Wendell Berry is Kentucky’s most prolific and well-known living writer. He has mastered three genres, including fiction (both novels and short stories), poetry, and non-fiction. His book publications, to date, include 88 volumes published by a wide variety of publishers including: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Pantheon, Orion, Avon Books, Shoemaker & Hoard, North Point, Counterpoint, Sierra Club, The University Press of Kentucky, Larkspur, Safe Harbor Books, Gnomon, Golgonooza Press, Sand Dollar, and others. Berry’s writing and publishing career began with his first novel, Nathan Coulter, in April 1960. His first book of poetry The Broken Ground was released in 1964 and his first book of non-fiction The Long-Legged House, in 1969.
His writing is grounded in the notion that one’s work ought to be rooted in and responsive to one’s place. His philosophy of peace, environmentalism, conservation and regard for the Earth is best found in his own words:
But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted. Once the values of things refer only to their future usefulness, then an infinite withdrawal of value from the living present has begun. Nothing (and nobody) can then exist that is not theoretically replaceable by something (or somebody) more valuable. The country that we (or some of us) had thought to make our home becomes instead ‘a nation rich in natural resources’; the good bounty of the land begins its mechanical metamorphosis into junk, garbage, silt, poison, and other forms of ‘waste.’ The inevitable result of such an economy is that no farm or any other usable property can safely be regarded by anyone as a home, no home is ultimately worthy of our loyalty, nothing is ultimately worth doing, and no place or task or person is worth a lifetime’s devotion. ‘Waste,’ in such an economy, must eventually include several categories of humans–the unborn, the old, ‘disinvested’ farmers, the unemployed, the ‘unemployable.’ Indeed, once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a resource, we are all sliding downward toward the ashheap or the dump.
Berry has deep roots in Kentucky, being the eldest of four children born to John Marshall Berry, a lawyer and tobacco farmer in Henry County, and Virginia Erdman Berry. The families of both of his parents have farmed in Henry County for at least five generations. In 1965, Berry moved to a farm he had purchased at Lane’s Landing in Henry County and began growing corn and small grains on what eventually became a 125-acre homestead. Berry has farmed, resided, and written at Lane’s Landing down to the present day. He has written about his early experiences on the land and about his decision to return to it in essays such as “The Long-Legged House” and “A Native Hill.”
Berry attended secondary school at Millersburg Military Institute, then earned a B.A. and M.A. in English at the University of Kentucky.
Berry also attended Stanford University’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Stegner in a seminar that included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey.
From 1962 to 1964, he taught English at New York University’s University College in the Bronx. He then taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky from 1964-1977. He returned to the English Department of the University of Kentucky and taught there from 1987-1993.
Berry has been awarded A Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1961), the Bess Hokin Prize by Poetry Magazine (1967), Borestone Mountain Poetry Award (1969), National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Excellence in Writing (1971), Friends for American Writers Award (1975), Lannan Foundation Award (1989), T. S. Eliot Award (1994), Louisville Community Foundation Victory Spirit Ethics Award (1992),Kentucky Libraries Award’ for Intellectual Excellence (1993), The Orion Society John Hay Award (1993), Sewanee Review Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry (1994), Thomas Merton Award (1999), Poets’ Prize (2000), Art of Fact Award for Non-Fiction (2006), Kentucky Monthly’s Kentuckian of the Year (2006), The Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers (2009), Fellowship of Southern Writers (2012), The National Humanities Medal (2012), Fellowship of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013), The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award (2012), The 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (April 23, 2012), Russell Kirk Paideia Prize, for a Lifetime of Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue (July 20, 2012), The American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2013), The Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom Medal (2013), The Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize (2013), The Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion from The American Academy of Religion (2013).
“Lives do not have plots, only biographies do.” ― Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art
Although longtime University of Kentucky English Professor Guy Davenport claimed that writing fiction was just a hobby, he published eight collections of short stories, won a third prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1974, and was awarded the 1981 Morton Douwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote of Davenport’s conception of the short-story form: “He has given it some of the intellectual density of the learned essay, some of the lyric concision of the modern poem– some of its difficulty, too– and a structure that often resembles a film documentary. The result is a tour de force that adds something new to the art of fiction.”
