Born: July 7, 1908
Wayne County, Kentucky
Died: March 22, 1986
Washtenaw County, Michigan
Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow is best known for her landmark novel The Dollmaker (1954), which chronicled the migration of Appalachians to America’s industrial centers during World War II.
The Dollmaker was widely read and became one of the most famous Appalachian novels of the 20th century. It was meant to be the final novel in a trilogy that included Mountain Path (1936), and Hunter’s Horn (1949).
Arnow also authored a novel Between the Flowers in 1938, which went unpublished until 1999.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 picked by the New York Times Book Review as one of the top 10 novels of the year.
The Dollmaker was runner-up for the 1955 National Book Award to William Faulkner’s A Fableand finished close behind it in the final voting for the Pulitzer Prize. Actress Jane Fonda starred in the 1984 made-for-television movie adaptation of The Dollmaker, receiving a Primetime Emmy Award for her portrayal of protagonist Gertie Nevels.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times Book Reviewthat Arnow’s The Dollmakeris “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 Nevels, 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 phenomenon 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 byline H. L. Simpson along with a photograph of her brother-in-law. The story was published in the July 1942 issue.
Arnow 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 to 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 in 1944 to Detroit, where were available during World War II. Arnow taught for many years at the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky.
The Arnows had two children, Marcella Jane and Thomas Louis. Harriette Arnow died March 22, 1986 on her farm in Washtenaw County, Michigan and is buried in the William Casada Cemetery in Pulaski County, Kentucky.
Mountain Path. New York: Convici Friede, 1936.
Hunter’s Horn. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
The Dollmaker. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1954.
The Weedkiller’s Daughter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
The Kentucky Trace. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.
Between the Flowers. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.
The Collected Short Stories of Harriette Simpson Arnow. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005.
Seedtime on the Cumberland. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960.
Flowering of the Cumberland. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963
Old Burnside. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.
1987 Appalshop film about Harriette Arnow by Herb E. Smith: