Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Inductees 2017

cobbIrvin S. Cobb (1876-1944)

Paducah native Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb was perhaps one of Kentucky’s most versatile writers and personalities from the 1920s to 1940s.  Journalist, essayist, syndicated columnist, novelist, poet, script writer, actor, storyteller, humorist, lecturer, and Academy Award host were among the many roles Cobb played in a career that spanned over 50 years.

As a journalist, he wrote for the Paducah Daily News, Louisville Evening Post, The New York Evening Sun, The New York Evening World, Cincinnati Post, and Saturday Evening Post.

Cobb was anti-prohibition and a prominent member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. The Association is credited with the demise of Prohibition in 1934.  His crusade prompted a famous novel Red Likker (1929), which was touted the only American novel ever devoted completely to the whiskey industry.  The novel is set in post-Civil War and focuses upon an old Kentucky family headed by Colonel Atilla Bird who operates Bird & Son distillery until Prohibition closes it in 1920. Cobb once lamented that prior to Prohibition, “Men of all stations of life drank freely and with no sense of shame in their drinking… Bar-rail instep, which is a fallen arch reversed, was a common complaint among us.”

Cobb authored 69 published books, including novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, and collections of newspaper and magazine articles. His first book Talks with the Fat Chauffer debuted in 1909 and his last was Piano Jim and the Impotent Pumpkin Vine in 1950. Although many of his works had a serious bent, several were comedic and infused with his rural Kentucky hyperbolic wit and sense of humor.

Three of his short stories “All American Storytellers,” “Peck’s Bad Boy,” and “Pardon my French” were adapted to the movie screen in 1921.  He continued writing for the film industry well into the 1930s.

“The Woman Accused” starring Cary Grant and Nancy Carroll was released in 1933.  He paired with director John Ford and Fox Studios, who made “Judge Priest” in 1934, which starred Will Rogers and included Cobb in a small acting part.  This was the most elaborate of Ford’s Cobb films and was based on three specific stories: “The Sun Shines Bright,” “The Mob from Massac,” and “The Lord Provides.” Ford cast Charles Winninger as Judge Billy Priest.  In the interim, director James Whale released “Showboat” in 1936, starring Irene Dunn, Alan Jones, and Charles Winninger. “The Sun Shines Bright,” was released posthumously by Republic Studios in 1953. Cobb appeared in ten movies between 1932 and 1938. His major roles were in “Pepper” (1936) and “Hawaii Calls” (1938). He was selected to host the 6th Academy Awards in 1935.

Critic H.L. Mencken compared Cobb to Mark Twain. He also garnered respect from the renowned Joel Chandler Harris and others, but Cobb’s literary reputation faded rapidly at the turn of the 1940s. Many critics have suggested that Cobb writing was caught in the wake of post-Civil War when “His benign vision of the rural south no longer seemed relevant or accessible amid the rising of the civil rights movement and the call for an end to segregation.” Cobb’s style, like many of the local color era writers grew increasingly dated and out-of-step with contemporary writing.

After a period of declining health, Cobb died on March 10, 1944 and is buried in the Paducah, Kentucky Oak Grove Cemetery.

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cotterJoseph Seamon Cotter, Sr. (1861-1949)

Joseph Seamon Cotter’s life spanned two centuries of monumental change for African Americans–the end of slavery in the 19th Century and the long battle for equality in a white-dominated world of the 20th Century.  The great Black historian and author Joseph R. Kerlin said that Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr. was “… an Uncle Remus with culture and conscious art.”  Cotter was a highly regarded storyteller, poet, playwright, and educator who extoled the virtues of advancing his race.  According to Joan R. Sherman in her work Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, he encouraged the self-help ethic, pride, humility, hard work, education, a positive, optimistic outlook …

Cotter was born in Bardstown, Kentucky to Martha Vaughn, a literate and religious woman who was freeborn of mixed blood—half African, and half Native American and English. His father was Michael Cotter, a white man of Scotch-Irish ancestry. He had learned to read by age four, but dropped out of school after completing the third grade to help support his family.  He had no more formal education until 1883 when, at age twenty-two, he enrolled at a night school for black students in Louisville, Kentucky. Cotter attended the night school for ten months, earning his high school diploma and teaching credentials.

He continued his education by studying at Indiana University, Kentucky State Industrial College, and Louisville Municipal College. There is no record of him having earning a college diploma but by 1892 had earned life teaching certificates as a grammar teacher and school principal.

During a career in education that spanned over 50 years, he served in various teaching and administrative and capacities at Western Colored School, Ormsby Avenue Colored School, Eighth Street School, Paul Lawrence Dunbar School, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School in the Louisville, Kentucky area. He founded the Paul Lawrence Dunbar School in Louisville in 1893 and served as principal of this black high school until 1911, when he took the position as principal at Samuel Coleridge- Taylor, a position he held until 1942. Paul Lawrence Dunbar is said to have visited Cotter’s family in 1894, which prompted several correspondence exchanges of poetry and discussions about the craft. Cotter maintained a close friendship with Dunbar.

