When looking at a brush with death, it’s amazing to consider how differently subsequent events would’ve played out had a more tragic result happened. In the case of these writers, it’s amazing to think how much today’s literary canon would be missing if a matter of inches were different, or if the timing had been slightly different.
1. George Orwell was shot in the throat by a sniper
On May 20 1937, George Orwell, while serving in the Spanish Civil War for the left-wing Republicans, stood on a trench parapet and was shot by a sniper. The bullet hit him in the throat, just missing his main artery. The moment was a pivotal one for Orwell, and formed much of his following work. He wrote about the incident (which can be read here) and the experience of what he felt and noticed, including this wonderful moment as he was being carried away on a stretcher: “The leaves of the silver poplars, which in places finger our trenches, brushed against my face; I thought what a good thing it was to be alive in a world where silver poplars grow.”
2. Alexander Pushkin’s penchant for dueling finally caught up with him
Alexander Pushkin wrote some of the most important and enduring literature of all time, but he was also really easy to lure into a duel, engaging in 28 of them before dying in the 29th in 1837 from a bullet to the spleen from Georges d’Anthes, a French officer rumored to be his wife’s lover. The duel is one of the most famous in Russia’s history, depicted in art and film. And even though Pushkin only made it to age 37, it’s a miracle that he lived that long as long as he did and gave us the work that he did.
3. Pearl S. Buck went into hiding during the Nanjing Incident
The Pulitzer & Nobel winner spent much of her life in China (which became the material for The Good Earth), but the Nanjing Incident in 1927 saw Buck and her family hiding in the hut of a poor Chinese family while their own house was looted. The city, which was the stage for the Nationalist vs. Communist battle, was the site of killings of both British and Japanese consuls, as well as the death of the American vice president of Nanjing University, John Elias Williams. Buck’s family, along with the rest of Nanjing’s foreign citizens, were evacuated.
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky was mock executed
On the morning of December 22, 1849, a 28-year-old Dostoevsky was led to Semenovsky Square and placed in front of a firing squad (depicted here). Famously reactionary Tsar Nicholas I feared a revolt and had Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevsky Circle members lined up to be made an example of–but at the last moment, the Tsar called it off to show the extent of his mercy, and instead sent the young writer to four years of grueling labor in Siberia. Had the execution not been called off, Dostoevsky’s entire canon would’ve consisted of Poor Folk and The Double.
5. Chinua Achebe was paralyzed in a car accident
Most everyone knows about the car accident that seriously injured Stephen King in 1999, but less know that Chinua Achebe, the author of perhaps Africa’s most famous literary work, Things Fall Apart, was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1990 car crash. A broken axle caused his car to flip, and though the other passengers sustained only minor injuries (including Achebe’s son), the weight of the car fell on Achebe. He was rushed to England and treated. Since the incident, he has held positions at Bard College and Brown University. In 2007, he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize.
6. Nelly Sachs barely escaped from Nazi-occupied Germany
In 1966, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.” That day may have never happened if Sachs hadn’t made it out of Nazi-occupied Germany in 1940. Thanks to an order from the Swedish royal family (on behalf of Sachs’s best friend Selma Lagerlof), Sachs and her mother escaped to Sweden a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.
7. Ernest Hemingway was hit by a mortar shell in World War I
In 1918, while serving on the Italian Front as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway was struck by an Austrian mortar shell while handing out chocolate and cigarettes to soldiers in a dugout. He was knocked unconscious and shell fragments entered his entire body, including his head, legs, and hand. After he regained consciousness, Hemingway picked up a badly wounded Italian soldier and carried him to the first aid dugout; he later said he didn’t remember how he got back. He was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor.