James Lane Allen (1829-1925)
James Lane Allen has the distinction of being called Kentucky’s first important novelist. His appeal was international–being widely read in Great Britain and the United States. He belongs to a period of the late 19th Century local color era, characterized by a particular attention to capturing regional vernacular. The Oxford Companion to American Literature says that this movement was under the dual influence of romanticism and realism. Authors in this era looked to distant places and eccentric customs, painting them with exotic scenes filled with detailed accuracy. Critics of this movement purported that it was dominated by nostalgia or sentimentality.
Allen’s writing roots began with literary criticism, but after the 1891 launch of Flute and Violin & Other Kentucky Stories, he forged a highly successful career in fiction, travel writing, and drama. He published 20 books in a career spanning 34 years. He was a contributor to many of the most prominent magazines of his time, including Harper’s Magazine, Century Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly.
Allen was born in 1829 on a farm near Lexington, Kentucky where he was exposed to a genteel life in the ante-bellum South. By his early 20s, the Civil War and reconstruction had altered the world in which he had been reared. This later created a distinct division in the themes of his work. James Klotter, Kentucky historian, says that six of his first eight novels was of that “. . . idealistic, romantic world filled with stories of honor and chivalry, where gallant and noble gentlemen courted women of spotless virtue.” The second half of his work was set in “. . . industrial America where, it seemed, ethics were replaced by greed, honor by corruption, purity by vulgarity.”
Many of his novels were controversial, dealing with seldom discussed subjects for the time—Darwinism, religious doubt, sex, infidelity, and breaking with other prevailing codes of honor.
He graduated from Kentucky University (now Transylvania University) at Lexington, Kentucky in 1872 and finished a Master’s degree there in 1877. He taught at various schools in Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia. Allen moved to New York City in 1893, in an effort to promote his writing career.
In 1894 his novel, A Kentucky Cardinal, was released, making him a commercial as well as a critical success. It was followed by the best-selling novel, The Choir Invisible in 1897. His last published book The Landmark coincided with his death in 1925. Literary critic George Brosi says that “Although his works were very pleasing in their flowing style, they were also substantive, dealing with important themes of the day, often at the cutting edge of discourse.” Other critics have suggested that he was among the last to promote the themes of pre-Civil War gentry in the South.
When The Choir Invisible was released in 1897, it received high praise. William Morton Payne wrote in the Dial: “Hardly since Hawthorne have we had such pages as the best of these.” Bliss Carmen wrote in the Boston Transcript: “There are two chief reasons why Mr. Allen seems to be the first of our novelists to day… he has a prose style of wonderful beauty, conscientiousness and simplicity… He has the inexorable conscience of the artist[;] he always gives us his best.”
Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988)
Harlan Hubbard’s realization that industrialism and consumerism posed a threat to the environment and to human survival changed his life forever. So did his marriage to Anna Eikenhout in 1943, his subsequent 1944 launch of a shanty boat onto the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky for an eight year-long adventure, and his return to live a Thoreauvian life at Payne Hollow in Trimble County, Kentucky. When writer and director Morgan Atkinson produced the 2012 documentary “Wonder: The Lives of Harlan and Anna Hubbard,” she declared: “What Henry David Thoreau did for two years Anna and Harlan Hubbard did for forty except they did it in the 20th century. Anna and Harlan chose to live life as few people in modern times have. In so doing they inspired thousands.”
Anna and Harlan welcomed countless numbers of visitors to their humble abode on the river. Sometimes, entire classes of college students studying botany, writing, art, music, or utopian societies came to visit. Some just came to help in the everyday chores of gardening, cutting firewood, cooking, or helping check Harlan’s trot-lines on the river.
Harlan was born in 1900 in Bellvue, a city in Northern Kentucky opposite Cincinnati, Ohio. After the death of his father in 1907, he moved to New York City when he was eight years old to be with two older brothers. He was educated at Childs High School in the Bronx, the New York National Academy of Design, and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Although Harlan and Anna were well known for their Thoreauvian lifestyle, Harlan is best known as a writer. His books Shantyboat and Shantyboat in the Bayous document their river journeys, while Payne Hollow and Journals, 1929-1944 lay out his philosophy of the well-lived life.
Harlan published twelve books from 1953-1996, including journals, travel essays, and artwork (woodcuts and paintings) with publishers such as Dodd-Mead, Eakins Press, Oyo Press, Larkspur Press, Gnomon Press, and The University Press of Kentucky.
Officials at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft have said of Harlan Hubbard:
“In the tradition of naturalists like Thoreau, Muir and Abbey, Kentuckian Harlan Hubbard began to live a life of communing with nature, not fearing it. Harlan and his wife Anna became new prophets of environmentalism and sustainability, and made it their concerted mission to fully explore the symbiotic relationship of humans to the natural world.”
