Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986)
Wayne County, Kentucky native Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow is best known for her landmark novel The Dollmaker (1954) which chronicled the outmigration of Appalachians to the industrial centers of America during the hard economic times of World War II. The Dollmaker was widely read, having remained on the best-seller list for over 32 weeks. It became one of the most famous Appalachian novels of the 20th century and still remains in print. This novel was actually meant to be the final novel in a trilogy that included Mountain Path (1936), and Hunter’s Horn (1949). She also authored a novel Between the Flowers in 1938 which went unpublished until 1999. Other notable books included two historical works: Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963), two additional novels The Weedkiller’s Daughter (1970) and The Kentucky Trace (1974), one biographical work Old Burnside (1976), and a collection of short fiction The Collected Short Stories of Harriette Simpson Arnow (2005).
Hunter’s Horn won the 1949 Saturday Review Best Novel Award, beating out George Orwell’s classic 1984 and was also picked by the New York Times Book Review as one of the top ten novels of the same year. The Dollmaker was runner up for the 1955 National Book Award to William Faulkner’s A Fable and finished close in the final voting for the Pulitzer Prize the same year, edged again by Faulkner’s A Fable. She finished ahead of Randall Jarrell for Pictures from an Institution and John Steinbeck for Sweet Thursday. Actress Jane Fonda starred in the 1984 film adaptation made-for-television movie of The Dollmaker. Fonda received a Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding Lead Actress—Miniseries or Movie.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Arnow’s The Dollmaker is “our most unpretentious American masterpiece.” Because of the Detroit scenes in the novel, this work has been compared to earlier writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Upton Sinclair, and Tillie Olsen, whose writing was rooted in chronicling the plight of the urban industrial worker.” Numerous critics have pointed out that Arnow’s portrait of Gertie, a woman of great physical and psychological strength, reached the American public at a time when strong images of women were rare. An example of Arnow’s own struggle with this phenomena was her attempt to be published in Esquire when, out of frustration in her thwarted attempts to get published as a female writer, she sent in a story under the moniker H. L. Simpson along with a photograph of her brother-in-law. The story was published in the July 1942 issue.
She was educated at Burnside High School, Berea College, and the University of Louisville. After teaching in a Louisville school for a few months, Simpson fell ill, went to a resort in northern Michigan, and wrote her first novel, Mountain Path. From 1934-1939, she lived in Cincinnati and worked for the Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA where she met her future husband Harold B. Arnow, a Chicago newspaperman. They married in 1939, living first in the Kentucky hills in Pulaski County near Burnside where she taught school for a brief time. They moved to Detroit in 1944 where jobs were available during World War II. They had two children— Marcella Jane and Thomas Louis.
Arnow died March 22, 1986 on her farm in Washtenaw County, Michigan and is buried in the William Casada Cemetery in Pulaski County, Kentucky.
William Wells Brown (1814-1884)
Playwright, journalist, novelist, and historian William Wells Brown’s popular autobiography Narrative of William H. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself was published in 1847, but had been preempted by Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845 and did not ultimately achieve the fame of his predecessor. Both were skilled public speakers and both traveled widely to promote his work, but Brown eventually slipped into relative obscurity. He is said to have feuded with Douglas for most of his life.
Eza Greenspan, Brown’s biographer and author of William Wells Brown: An African-American Life, has said that “As a student of the public record, whether engraved on public memorials or recorded in state archives, he so frequently encountered the pattern of deliberate or casual omission that he developed a term for it— colonization.” Greenspan has not been able to solve the mystery of why Douglas remains a major symbol of his time and cause and Brown does not. But his 600 page biography goes a long way toward helping Brown to regain his rightful place in American letters.
Although Brown says in his narrative that he was born in Lexington, Kentucky, actually he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling. His mother was a slave and his father was James W. Higgins, the slave owner’s cousin. He was brought at age 3 to Marthasville in Warren County west of St. Louis.
