Rebecca Caudill (1899-1985)

Harlan County, Kentucky native Rebecca Caudill Ayars is perhaps one of Kentucky’s best known children’s writers, having published more than 23 books between 1934 and 1985.  Caudill was born February 2, 1899 and grew up as the middle child in a family of ten who lived at Poor Fork, Kentucky (now the city of Cumberland) in Harlan County. After her family moved to Tennessee, she worked her way through Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia where she received an A.B. degree in 1920. She was the first in her family to attend college.

She taught English and History at Summer County High School in Portland, Tennessee from 1920-21.  In 1922, she earned a Master’s degree in international relations from Vanderbilt University.  She taught English as a Second Language at Collegio Bennett in Rio de Janeiro for a short time.  She also worked as an editor for the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee. After she moved to Chicago for a job with a publishing house, she met and married James Sterling Ayars in 1931.  After their two children, Jimmy and Becky Jean, were born after they moved to Urbana, Illinois in 1937 where James took a job as the editor of the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois campus.

Her first book was the novel of juvenile fiction Barrie and Daughter (Viking, 1943), a partly biographical work of her experiences at growing up in rural Kentucky and Tennessee. Tree of Freedom (Viking, 1949) was Runner-up for the Newbery Award in 1950 and was selected as a New York Herald Tribune Honor Book the same year. A Pocketful of Cricket (Holt, 1964) was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1965.  She was also the recipient of the Hans Christian Anderson Award. Six of her books were selections of the Junior Literary Guild. She published 18 books for children, one book of children’s verse, a memoir/history Appalachia:  A Reminiscence, and three other non-fiction works.  Child of Appalachia a film on her life and writing, was judged one of the top three entries at the Birmingham International Film Festival in 1978. The Rebecca Caudill Public Library in her hometown of Cumberland, Kentucky (formerly known as Poor Fork) was named in her honor. Rebecca Caudill Ayars died October 2, 1985 at the age of 86.

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Thomas D. Clark (1903-2005)

Native Mississippian Thomas Dionysius Clark was Kentucky’s most well-known and accomplished academic historian. He was known as a superb professor, passionate preservationist, consummate lecturer, dynamic public speaker, dedicated researcher, and skilled writer.  Clark devoted his life to the preservation of Kentucky’s historical records. He collected vast stores of Kentucky’s military records from the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. His tireless efforts resulted in the Commonwealth’s first archival system and the subsequent creation of the Kentucky Library and Archives, the University of Kentucky Special Collections and Archives, the Kentucky Oral History Commission, The Thomas Clark Kentucky History Center, and the University Press of Kentucky.

Dr. Clark dropped out of school after seventh grade to work at a sawmill and then on a canal dredge boat before realizing he needed to resume his formal education. Clark enrolled in high school soon afterwards.  His account of that was recorded in an interview:

I left the boat in September 1920. Without a job. Without a future, really. I accidentally met a boy who told me about an agricultural high school Choctaw County Agricultural High School. I went down and within 10 minutes of getting off the train I’d registered. The old superintendent didn’t ask me one thing about my education. He didn’t know if I could read or write. Said you look like a big stout boy. You look like you’d make a good football player. So I was admitted as a football player. I went to that school for four years [and obtained] reasonably basic preparation.

He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree (with honors) from the University of Mississippi (1928), a Master’s Degree from the University of Kentucky (1929), and a Doctorate from Duke University (1932).

He taught history at the University of Kentucky for 37 years and served 23 years as Department Chair until 1968, when he retired from the University.  He also served as a visiting professor at Harvard University, Duke University, Stanford University, University of Wisconsin, University of Tennessee, University of Washington, and The University of Chicago.

Clark authored or edited over 36 books on a wide variety of historical topics.  His most popular book was A History of Kentucky (1937) which is considered one of the best state histories ever published.  It is still in print, as are many of his great works. In 1990, the Kentucky General Assembly named Clark Kentucky Historian Laureate for life. At the time, Governor Brereton Jones called him “Kentucky’s greatest treasure.”  Clark’s honors included several awards for his writing, a Guggenheim fellowship and eight honorary degrees. He was also active in professional organizations, serving as president of the Southern Historical Association (1947) and as editor of the Journal of Southern History (1949–52). Later he was president of the Organization of American Historians (1956–57) and was executive secretary (1970–73). He received the AHA’s Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2004.