Anna passed in 1986 and Harlan in 1988. They bequeathed Payne Hollow to Paul Hassfurder, an artist they had befriended.
Bobbie Ann Mason (1940-)
Western Kentucky native Bobbie Ann Mason has been writing and publishing since the 1970s. Her first book publication was her dissertation Nabokov’s Garden: A Guide to Ada released in 1974. To date, she has published 17 volumes including five novels, seven collections of short fiction, one memoir, one biography, and two works of literary criticism. Her publishers have included Harper and Row, HarperCollins, Random House, and others.
Mason once said: “I grew so sick of reading about the alienated hero of superior sensibility who so frequently dominates 20th Century American literature that I decided to write fiction about the antithesis.” As a result, she is known for launching a movement in fiction known as “Shopping Mall Realism” because of its realistic regional dialogue. She is frequently labeled as a minimalist or “dirty” realist, and most identifies with what John Barth called “blue-collar hyper-realist super minimalist.” Mason has said that her style “comes out of a way of hearing people talk.” Many of her stories place characters at transitional points in their lives where they are forced to make hard decisions. David Quammen of the New York Times Book Review said, “Loss and deprivation, the disappointment of pathetically modest hopes, are the themes Bobbie Ann Mason works and reworks. She portrays the disquieted lives of men and women not blessed with much money or education or luck, but cursed with enough sensitivity and imagination to suffer regrets.”
Her most critically acclaimed book is the collection of short stories Shiloh and Other Stories (1982). Novelist Ann Tyler hailed her in the New Republic as “. . . a full-fledged master of the short story.” Robert Towers in The New York Review of Books said, “Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader.” Another critic characterized this work as describing “. . . the lives of working-class people in a shifting rural society dominated by chain stores, television, and superhighways.” Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Southern Review, Mother Jones, and other nationally recognized magazines.
Mason’s awards include: Best American Short Stories (1981), Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for Outstanding First Works of Fiction (Shiloh and Other Stories, 1983), Best American Short Stories (1983), The Penn/Hemingway Award (Shiloh and Other Stories, 1983), National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction Finalist (Shiloh and Other Stories, 1983), National Book Award Finalist (Shiloh and Other Stories, 1983), PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist (Shiloh and Other Stories, 1983), The National Endowment for the Arts Award (1983), Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), Pushcart Prize (1984), O. Henry Award (1986), O. Henry Award (1988), National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for Fiction (Feather Crowns, 1993), Pushcart Prize (1996), Pulitzer Prize finalist in Biography (Clear Springs, 1999), Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award (2010), The Southern Book Award for Fiction (Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, 2002), Kentucky Book Award (Elvis Presley, 2004), Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts (2012), Kentucky Literary Award from the Southern Kentucky Book Fest (The Girl in the Blue Beret, 2012).
She graduated from the University of Kentucky (B.A., 1962), the State University of New York at Binghamton (M.A., 1966) and the University of Connecticut, Storrs (Ph.D., 1972).
Alice Hegan Rice (1870-1942)
Alice Hegan Rice was born in Shelbyville, Kentucky at the home of her grandfather, Judge James Caldwell. Her parents, Samuel and Sallie Caldwell Hegan lived near the Cabbage Patch settlement in Louisville. Because of health issues, Alice was prevented from starting her formal education until the age of ten when she entered Miss Hampton’s College, a private school in Louisville where she studied writing and drawing, among other subjects. After graduation, she embarked on several benevolent, socio-economic, altruistic ventures among the underprivileged in the Louisville, Kentucky area.
Rice was made famous by her best-selling novel Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1901) which sold 650,000 copies in its first two years. The novel was inspired by her involvement with the city’s poor children in the slum known as the Cabbage Patch district where, at the age of 16, she served as an aide at a Presbyterian mission Sunday school. Alice and Mary Louise Marshall, daughter of Superintendent of the mission Burwell K. Marshall, founded the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Louisville in 1910.
This novel has been reprinted over 50 times, translated into several languages, and was the basis for numerous stage, screen, and radio productions. There were four Hollywood movie versions of this work. The best known is the 1934 film starring Zausa Pitts and W. C. Fields. The last was the 1942 film adaptation starring Oscar winning actress Fay Bainter who portrayed Mrs. Elvira Wiggs. Rice published two sequels to Mrs. Wiggs, including Lovely Mary (1903) and Mr. Opp (1909).