He married fellow educator Maria F. Cox in 1891 and they had four children: Leonidas, Florence, Olivia, and Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. who also became a promising poet, but died when at age twenty-three.

Cotter’s early poems were published in prominent newspapers of the day such as the Louisville Courier Journal.  He won an Opportunity Prize Contest sponsored by the newspaper for his poem “The Tragedy of Pete.” Cotter also contributed various periodicals, including National Baptist Magazine, Voice of the Negro, Southern Teacher’s Advocate, and Alexander’s Magazine.

Historian Joan R. Sherman says that during five decades of writing his interests ranged from industrial education in the 1890s to the “zoot suit.”  He was known to satirize the “the foibles and frailties” of African Americans.  Cotter experimented with a variety of forms and styles of poetry, among those were the traditional ballad and various sonnet forms. His subject matter included social satire, historical tribute, racial issues, and philosophy.

Cotter died at his Louisville home on March 17, 1949 and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery.

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guthrieA.B. Guthrie, Jr. (1901-1991)

Bedford, Indiana native Alfred Bertram Guthrie, Jr. moved to Kentucky in 1926 to become a reporter with the Lexington Leader where he was to spend the next seventeen years as city editor, editorial writer, and executive editor.  He began writing fiction in the early 1940s, publishing his first novel Murders at Moon Dance in 1943. Harvard University awarded him a Neiman Fellowship in 1944 where he studied writing fiction.  The Big Sky was published in 1947, an epic novel tracing the 1830 journey of a group of frontiersmen from St. Louis to the Northwest Territory. Lewis Gannett, writing in The New York Herald Tribune, said the novel “belongs on the shelf beside the best stories Walter Edmonds and Kenneth Roberts have told of frontier days back East.”

In 1947, Guthrie came to the University of Kentucky English Department where he taught creative writing until 1952.  This period was productive for Guthrie, for during this time he wrote and published his 1949 novel The Way West, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. This was another epic tale of a journey to the northwest, picking up where the Big Sky left off and telling the story of a group of families from Missouri, travelling to the promised land of Oregon.

RKO/Winchester Productions’ Howard Hawks began filming The Way West in 1952, having cast Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jim Davis, and Elizabeth Threatt to fill the primary roles.  The Way West was reissued in 1967, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark.

Guthrie was hired in 1951 by director George Stevens to adapt Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane to the movie screen.  He received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay in 1953. In 1952, he was tagged by Hecht-Lancaster Productions to do the screen adaptation of Felix Holt’s novel The Gabriel Horn which was given the movie title The Kentuckian.

20th Century Fox bought the rights to his 1957 novel These Thousand Hills before it was in final galleys. The movie appeared in 1958, starring Richard Fleischer, Richard Egan, and Lee Remick. Guthrie published five additional novels in the 1960s and 1970s, but none received the acclaim that his work enjoyed through the 1940s and 1950s.

Guthrie wrote an un-romanticized version of the settling of the West.  His fiction was historically accurate and his depiction of the challenges of the rugged landscape and frontier journeys were anything but idealized.  Guthrie said of his avoiding writing the myths about the west, “I have a sense of morality about it. I want to talk about real people in real times. For every Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid, there were thousands of people trying to get along.”

His published works consisted of six novels, a book of essays, a children’s book, a book of poems and five mystery novels.

Guthrie married Harriet Larson in 1931, who died in early 1960s. They had two children: Alfred B. III, and Helen (Miller). He married Carol B. Luthin in 1969. Guthrie died in 1991 and is buried on his ranch in Choteau, Montana.

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jonesGayl Jones (1949-)

In a 1982 interview with Charles Rowell, Gayl Jones said that just like most people, she felt “connections to home territory-connections that go into one’s ideas of language, personality, landscape.” Born to Franklin and Lucille Jones on November 23, 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, Jones’ early “connections” with the South are reflected strongly in her personal life as well as in her writing.

After high school, Jones left Kentucky to attend Connecticut College where she received a B.A. in English in 1971 and was accepted into the graduate studies creative writing program at Brown University, earning a Master’s degree in 1973.  By 1975, she had earned her Doctorate of Arts degree in creative writing.

Jones studied under poet Michael Harper, who introduced her first novel Corregidora (1975) to Toni Morrison, who became her editor. Following graduation, Jones’ second novel, Eva’s Man (1976) was published. She taught briefly at Wellesley College and then as an assistant professor of English and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, Jones’ short story collection White Rat  (1977), a volume-length poem Songs for Anninho (1981), and a volume of poetry The Hermit-Woman (1983) were published.