After sixteen years of enslavement, he escaped in 1834 to free territory in Ohio at age 19 and made a concentrated effort to educate himself after almost two decades of illiteracy. Brown became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and worked on a Lake Erie steamer ferrying slaves to freedom in Canada. In 1843 Brown became a lecturing agent for the New York Anti-Slavery Society and worked closely with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
He then moved to England and became a celebrity as an anti-slavery crusader and then returned to the United States in 1854 as a man of letters. Brown became “free” upon his return to the United States only because supporters in England purchased his freedom. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He died November 6, 1884 in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
He published a travelogue Three Years in Europe in 1852 followed by his now famous sensational novel Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter in 1853, the first novel to be published in the United States by an African-American. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemmings, who bore several of his children.
In 1863 he published a groundbreaking history of African-Americans The Black Man. In 1867, he followed that with a history of African-American involvement in the Civil War The Negro in the American Rebellion. His final book was My Southern Home (1880), which Greenspan calls a “savagely perceptive, rollicking account of the South looking both backward and forward from a Jim Crow-era vantage point.” He is also the first published black playwright. He reportedly often read his play, “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom” (1858) at abolitionists rallies.
Harry Caudill (1922-1990)
Historian, novelist, essayist, and columnist Harry M. Caudill’s seminal work was Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area published in 1963. This book caught the attention of the highest levels of leadership in the United States and significantly contributed to the emergence of the War on Poverty of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations. President John F. Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate conditions in the region and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, made Appalachia a keystone of his War on Poverty.
Caudill, a native of Letcher County, Kentucky, grew up in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. He served in Italy during World War II and suffered a debilitating injury from which he struggled the rest of his life. After returning from the War, he enrolled in The University of Kentucky Law School, met and married Anne Fry in 1946 and returned to his beloved Letcher County to establish a law practice which lasted over 28 years. In addition to his work as a barrister, he was also a politician who served as President of the Letcher County Bar Association, and three two year terms in the Kentucky State Legislature (1953, 1955, & 1959).
He published ten books, over 80 newspaper essays, 50 magazine articles, and penned more than 120 speeches and lectures. Most were focused on the social, economic, and environmental issues of Appalachia. Some called him “the Upton Sinclair of the coal fields.” He was active with the Sierra Club, The Audubon Society, and local advocacy groups such as the Pike County Citizens Association, and the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People. The University of Kentucky awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Laws in 1971. He won the Appalachian Studies Association Weatherford Award in 1976.
Experiencing increasing pain from the leg injury he suffered in WWII and facing the prolonged effects of Parkinson’s disease, Caudill shot himself on the afternoon of November 29, 1990.
Elizabeth Maddox Roberts (1881-1941)
Perryville, Kentucky native Elizabeth Maddox Roberts’ best known novels– The Time of Man (1926) and The Great Meadow (1930) were both short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. During her short life of 60 years, she published seven novels, three volumes of poems, and two collections of short stories. Her work received critical acclaim from Carl and Mark Van Doren, Robert Penn Warren, Ford Madox Ford, Sherwood Anderson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and other prominent writers and critics of her time.
Initially, she was criticized as mystical and obscure, but having a superb feminine rhythmic style that was effused with the power of suggestion. She had great instinct for Kentucky folk speech, and was an expert in capturing descriptions of Kentucky folk culture. One critic described her as “… a writer of authentic regional power with an international reputation.”
Her family moved to Springfield, Kentucky where she attended Washington County public schools, but then she moved to Covington, Kentucky to live with her maternal grandparents where she attended high school. In 1900, she enrolled at the University of Kentucky (then the State College of Kentucky), but stayed only one semester. She dropped out due to a serious health condition, moved back to Springfield, and taught school there for ten years. She left Springfield in 1910, moving to Colorado to live with her sister.
At the suggestion of a professor friend, she enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1917 at age 36. The University fostered an active literary community which led her to form life-long friendships with a group of writers and artists who were members of the Chicago Poetry Club, including Glenway Wescott, Janet Lewis, Yvor Winters, Monroe Wheeler, and Maurice Lesemann.
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in English in 1921 and was awarded the Fiske Prize for a group of poems she wrote which resulted in a privately published a book of poetry Under the Tree in 1922.
She won a numerous awards for her writing including: John Reed Memorial Prize in 1928, The O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize in 1930, and the Poetry Society of South Carolina’s Prize in 1931.
Because of her diagnosis of terminal Hodgkin’s disease in 1936, she began to winter in Florida near Orlando. She returned to Springfield for the summers to be with her parents. She died in Orlando in 1941. Her remains were returned to Springfield for burial.