South Carolina native Davenport could well have been called the quintessential Renaissance man, but one who believed that new ideas are not new—they have roots in the wellspring of the past. He was variously called a “postmodernist,” and a “meta-modernist.” His notions ranged from the ancient to the very present.
Davenport’s writing is filled with allusion and often delivered in a difficult prose style. He was frequently accused of being obscure. He once told a Paris Review interviewer that “I don’t think I’ve ever consciously befuddled… I might be a better writer if I didn’t tuck in things for the reader to find out… the stories can still be read; the idea is that a deeper reading will continually be rewarded—this is the standard by which obscurity can be judged.”
He was the recipient of the 1992 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship which is intended to be an “… investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential…” and awarded to those who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” He shared this honor with such luminaries as Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, poet Adrienne Rich, writer and critic Susan Sontag, novelist Cormac McCarthy, and Highlander Center activist John Gaventa.
Davenport was educated at Duke University, Merton College, Oxford, and Harvard University. His career at the University of Kentucky spanned over 28 years where he taught in the English Department.
Davenport is credited with having published over 45 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, and with contributing countless chapters, introductions, essays, commentary, and other creative works to numerous anthologies, magazines, and journals. His best known work was, perhaps, his 1981 collection of essays The Geography of the Imagination.
Erik Reece, his former student and friend said of him: “He was an unqualified genius, so he talked over everybody’s head, but in a way that made you want to get to where he was.”
After retiring in 1992, he published three additional volumes of short stories and three collections of essays. Davenport died in 2005.
When Elizabeth Hardwick died at the age of 91 in 2007, The New York Times described her as a critic, essayist, fiction writer, and co-founder of the New York Review of Books and one who “… went from being a studious southern belle to a glittering member of the New York City intellectual elite.” This was an obvious reference to her having been born in Lexington, Kentucky, educated in the public schools there (Lexington Junior High School and Henry Clay High School) and at The University of Kentucky where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938 and a master’s degree in 1939.
Interestingly, she turned down a fellowship in a doctoral program at Louisiana State University, home of the Southern Review and a hotbed of southern literature, to seek the Bohemian lifestyle associated with Columbia University in New York City while pursuing her doctoral degree in 17th Century English Literature. Because of the rarity of female faculty appointments in academia, she abandoned her pursuit in 1941 in order to publish short stories and return to Kentucky to write her first novel The Ghostly Lover which appeared in 1945. Her New York Times obituary recounts one from an interview in 1979: “My aim was to be a New York Jewish Intellectual. I say ‘Jewish’ because of their tradition of rational skepticism; and also a certain deracination appeals to me—and their openness to European culture.”
The 32 year old Hardwick met poet Robert Lowell in early 1949 during a retreat at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. Despite Lowell’s reputation as a tempestuous philanderer, she married him in July 1949, staying married until their divorce in 1972. Their daughter Harriet was born in 1957.
Hilton Als, in his article “A Singular Woman,” appearing in the July 13, 1998 issue of The New Yorker, described Hardwick as “. . . a beautiful, ambitious girl from a large Protestant family in Lexington, Kentucky… [who] made a career of exploring the margins: furtive trips to evangelical tent meetings when she was a teen-ager, a stint as a Communist at the University of Kentucky, a mariage blanc to a gay man in New York, forays into the world of Negro jazz music, and marriage to a manic-depressive poet.”
Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Robert Lowell were all involved in the founding of the New York Review of Books in 1963. She contributed more than one hundred reviews, articles, reflections, and letters to the New York Review of Books.
Diane Johnson once said that Hardwick was “part of the first generation of women intellectuals to make a mark in New York’s literary circle.”
Joan Didion wrote of Hardwick, “Perhaps no one has written more poignantly about the ways in which women compensate for their relative physiological inferiority.”