Critic and scholar Mary Boewe in her book Beyond the Cabbage Patch: The Literary World of Alice Hegan Rice (2010) said that in Rice’s idyllic view and the reader can see through the Wiggs story: “… the obvious elements of Victorianism: the virtues of domesticity, an exaltation of motherhood, the work ethic, the evils of drink, female interdependence, child-rearing techniques, child labor concerns, social welfare programs, and the intricacies of etiquette.”
Shortly after the publication of that first novel, Alice Hegan married established dramatist and poet Cale Young Rice on December 18, 1902. In 1910, they built a house in the art community of St. James Court in Louisville. The union of these writers led them to produce dozens of literary works during the next forty years.
This couple were well known in the 20th Century publishing world which often put them at social and literary events that included such iconic personalities as Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Henry Watterson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thornton Wilder.
In a review of Boewe’s book Wes Berry says:
Beyond the Cabbage Patch is like reading the society pages of American culture during the early decades of the twentieth century… Boewe captures the flavors of the decades―especially in Louisville―with reviews of social balls and theater events, excerpts from Rice’s correspondence with editors and friends, and news of the world beyond Louisville, as when the big war begins in Europe.
Rice published more than twenty books between 1901 and 1942 with prestigious publishers such as The Century Company, D. Appleton-Century-Crofts, Grosset and Dunlap, and others. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch produced royalties that financed international travel to Japan, England, China, India, Korea, and Egypt, as well as vacations to California, Florida, and New York.
Critics place Rice in the Modernist era, during which she published a sub-genre of tragicomic stories about Louisville’s disenfranchised tenement-dwelling poor and some sentimental fiction, heavily influenced by her international and domestic travels and active social and family life. She also authored two children’s books.
Rice died February 10, 1942 and is buried at the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky. Her autobiography The Inky Way was publish posthumously in 1942.
Jean Ritchie (1922-2015)
Jean Ritchie said in her book The Singing Family of the Cumberlands:
I was born in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, on the eighth day of December 1922. I think I was a little of a surprise to my mother who had thought that if a woman had a baby in her fortieth year it would be her last. Mom had my brother Wilmer when she was forty, and she settled back to raise her thirteenth young uns with any more interference. Then when she was forty-four, I came along.
Jean was the youngest of 14 children, who grew up in Kentucky’s Cumberland Mountains where her family had lived since the 1700s. She helped raise and prepare food by hand, learning at an early age to plant, harvest, and prepare food. She was familiar with the use of handmade tools. Music accompanied almost every part of her family’s life. Dulcimer, guitar, and fiddle music was prominent in their work, church services, weddings, and funerals.
Much of this music had roots in the British Isles and was handed down from generation to generation. As with any music and lyrics, many variations evolved. For example, there are dozens of versions of the traditional English ballad “Barbara Allen.” She once said, “It was always a wonder to me how families living close to one another could sing the same song and sing it so different,” she wrote. “Or how one family would sing a song among themselves for years, and their neighbor family never knew that song at all. Most curious of all was how one member of a family living in a certain community could have almost a completely different set of songs than his cousins living a few miles away.”
She was a fierce promoter of these songs and frequently sang traditional ballads such as “Barbara Allen,” “The Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird,” and “The Cool of the Day” in her unique, haunting, acapella soprano voice. Audiences often reported that the hair stood up on their necks when they heard her perform.
Jean was destined to become an iconic figure in American folk music. She was discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax, performed at Carnegie Hall, at London’s Royal Albert Hall and, in 1959, at the first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, along with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. She became a fixture at Greenwich Village coffeehouses, was often on the New York radio broadcasts of folk singer Oscar Brand. She was a powerful influence on Bob Dylan, performed with such luminaries as Doc Watson and Leadbelly; her songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, Dolly Parton, and others.
“There is no one else in her category,” Lomax told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1989. “She has devoted herself to her heritage and the struggle to convey it in all its majesty and beauty.”
Ritchie also wrote many famous original songs, including “Black Waters,” “Blue Diamond Mines” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” Her discography includes 33 albums recorded between 1952 and 2002.
Ritchie was a 1946 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kentucky with a degree in Social Work. She worked, for a short while in New York at the Henry Street Settlement, an educational and social services center on the Lower East Side.
She published ten books between 1964 and 1988. Dozens of articles appeared in Sing Out, Mountain Life and Work, The Ladies Home Journal, and others. Countless numbers of articles were written about her, appearing in prestigious newspapers, magazines, and books.
Ritchie married photographer and woodcraftsman George Pickow in 1950, and together they published books and music, owned a recording label, and operated a dulcimer-making shop in Port Washington, N.Y. She passed June 1, 2015 in Berea, Kentucky where she had lived since her husband’s death in 2010.