James Still (1906-2001)
Poet, novelist, short story writer, and folklorist James Still says in his autobiography, “I appeared in this world July 16, 1906, on Double Branch Farm near LaFayette in Chambers County, Alabama.
Still worked his way through Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee where he graduated in 1921. His classmates included Jesse Stuart, who became one of the most widely published writers from Kentucky. He began graduate school at Vanderbilt University in 1929, attaining his M.A. in English in 1930. He also attended University of Illinois and received a Bachelor of Science in Library Science. While Still was at Vanderbilt members of the now famous Fugitives were on the verge of publishing their I’ll Take My Stand, a manifesto on Jeffersonian agrarianism. Still was educated by such luminaries as Edwin Mims, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle, John Donald Wade, and Clyde Curry (who directed his thesis “The Function of Dreams and Visions in the Middle English Romances”).
James Still came to Hindman, Kentucky in 1931 with one of his Vanderbilt classmates, poet and social activist Don West, to work with kids for the summer. However, when summer was over, the librarian at Hindman Settlement School resigned. Still gladly accepted the position and, except for his stint in World War II (in Africa and the Middle East from 1942-1944), spent the next 70 years there.
Still penned his masterpiece novel River of Earth in a rented two-story log cabin on the Dead Mare Branch of Little Carr Creek in Knott County, Kentucky once occupied by a crafter of dulcimers, Jethro Amburgey. The landmark novel was released February 5, 1940. In this novel, Still expertly reveals the dilemma prompted by significant change coming to Appalachia during the emergence of the coal industry. This fiction depicts the struggles of a rural agrarian mountain family steeped in the tradition of eking out their living through subsistence farming versus entering the coal mines of the Cumberland Plateau in the reaches of eastern Kentucky and succumbing to the lure of an hourly wage job. Still received the Southern Author’s Award shortly after publication, which he shared with Thomas Wolfe for Wolfe’s work You Can’t Go Home Again.
Still published fourteen books including three of poetry, three novels, four of short stories, two of Appalachian folk life, and two children’s picture books. His stories and poems appeared in The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Saturday Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The Virginia Quarterly Review and in many other publications as well as textbooks and anthologies.
Several of Still’s short stories were selected for the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories publications and for the Best American Short Stories series. Jack and the Wonder Beans, illustrated by Margot Tomes was chosen by the New York Times as one of the Best Illustrated Books of the Year for 1977.
Still died April 28, 2001 at the age of 94. He is buried on the campus of his beloved Hindman Settlement School at Hindman, Kentucky.
Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989)
Guthrie, Kentucky native Robert Penn Warren is the only Kentucky author to win the Pulitzer Prize three times and in two different genres. He won in 1947 for the novel All the King’s Men and for two books of poetry, in 1948 for Promises: Poems, 1954-1956 and again in 1979 for Now and Then: Poems, 1976-1978. All the King’s Men was made into a play, a motion picture (three times), and an opera. The novel was eventually translated into twenty languages. Warren wrote ten novels, beginning in 1939 and ending in 1977. Band of Angels was also produced as a movie.
Critic Charles Bohmer says that:
“Warren’s ten novels are unified in both locale and theme. They are works about the South and southerners and, while aspiring to transcend their time and place, are nonetheless marked by a southern particularity that is deliberate, insistent, and unmistakable. They fall into two groups: the first group is historical and evokes a lost world recaptured through the imaginative use of documentary evidence; the second group is contemporary and constitutes a history of Warren’s own times.”
He authored and published 16 books of poetry, beginning in 1936 and ending in 1985. He also published two collections of short stories, three children’s books, four textbooks, six collections of essays, three historical works, one play, and one biography.
Warren was a poet, critic, novelist, and teacher. He taught at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, Southwestern College, Memphis, Tennessee, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and Louisiana State University. As a poet, he was appointed the nation’s first Poet Laureate, February 26, 1986. Warren was born in Todd County, Kentucky in the town of Guthrie. He was educated at Vanderbilt University (having entered at the age of 16), graduating summa cum laude in 1925, Phi Beta Kappa, and as a recipient of the Founder’s Medal in 1925. He received his M.A. from the University of California in 1927, did post graduate work at Yale University the following year, and received a B. Litt. from Oxford University in 1930. Warren died September 15, 1989.