The scholar Lisa Levy once said, “Her criticism often identified with mad or tortured women, what Didion identified as ‘women adrift’: Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Zelda Fitzgerald—rather than madmen and the women who loved them . . . She was conscious of the world, literary and lived, as comprising men, women, and their intersections, both rough and gentle.”
Hardwick was awarded a Gugenheim Fellowship in 1947 and received a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996; she was the author of three novels, a biography of Herman Melville, and four collections of essays.
Perhaps the most poignant compliment was offered by acclaimed novelist and essayist Susan Sontag who said of Hardwick’s talent, “Her sentences are burned in my brain. I think she writes the most beautiful sentences, more beautiful sentences than any living American writer.”
Jim Wayne Miller
One of Jim Wayne Miller’s tenets as a poet was to provide the reader with an environment of deep discovery. He once said that he was often amused when a tourist fisherman stepped into the clear water of his native Buncombe County North Carolina and, much to his surprise, discovered that the pool was vastly deeper than he had imagined. “I want writing to be so transparent that the reader forgets he is reading and aware only that he is having an experience. He is suddenly plunged deeper than he expected and comes up shivering.”
Miller was born in Leicester, North Carolina on a seventy-acre farm, in 1936. He was reared in a family of five younger brothers and sisters. He left for Berea College in 1954 and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism in 1958. He married coed Mary Ellen Yates and they moved to Nashville, Tennessee where he was to earn his Ph.D. in German Language and Literature from Vanderbilt University in 1965, where he studied under Fugitive poet Donald Davidson and Hawthorne Scholar Randall Stewart Miller. While in Nashville, Miller wrote his seminal book of poetry Copperhead Cane. He and Mary Ellen settled at Western Kentucky State University in Bowling Green for a 33 year teaching career in the Department of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies. But he never strayed far from his Appalachian roots, becoming one of the premier Appalachian writers of his generation. He tirelessly promoted writing among eager audiences who attended his numerous workshops and speaking appearances throughout the South.
Appalachian scholar George Brosi said of Miller “… [he] lived life intensely. He drank prodigious amounts of coffee and smoked many cigarettes throughout every day and liked a good bourbon during his long nights. When talking to either an individual or a group, he listened intently and responded enthusiastically. He carried his erudition perhaps more gracefully than anyone I’ve ever met—never intruding upon a conversation in a showy way, and typically seeking out ways to learn from those who so often eagerly gathered around him. I don’t recall Jim Wayne Miller ever leaving a conversation to go to bed.”
His most important books of poetry include: Copperhead Cane (1964), The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same (1971), Dialogue With A Dead Man (1974), The Mountains Have Come Closer (1980), Vein Of Words (1984), Nostalgia for 70 (1986), Brier: His Book (1988), and The Brier Poems (1997). His published novels include Newfound (Novel 1989) and His First, Best Country (1993).
His honors include the Alice Lloyd Memorial Prize for Appalachian Poetry (1967), Thomas Wolfe Literary Award (1980), Zoe Kincaid Brockman Memorial Award, Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year Award and Appalachian Consortium Laurel Leaves Award.
The Appalachian writers’ community lost a great poet, novelist, essayist, and dedicated promoter of the literary arts when Jim Wayne Miller died August 18, 1996. George Brosi, Editor Emeritus of Appalachian Heritage Magazine said of Miller: “[He] is quite simply an icon in the field of Appalachian Literature—one of its earliest and most ardent supporters. Fred Chappell has commented that ‘if it were not for Miller, the Appal-lit movement might have foundered before it got started.’”
Effie Waller Smith
Because of the difficulties African American women faced in the post-Civil War era, Effie Waller Smith was an unlikely candidate to become one of the best known poets of the early 1900s. She was born June 1, 1879 to former slaves Frank Waller and Alvindia “Sibbie” Ratliff on Chole Creek near Pikeville, Kentucky. Frank had been educated on the same Virginia plantation as Junte Kinte. Later, he had become an aide to Stonewall Jackson and purportedly served Jackson his last meal. Waller migrated to Pike County after the Civil War ended.
Effie and her siblings Alfred and Rosa attended school through the eighth grade, after which she departed for Frankfort, Kentucky to be trained as a teacher at The Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons from 1900-1902. She held teaching posts in Kentucky and Tennessee for the next 12 years.
She had published poetry in local newspapers by 1902. In 1904, she vanity published her first volume of poetry containing 110 poems titled Songs of the Months, organized by sections featuring each month of the year. The verses included love, patriotic, and nature themes. In 1909, two more volumes of her verse appeared. The first was Rhymes from the Cumberland, which offers meditations and remembrances of the Kentucky-Virginia Cumberland Mountains area and musings on religion and romance.
In the second volume, Rosemary and Pansies, the verses focused on situational life issues. David Deskins, Waller’s biographer, says that many of the poems in this volume “…are somber and subdued yet definite and conclusive as they examine issues and situations in life. There is a mood maintained throughout that sometimes delves into the mystical.” During this period, Effie also had three short stories published in Putnam’s Monthly: “The Tempting of Peter Stiles,” “A Son of Sorrow,” and “The Judgment of Roxenie.”
Waller was only 38 when her last published poem, a sonnet “Autumn Wind,” appeared in Harper’s Monthly in 1917. For some unknown reason, she never published again. She lived most of the rest of her life in Wisconsin where she had relocated in 1918, raising an adopted daughter named Ruth Virginia Ratliff Smith who was the daughter of deceased friend Polly Mullins Ratliff. Effie died in 1960 and is buried in Neenah, Wisconsin.
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his landmark article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved:”
Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track… nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.
Old blacks arguing about bets; “hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teenagers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.
No booze sold out here, too dangerous… no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach… Woodstock… many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.
With this article, which appeared in the short-lived Scanlan Monthly in June, 1970, Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson was credited with creating “Gonzo journalism,” a new, highly personal style of reporting that allows the writer to become so involved in the story that they become a central character, chronicling cultural shifts as an astute cultural observer of the 1960s and 1970s, and on the lookout for anything that would feature American hypocrisy. Biographer William McKeen, noted that because of the story’s legendary status and Scanlan’s small circulation, the story was “one of the most famous and least read articles in Thompson’s career.”
This rambling first-person story was more about the experience of watching the race than the actual race. At the time, the piece was hailed as a breakthrough in journalism. Thompson was inundated with fan mail and phone calls, which he said was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”
Born on July 18, 1937, Hunter S. Thompson is best known for authoring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His hard-driving lifestyle, which included the steady use of drugs and firearms, made Thompson a counterculture icon, particularly popular among the college-age.
Thompson got his first exposure to journalism as a sports reporter for an Air Force newspaper at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. After his discharge in 1958, Thompson pursued journalism as a career and landed a series of jobs at a variety of small-town newspapers, as well as a short stint as a copy boy at Time Magazine.
In his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), Thompson, in typical “Gonzo” style, chronicled his time infiltrating the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them,” he wrote about the experience.
In 1970, Thompson unsuccessfully ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power Movement” ticket. His story about the campaign experience, “The Battle of Aspen,” was his first of many contributions to Rolling Stone magazine. He was national affairs editor of the Magazine until 1999. In 1971, what began as an assignment for Sports Illustrated turned into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a best-selling book based on Thompson’s drug-fueled journey through Las Vegas.
Both a critical and commercial success, the book was adapted into a film in 1998, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Benicio del Toro and Johnny Depp, a big Thompson fan (Depp later starred in the 2011 film version of The Rum Diary). Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a collection of Thompson’s writings for Rolling Stone about the 1972 presidential campaign, was published in early 1973.
Thompson ended his “Gonzo” article on the Derby by describing the chaotic scene at the end of the most famous two minutes in sports:
Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution.
This could well have been a description of Thompson’s life–he was notorious for his outrageous antics, rebellious, anti-authoritarian attitude, and unconventional reporting style. After several bouts of poor health, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 20, 2005, at his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen. In August 2005, in a private ceremony commemorating his life, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon topped with a clinched fist to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”