He married Mary Elizabeth Turner on June 10, 1933 and they were together until her death in 1955.  His first marriage produced two children—Elizabeth and Bennett.  In 1996, he married Loretta Gilliam and they were together until his death in June 2005.

Clark died just a few days short of his 102nd birthday in 2005. James Klotter, another great Kentucky historian, said of Clark upon his death: “He will be remembered as a person who took history to the people and didn’t just stay in an ivory-covered tower somewhere writing books in the dark of the night, but got out and taught history all across the commonwealth. All across the world really.”

Dr. Clark is buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

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Janice Holt Giles (1905-1979)

Altus, Arkansas native Janice Holt Giles did not begin her first novel until 1946 when she was 41 years of age and did not finish it until four years later.  She wrote Enduring Hills (1950), a historical fiction novel, while employed full-time as a secretary for Dr. Louis Sherrill Dean of the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Janice married her first husband Otto Moore in 1927 and divorced him in 1939.  She met an Army Sergeant Henry Giles on a bus ride in 1943.  They corresponded during World War II and were married in 1945 after Henry was discharged from the Army.  In 1946 they moved near Henry’s ancestral land at Knifley, Kentucky in Adair County.

Between 1950 and 1975 she wrote twenty-six books, most of which were bestsellers, regularly reviewed in the New York Times, and selected for inclusion in popular book clubs.  She published close to a book per year from 1950-1975, some years publishing multiple books (three in 1951 and two in 1954). These included 19 novels, six non-fiction works, and one collection of both fiction and non-fiction. There are numerous reports that her collective sales reached in excess of 3 million copies.

One critic wrote, “In her historical novels about Kentucky, Janice Holt Giles has become known for the integrity with which she handles her material and for the realism with which she writes.”   Janice’s biographer, Dianne Watkins Stuart (Janice Holt Giles: A Writer’s Life The University Press of Kentucky, 1998), found that “Her picture held pride of place in her literary agent’s New York office, alongside those of Willa Cather, H.G. Wells, and Edith Wharton.”

Giles’s historical fiction covers a wide range of geography in pursuit of her depiction of early American pioneer life including Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.  Her historical figures include Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, James Harrod, and others.  One critic suggested that at the core of her work is a certain democracy in depicting the complexity of relationships between White Settlers, Native Americans, and African Americans.

Dianne Stuart has revealed that Giles often humbly professed to be “just a good storyteller” but that she was much more than that. She was a keen observer of life with great sensitivity, an ear for language, and a superb imagination.

Janice died in 1979 and her husband Henry Giles in 1986.  Both are buried at the Caldwell Chapel Separate Baptist Church Cemetery in Knifley, Kentucky.

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James Baker Hall (1935-2009)

Lexington, Kentucky native James Baker Hall was a versatile writer, having excelled as a poet, novelist, short story writer, and photographer.  He was also a consummate teacher, having taught for over 30 years (1973-2003) in the University Of Kentucky English Department where he also served as Director of the Creative Writing Program.

He was a member of the “Fabulous Five” who was taught creative writing by noted novelist and poet Robert Hazel at the University of Kentucky along with fellow students that included such luminaries as Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, and Ed McClanahan.  Hall once said that Hazel encouraged his students to “escape the provincialism of their heritage” by leaving Kentucky. Hall did just that, by living in Paris, France and on both coasts of the United States.  Hall also studied at Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow in the 1960s alongside Larry McMurty and Ken Kesey.

Before coming to UK, Hall taught poetry and photography at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1970s.  He was fond of telling the story that the Department at MIT needed a poetry teacher and he began teaching the course without ever having written a poem.  He went on to become one of the most accomplished poets in Kentucky, eventually serving as the Commonwealth’s Poet Laureate (2001-2002). He also lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design, The Visual Workshop, and the Minneapolis Museum of Art.  He became close colleagues of such accomplished photographers as Minor White, Richard Benson, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, He also served as contributing editor for the prestigious photography magazine Aperture.

