Irvin 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 Awards 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 ardently anti-prohibition and a prominent member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) founded in 1919 by Capt. W.H. Slayton, a retired naval officer. The Association and its two most prominent members were credited as primaries in the demise of Prohibition in 1934. His crusade prompted one of his most famous novels Red Likker (1929) which was touted as being 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 the advent of Prohibition 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 was the author of sixty-nine 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, Piano Jim and the Impotent Pumpkin Vine, was released posthumously in 1950. Although many of his works have a serious bent, most were comedic, and infused with a healthy dose of rural Kentucky wit and hyperbolic humor.
In addition to his fame as a war correspondent, newspaper editor, and radio personality, Cobb became involved in the movie industry when three of his short stories were adapted to the screen in 1921. “All American Storytellers (an experimental sound short),” “Peck’s Bad Boy,” and “Pardon my French” were all released that year. 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 received more critical acclaim when he was paired with director John Ford, who made two major films based on his work. The first film, “Judge Priest” (1934), starred Will Rogers in the title role, with Cobb himself in a small part, and was filmed by Fox Studios.
The second, “The Sun Shines Bright,” was released by Republic Studios in 1953, nine years after Cobb’s death. 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.” The film cast Charles Winninger as Judge Billy Priest. One other film appeared in the interim, director James Whale’s “Showboat” (1936) starred Irene Dunn, Alan Jones, and Charles Winninger. During this time, Cobb was the darling of the Hollywood film industry.
During Cobb’s acting career, he appeared in ten movies between 1932 and 1938. His major roles were in “Pepper, Everybody’s Old Man” (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 such well-known writers as Joel Chandler Harris, but Cobb’s literary reputation faded rapidly at the turn of the 1940s. Many critics have suggested that Cobb’s 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 March 10, 1944 and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery at Paducah, Kentucky.
Joseph 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 the white-dominated world of the 20th Century. The great Black historian and author Joseph R. Kerlin said 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, Cotter 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 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 African-American students in Louisville, Kentucky. Cotter attended this 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 earned a college diploma, but by 1892 he 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 capacities at Western Colored School, Ormsby Avenue Colored School, Eighth Street School, Paul Laurence Dunbar School, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School in the Louisville, Kentucky area. He founded the Paul Laurence Dunbar School in Louisville in 1893 and served as principal of this African-American high school until 1911. He then accepted an appointment as principal at Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a position he held until 1942. Paul Laurence 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 lifetime friendship with him.
Cotter 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 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 to 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 Cotter’s 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, Kentucky home on March 17, 1949 and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery at Louisville.
A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (1901-1991)
Bedford, Indiana native A.B. 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. In 1944, Harvard University awarded him a year-long Neiman Foundation Fellowship. The Fellowship allowed Guthrie to design an individual course of study in creative writing.
In 1947, he published The Big Sky, a sweeping 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, called it a novel that “… belongs on the shelf beside the best stories Walter Edmonds and Kenneth Roberts have told of frontier days back East.”
In 1947, Guthrie accepted a position as Professor of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of Kentucky where he remained until 1952. This period was most productive for Guthrie, for it was 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 sweeping epic tale of a journey to the northwest, picking up where The Big Sky ended and telling the story of a group of men, women and children from Independence, Mo., travelling to the promised land of Oregon.
Actor Gary Cooper initially bought the film rights to The Way West, but never made the movie. He sold his rights for an estimated $40,000 to RKO/Winchester Productions. After some delay involving casting and production issues, Howard Hawks began filming in 1952. He cast Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jim Davis, and Elizabeth Threatt to fill the primary roles. Albeit a critical success, the film had lackluster box-office appeal. Another version of The Way West, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, was released in 1967 and starred 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.
Guthrie’s reputation led 20th Century Fox to buy the rights to his 1957 novel, These Thousand Hills, before it was in final galleys. In 1958, the film was released and starred 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 depicted an un-romanticized version of the settling of the West in America. Albeit, his fiction was replete with historical accuracy, his depictions of the challenges of the rugged landscape and frontier journeys were anything but idealized. Guthrie said of this practice: “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 was married to Harriet Larson in 1931 and with her had two children, Alfred B., III, of Choteau, Montana and Helen Miller of Butte, Montana. After Harriet Guthrie died in the early 1960’s, he married Carol B. Luthin (1969). She survived him, as did two stepchildren, Herbert Luthin, of Clarion, Pennsylvnia, and Amy Sakariassen, of Bismarck, North Dakota. Guthrie died in 1991 and is buried on his ranch in Choteau, Montana.
Gayl 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, which often brings Kentucky culture and characters to life for the reader.
Much of her desire to write came from her maternal grandmother, Amanda Wilson, who wrote plays for church productions, and from her mother, Lucille Jones, who wrote short stories to entertain Gayl and her brother Franklin, Jr. Jones says, “I have to say that if my mother hadn’t written and read to me when I was growing up I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it at all.” In elementary school, several of Jones’ instructors saw through her painfully shy exterior to the talented author blooming within and encouraged her to continue writing.
