—for a 10th grade Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture class at the Junior-Senior High School in Welles­ley, Mass­a­chu­setts, from which Sylvia Plath also grad­u­at­ed. As you can see, Sex­ton received a C in the class, with an F for effort in the first quar­ter. Accord­ing to Beth Hinch­liffe—a Welles­ley native who con­duct­ed one of Sexton’s final interviews—the poet remem­bered the grade. She also remem­bered her teenage self as “ ‘a pim­ply, boy-crazy thing’ who was obsessed with flirt­ing.”

Most of these report cards come from col­lec­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas’ Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter, a trove of his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary doc­u­ments that, unlike some oth­er archives, I’m very glad keeps per­ma­nent records. Anne Sex­ton’s report card comes to us via the always infor­ma­tion-rich Brain Pick­ings.

via The Wall Street Jour­nal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ernest Hem­ing­way Cre­ates a Read­ing List for a Young Writer, 1934

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

Two Child­hood Draw­ings from Poet E.E. Cum­mings Show the Young Artist’s Play­ful Seri­ous­ness

Anne Sex­ton, Con­fes­sion­al Poet, Reads “Want­i­ng to Die” in Omi­nous 1966 Video

How Famous Writ­ers — From J.K. Rowl­ing to William Faulkn­er — Visu­al­ly Out­lined Their Nov­els

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.