He authored several volumes of poetry including Stopping on the Edge to Wave (Wesleyan University Press), Fast Signing Mute (Larkspur Press), The Mother on the Other Side of the World (Sarabande Books), and The Total Light Process: New & Selected Poems (University Press of Kentucky). He was also the author of a novel-in-verse, Praeder’s Letters (Sarabande Books). His poems have been published individually in The New YorkerThe Paris ReviewPoetryThe American Poetry ReviewThe Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.

He received his B.A. from the University of Kentucky, in 1957, and his M.A. at Stanford University, in 1961.  He studied under such luminaries as Malcolm Cowley and Frank O’Connor. Mr. Hall received an NEA Fellowship in Poetry (1980), and won the Pushcart (1983) and O. Henry prizes (1967). Additionally, he was awarded a Southern Arts Federation Photography Fellowship (1993) and a Kentucky Arts Council Al Smith Fellowship (1986).

Hall died in 2009 at the age of 74.  Hundreds attended his memorial service held at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky July 11, 2009.

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Etheridge Knight (1931-1991)

Etheridge Knight was a native of Corinth, Mississippi, born into a poor family of seven children. Knight spent most of his adolescent years working in pool halls, bars, and juke joints where he developed a drug habit early in his life.  In these places, he learned an oral poetry form called “Toasts” which involved memorizing a long narrative poem that was then performed before the audiences in the bars he frequented. This was a kind of mental gymnastics that showcased the artist’s memorization and performance skills. His family spent a significant portion of Knight’s adolescence in Paducah, Kentucky where his father worked on the construction of Kentucky Dam, before the family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1947, serving as a medical technician during the Korean War but was discharged in 1951 after suffering shrapnel wounds that deepened his drug addiction.  He was arrested in Indianapolis for stealing a purse in 1960, convicted, and imprisoned at the Indiana State Prison for eight years.  While in prison he continued his interest in the “Toasts” form, becoming a poet who was to become the voice of the black aesthetic movement with his first volume of verse Poems from Prison (1968) and in a prose anthology Black Voices from Prison (1970).

He married fellow poet Sonia Sanchez following his release from prison, but they divorced two years later. He was married two other times, once to Mary Ann McAnally (with whom he had two children) and Charlene Blackburn (with whom he had one son). Knight taught at various universities and contributed to several magazines, working for two years as an editor of Motive and as a contributing editor of New Letters (1974).

According to Shirley Lumpkin in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “His work was hailed by black writers and critics as another excellent example of the powerful truth of blackness in art.  His work became important in Afro-American poetry and poetics and in the strain of Anglo-American poetry descended from Walt Whitman.” Whereas, Whitman said that the poet was a prophet, Knight suggested that the poet was “meddler” who formed a trinity with the poem and the reader. Much of his verse was collected in The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986).  In much of his poetry the arc suggests that imprisonment of the black person constituted a kind of extension of slavery.

In 1990 he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis.  He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Belly Songs and Other Poems (1973).  He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1972 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974.

Knight was highly respected by such great poet/writers as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Bly, and Galway Kinnell. According to Lumpkin, this group considered him to be “… a major Afro-American poet because of his human subject matter, his combination of traditional techniques with an expertise in using rhythmic and oral speech patterns, and his ability to feel and to project his feelings into a poetic structure that moves others.”

Etheridge died of lung cancer March 10, 1991 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

Although a native of Prades, France, Thomas Merton spent 27 years in Nelson County, Kentucky as a Trappist Monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani. He authoredover seventy books covering a wide range of genres including autobiography, biography, essays, poetry, novel, and letters.  He wrote numerous poems and articles with a wide variety of topics including religious spirituality, non-violence, social justice, interfaith understanding, comparative religion, and nuclear proliferation.

Most notable of his publications were his best-selling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) which sold over one million copies and has been translated into fifteen languages, Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1949), and The Sign of Jonas (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1953).  He published over 2,000 poems during his career. The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton was published posthumously (New Directions, 1977).

He is widely considered to be the most important American Catholic writer of the twentieth century.  He was known as an activist who considered race and peace the two most urgent issues of his time.  He was an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King and the nonviolent civil rights movement, which he cited as being “. . . the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.”