After graduating from Henry Clay High school, Jones took a considerable step away from her hometown and the South when she enrolled at Connecticut College. Her education there was funded through scholarships and support from the famed critic and fictionist Elizabeth Hardwick. In 1971, she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She was then accepted into the graduate studies creative writing program at Brown University, where two years later she earned her Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing. By 1975, she had also earned her Doctorate of Arts degree in Creative Writing from Brown University. While at Brown, Jones had her first play, Chile Woman, produced.
Although she has written in genres such as poetry, short stories, and critical essays, Jones is best known for her novels. During her years at Brown, Jones studied under poet Michael Harper, who introduced her first novel Corregidora (1975) to Toni Morrison, who became her editor. Much of Jones’ work explores a theme of contradictory and coexisting emotions. This theme, specifically of love and hate, is especially visible in Corregidora.
Following graduation, Jones’ second novel, Eva’s Man (1976), was published. She taught briefly at Wellesley College and then accepted a position as an assistant professor of English and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan.
During her tenure at the University of Michigan, Jones published a collection of short stories titled White Rat (1977), a volume-length poem Songs for Anninho (1981), and another volume of poetry titled The Hermit-Woman (1983). While at Michigan, Jones received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Society of Fellows. She also met and married Robert Higgins, a politically active student, who eventually took her last name in marriage.
Because of legal problems, Jones and Higgins left the United States in the early 1980s and moved to Paris, France for a self-imposed five-year exile. During this time, Jones published another novel, Die Volgelfaengerin/The Birdwatcher (1984?) in Germany, as well as a collection of poetry, Xarque and Other Poems (1985), in the United States. Her first book of criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), was published soon after Jones and her husband returned to the United States in 1988. After living very privately in Lexington for ten years, Jones came again into the media spotlight for the release of a new novel, The Healing (1998), which became a finalist in the National Book Award competition. Her most recent novel Mosquito was published in 1999.
Jones often uses colloquial African-American dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration that fuses time and place throughout her novels. Jones commented on her use of this type of narration in an interview with Roseanne P. Bell in Sturdy Black Bridges:
One of the things I was consciously concerned with was the technique from the oral storytelling tradition that could be used in writing. A story is told to someone in much the same way when Ursa sings. She picks out someone to sing to. The book has layers of storytelling. Perceptions of time are important in the oral storytelling tradition in the sense that you can make rapid transitions between one period and the next, sort of direct transitions.
Although Jones’ work has often been contested because of her controversial subjects and persistent news coverage about her personal life, her work continues to awe readers with its complex style and depth of emotion. She draws many of the themes from her African-American heritage as well as her own personal life and struggles. Perhaps most important are the psychological depictions of her characters whose voices shout their story, their song, and their truth from the pages of her work. Her readers cannot wait to hear what will come next from this quiet woman who writes out loud.
Barbara Kingsolver (1955-)
Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe characterized Barbara Kingsolver as the “… Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction…,” primarily because social activism is at the core of most of her published work. What has driven Kingsolver throughout her writing career is a focus on environmental issues, political criticism and activism, and the role biological and scientific fact plays in interactions with the universe. She is concerned with the resulting consequences for citizens, families, and communities in their emerging world. Her ultimate focus has been on the relationship between art and politics, and man and nature.
Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, the daughter of Dr. Wendell R. Kingsolver, a physician, and his wife, Virginia, but grew up in Carlisle, Kentucky in Nicholas County where her father had a medical practice. When she was seven, her father took the family to Léopoldville, Congo, where her parents worked as missionaries in public health. This experience later prompted Kingsolver to publish the novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998). This epic story about an Evangelical Christian family on a mission in Africa became her best known work. Selling over four million copies, this best seller was short-listed for both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 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: The Making of an Unfriendly World (1984), 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.”
In addition to awards for The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver has been the recipient of numerous other awards and honors. Her most notable awards include: the 2000 National Humanities Medal (awarded by U.S. President Bill Clinton), James Beard Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Edward Abbey EcoFiction Award, the Physicians for Social Responsibility National Award, and the Arizona Civil Liberties Union Award. Her novel The Lacuna won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Every book that Kingsolver has written since her 1993 novel Pigs in Heaven has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2011, she was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. Kingsolver is the first ever recipient of the newly named award to celebrate the U.S. diplomat who played an instrumental role in negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. In 2014, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Library of Virginia. The award recognizes outstanding and long-lasting contributions to literature by a Virginian. 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 freelance newspaper and magazine articles and 14 books including novels, short stories, and essays.
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… the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you’ll behave to other people. It is… a powerful craft…
Kingsolver has plied this power to create indelible characters and stories that draw the reader into their saga and circumstances.
One seminal moment, in the direction of Kingsolver’s thematic focus, came 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 investigating human-rights violations and supporting 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 activism, not only in human rights, but in other political issues. Since then, Kingsolver has been deeply involved with disparate parts of America.
Barbara Kingsolver says of her writing process: “I tend to wake up very early. Too early… I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.”