Jones left the United States for Europe in the early 1980s. While there, she published another novel, Die Volgelfaengerin (The Birdwatcher) and the poetry collection Xarque and Other Poems (1985). Her first book of criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991) was published after her return to the United States in 1988.

Jones’ novel The Healing (1998) was a finalist in the National Book Award competition. Just one year later her most recent novel, Mosquito (1999) was published.

Jones sometimes uses traditional oral storytelling in delivering her stories. Much of Jones’ work also explores a theme of contradictory, coexisting emotions. This theme, specifically of love and hate, is especially visible in Corregidora when Ursa and her mother discuss the Grandmothers’ relationships with her former owner and lover, Corregidora:

 “I think what really made them dislike Martin was because he had the nerve to ask them what I never had the nerve to ask.”
“What was that?”
“How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love.”

She draws many of her themes from her African-American heritage and personal life experiences. Perhaps most important throughout the psychological development of her characters are their indelible voices who speak their truth.

Jones’ controversial novel Eva’s Man was published in 1976. This is the story of Eva Medina Canada, who because of a long history of severe sexual and emotional abuse, ends up in a mental institution for murdering her lover and castrating him with her teeth. Some have criticized the novel, saying that it depicts characters that perpetuate negative stereotypes about African Americans.

Jones’ response is well spoken in her response to June Jordan’s comments in a May 16, 1976 of The New York Times Book Review:  “I put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define women’s characters… Right now, I’m not sure how to reconcile the things that interest me with ‘positive race images.'”

Written almost 25 years after her first novels Corregidora and Eva’s Man, The Healing, draws on many of the same psychological themes and oral storytelling techniques from her earlier works, using Black dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration that fuses time and place throughout the novel.

What prompts Jones to write such incredibly violent and painful-to-read stories of abuse? A response to Claudia Tate in a recent interview is revealing: “Aside from seeing myself outside of the conventional roles of wife and mother… and my wanting to make some kind of relationship between history and autobiography, I cannot…I generally think of Eva’s Man as a kind of dream or nightmare, something that comes to you, and you write it down.” Jones’ honesty in her work continues to awe readers with its complex style and depth of emotion.

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Barbara Kingsolver (1955-)


Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe once characterized Barbara Kingsolver as the “… Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction,” primarily because of the broad spectrum of social/political issues that appear in her writing. In a 2010 interview, she discussed her fiction with Maya Jaggi of The Guardian:

I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political. Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person… It is… a powerful craft…

Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, but grew up in Carlisle, Kentucky where her father Wendell had a medical practice. When she was seven, her father took the family to Léopoldville, Congo where her parents were public health missionaries. This experience prompted Kingsolver to pen the 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible. This epic story about an Evangelical Christian family on a mission in Africa became her best known work.  This novel was short-listed for both the Pulitzer Prize and the Penn-Faulkner Award, won the National Book Prize of South Africa, and was an Oprah Winfrey “Oprah’s Book Club” selection.

While researching for the novel, Kingsolver read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies, a book characterized as “America’s worldwide war against its own best interests,” and said of the experience: “The analogy struck me as novelesque: a study of this persistent human flaw-– arrogance masquerading as helpfulness-– could be a personal story that also functioned as allegory.”

Kingsolver has been the recipient of the 2000 National Humanities Medal, James Beard Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edward Abbey EcoFiction Award, the Physicians for Social Responsibility National Award, the Arizona Civil Liberties Union Award, and the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction. Every book that Kingsolver has written since  Pigs in Heaven(1993) has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. Additionally, Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest.

Kingsolver holds a B.A. in Biology from DePauw University (magna cum laude) and a M.S. in Biology and Ecology from the University of Arizona.  She has held a variety of jobs including archeologist, art class model, grant writer, housecleaner, X-ray technician, biological research assistant, medical document translator, copy editor, typesetter, science writer, and feature writer for journals and newspapers. Since 1985, she has focused on writing and publishing, having published numerous newspaper and magazine articles and 14 books including novels, short stories, and essays.

One seminal moment in the direction of Kingsolver’s thematic focus occurred when she moved with her first husband, Joe Hoffmann, to a small cabin in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona where they became active in organizations that worked to investigate human-rights violations and supported Latin American refugees seeking asylum. She later wrote of the experience:

I had come to the Southwest expecting cactus, wide open spaces, and adventure. I found, instead, another whole America… this desert that burned with raw beauty had a great fence built across it, attempting to divide north from south.  I’d stumbled upon a borderland where people perished of heat by day and cold hostility by night.

This set the course for her social and political activism. Since then, Kingsolver has been deeply involved with disparate parts of what she calls “other whole Americas.”

Barbara Kingsolver says of her writing process: “I tend to wake up very early… I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency… people often ask how I discipline myself to write… For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.”

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