During his time, he was considered to be at the forefront of a world-wide ecumenical movement.  His role as a religious thinker and social critic is often compared to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

He attended Cambridge University for one year in 1933. He entered Columbia University in January 1935 and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1938. In late 1938, he made a religious conversion and was received into the Catholic Church at Corpus Christi Church. After graduation he stayed at Columbia, taking graduate courses toward his M.A. In 1940, he completed his master’s thesis “On Nature and Art in William Blake.”  While at Columbia he studied under some remarkable teachers of literature, including Mark Van Doren, Daniel C. Walsh, and Joseph Wood Krutch. From 1940-1941 he taught English at St. Bonaventure College, a Catholic Franciscan school in Allegany, New York. In December 1941, he entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani at New Haven, Kentucky as a Trappist Monk and remained there for the next 27 years until his accidental death from electrocution in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand where he was attending a conference of Asian Benedictines and Cistercians.

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Jesse Stuart (1906-1984)

Greenup County, Kentucky native Jesse Stuart was an accomplished poet, short story writer, novelist, and essayist by the time he was in his 40s.  In 1934, he received the Jeannette Sewal Davis poetry prize for his first major book of poetry Man with a Bull-Tongued Plow (1934)which included 703 sonnets, many mimicking the style of great Scottish poet Robert Burns.  The book was described by the Irish poet George William Russell as the greatest work of poetry to come out of America since Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass. He was the recipient of many awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship (1937), the Academy of Arts and Sciences award, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial award, the Berea College Centennial award for literature, the Academy of American Poets award, several honorary degrees, and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for his 1965 novel Daughter of the Legend.

Stuart is known as one of the more remarkable and original writers in American literature. He was extremely prolific, publishing 59 major works–eight for young people, seven autobiographical, one biographical, two collections of essays, two history/sociology, eleven novels, eleven collections of poetry, and seventeen collections of short stories. James Gifford, Executive Director of the Jesse Stuart Foundation, says that, “Jesse Stuart wrote furiously, like a man killing snakes.”

Critics were divided on their opinions of Stuart, many suggesting that his writing was largely uneven. Others heaped great praise but regardless, he consistently commanded a broad popular audience.   Because of the supposed uneven quality of his writing and its apparent intense regional focus, he was often maligned and sometimes ignored by the mainstream of literary opinion. One of his trademarks in fiction was that he claimed that all his stories were based on true stories that happened to himself or people he knew.

Born in a log cabin in W-Hollow in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Stuart was the first in his family to finish high school, graduating from Greenup High School in 1926.  He worked his way through Lincoln Memorial University, a small mountain college in Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1929.  While there he studied under novelist Harry Harrison Kroll, a well-known writer of his day and one of Stuart’s greatest influences.  With Kroll’s encouragement, Stuart began writing poems, some of which were published in the school newspaper. He was a classmate of James Still, another highly regarded Kentucky writer.

He returned to his native Eastern Kentucky and, after two years of public school teaching and administrative service (he twice served as principal of McKell High School in Greenup County–1933-1937 & 1956-1957), he decided to enroll in graduate school at Vanderbilt University, where he pursued, but did not complete, an M.A. in English. He chose Vanderbilt because of the resident Fugitive-Agrarians which included noted poets, writers, and teachers such as Donald Davidson, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Andrew Lytle, John Donald Wade, Clyde Curry, and Edwin Mims.

He married Naomi Deane Norris in 1939 and they settled on his ancestral land in W-Hollow near Greenup, Kentucky.  They had one daughter, Jessica Jane, who also became an accomplished novelist and poet. Stuart served as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) in the United States Navy during World War II. He served as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate from 1954-1955.

Stuart was widely traveled, having used his Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Scotland. He served as  visiting professor of English and education at the American University, Cairo, Egypt, during 1960 and 1961; in 1962 and 1963 he served as an American specialist abroad for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department. He also served in the Middle and Far East as a lecturer for the United States Information Service. In the fall of 1962, he and his wife Deane left Greenup County for a five-month tour which included over 400 speaking engagements through  Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, East Pakistan, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.  All his life, Stuart was a tireless traveller and lecturer, rivaling Mark Twain in the scope of his travels.

Prior to his death on February 17, 1984, Jesse Stuart had been seriously ill and bedfast for four years, following a long history of heart attacks and a massive stroke. He is buried in the Plum Grove cemetery near his home in W-Hollow.

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