Cleanth Brooks (1906-1994)

Cleanth Brooks was one of 20thcentury America’s most respected literary critics and influential literature professors.

With Robert Penn Warren, his classmate and longtime colleague, Brooks wrote the classic college textbooks Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). They promoted what became known as the New Criticism, which focused on a close reading and structural analysis of literature. Brooks and Warren, along with Charles W. Pipkin, founded and edited The Southern Review, a leading literary journal and served as a model for others.

Brooks was the son of the Rev. Cleanth Brooks Sr., a Methodist minister, and Bessie Lee Witherspoon Brooks. After receiving a classical education at McTyeire Institute in McKenzie, Tennessee, Brooks went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree summa cum laude in 1928.

Two significant literary movements began at Vanderbilt while Brooks was there: the Southern Agrarians and the Fugitive poets. Brooks made lifelong friendships with Warren and fellow writers John Crowe Ransom, Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson. Brooks did graduate work at Tulane University in New Orleans and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University’s Exeter College.

Louisiana State University hired Brooks as an English professor in 1932, and he remained there until leaving for Yale University in 1947. Brooks was on the Yale faculty until retirement in 1975, but he took leave to serve as a visiting professor at several universities, including UCLA and the University of Texas, and as culturalattaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, 1964-1966.

Brooks received two Guggenheim Fellowships and honorary degrees from many universities, including the University of Kentucky. Brooks was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Philosophical Society. The National Endowment for the Humanities in 1985 chose Brooks to give the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government’s highest honor for achievements in the humanities.

Brooks was married to Edith Amy Blanchard from 1934 until her death in 1986. He is buried in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Gray Zeitz (1949 – )

 

Lucy Furman (1869-1958)

Lucy Salome Furman attracted national attention with her popular short stories and novels about small-town and rural life in both eastern and western Kentucky around the turn of the last century.

Furman was born in Henderson County to Williams B. Furman, a physician, and Jessie (Collins) Furman. They died when she was a child, and Furman moved across the Ohio River to Evansville, Indiana. She graduated from Sayre School in Lexington in 1885 and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then back to Evansville in 1889. Furman began supporting herself as a court stenographer and writer.

She wrote a series of short stories that were serialized in Century Magazine, 1894-1896, and then published as a book, Stories of a Sanctified Town(1896). The stories were fictionalized accounts of life in Robards, a small Henderson County community.

Furman moved to the mountains of Knott County in 1907 to take a job as director of grounds, gardens, and livestock at Hindman Settlement School, which had been established five years earlier. During 17 years on the Hindman staff, Furman turned her observations into short fiction for Century Magazineand The Atlanticand five best-selling novels.

Furman returned to Henderson in 1924 and became an animal rights activist. She wrote and lectured about the cruelty of steel-jaw traps and became vice president of the Anti-Steel Trap League, based in Washington, D.C.  In 1934, Furman proposed an anti-steel trap bill to Kentucky’s General Assembly, which was later approved. She retired in 1953 and moved to Cranford, New Jersey, where she lived with a nephew.

 

Hollis Summers (1916-1987)

Hollis Spurgeon Summers Jr. wrote many novels, collections of poetry, and short stories during an award-winning career teaching English at Georgetown College, the University of Kentucky and Ohio University.

Summers was born in the Henry County town of Eminence to Hollis Spurgeon Summers Sr., a Baptist minister, and Hazel (Holmes) Summers. He grew up in Campbellsville, Louisville and Madisonville, where he graduated from high school. Summers earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown College (1937), a master’s from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont (1943) and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa (1948).

City Limit(1948) was the first of his five published novels. His short story collection How They Chose the Dead: Stories was published in 1973. Many of Summers’ tales were set in Kentucky. A frequent theme was the conflict between religion and romantic love. After leaving Kentucky for Ohio, Summers focusing on poetry and published six collections.

He edited the anthology Kentucky Story(1954) and, with Edgar Wahn, wrote the textbook Literature: An Introduction(1960). He also wrote the suspense novel Teach You A Lesson(1956) under the pseudonym Jim Hollis.

Summers began his teaching career at Holmes High School in Covington, then spent five years at his alma mater, Georgetown College, before joining the University of Kentucky’s English faculty, 1949-1959. During that decade, he and colleague Robert Hazel taught and mentored students who would become famous Kentucky writers, including Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman.

Summers was distinguished professor of the year in UK’s College of Fine Arts in 1959. He left UK that year for Ohio University, where he was named the university’s distinguished professor in 1964. Summers spent the rest of his teaching career at Ohio, retiring in 1986. He was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in 1974 and a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1978. Ohio University Press administers the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, which has a $1,000 cash prize.

Summers died after a long illness and is buried at Millersburg Cemetery in Bourbon County, Kentucky. He was married to Laura Clarke Summers, who died in 2001. They had two sons: Hollis S. Summers III and David Clarke Summers.

 

Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Sam Shepard was the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of 44 plays whose work reimagined the landscape and people of the American West. He became one of the best-known playwrights of his generation.

Shepard also wrote short stories, essays, screenplays, and memoirs. He was a movie star, whose Oscar-nominated acting and rugged good looks made him a celebrity. If that wasn’t enough, Shepard also was a musician and a horse breeder who lived much of his last 17 years on a small farm near Midway, Kentucky.

He was born Nov. 5, 1943 in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, as Samuel Shepard Rogers III. He was named for his father, a teacher and farmer, and was called Steve. His mother, Jane Schook Rogers, also was a teacher. Shepard grew up in Duarte, California, around horses, riding in rodeos and working on a ranch and as a hotwalker at Santa Anita Park racetrack.

After briefly studying animal husbandry at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California, Shepard joined a touring repertory company. He moved to New York in 1962, became involved in the off-off-Broadway theater scene and adopted the name Sam Shepard.

The first plays Shepard wrote were performed at small, experimental theaters. His science fiction play, The Unseen Hand, was said to have later influenced Richard O’Brien’s musical, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Shepard and then-lover Patti Smith wrote Cowboy Mouth (1971). As a screenwriter, he contributed to Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother(1968) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point(1970).

As playwright in residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, Shepard wrote some of his most notable plays, including Buried Child(1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for five Tony Awards. Two other plays, True West(1980) and Fool for Love(1983) were nominated for the Pulitzer. He won 10 Obie Awards for writing and directing between 1966 and 1984.

Shepard attracted attention as an actor when he played a farmer in Days of Heaven(1978). His portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff(1983) earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. When Robert Altman made his 1985 movie of Fool for Love, Shepard wrote the screenplay and played the lead. Among his other movie appearances: Frances(1982), Steel Magnolias(1989), Black Hawk Down(2001), Blackthorn(2011), and Never Here (2017), which was filmed in 2014. Shepard appeared in the Netflix television series Bloodline, 2014-2017.

Shepard and Bob Dylan co-wrote the song “Brownsville Girl.” He performed occasionally as a drummer with the psychedelic folk band The Holy Modal Rounders and later played banjo on Smith’s cover of the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Shepard was married from 1969 to 1984 to actress O-lan Jones, with whom he had a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard. From 1983 until 2009, he was in a relationship with actress Jessica Lange, with whom he had two children, Hannah Jane Shepard and Samuel Walker Shepard.

Shepard was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986.

In 2000, Shepard bought Totier Creek Farm in Scott County near Midway. He bred Thoroughbreds, including multiple stakes winners Two Trail Sioux and China. He lived a quiet, private life in Kentucky and was often spotted alone in the town’s restaurants. Parts of the 1999 movie Simpatico, based on Shepard’s 1994 play, were filmed in Kentucky.

Shepard died July 27, 2017 at his farm from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

 

Sena Jeter Naslund (1942- )

Sena Jeter Naslund of Louisville is the author of several internationally bestselling novels. She also is an award-winning teacher who helped start and nurture two influential university creative writing programs in Kentucky.

Sena Kathryn Jeter is the youngest of three children and only daughter of Flora Lee Sims Jeter, a music teacher who played piano and violin, and Marvin Luther Jeter, a physician who died when she was 15 years old.

A talented cellist, she gave up a music scholarship to the University of Alabama to study English at Birmingham-Southern College. Naslund graduated in 1964 and was accepted into the prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. She earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.

Naslund’s first book, a collection of short stories, Ice Skating at the North Pole, came out in 1989. She published her first two novels in 1993, The Animal Way to Love, and Sherlock in Love. Then she got a whale of an idea: a take on Moby Dickthrough the eyes of Captain Ahab’s wife, who rated only a mention in Herman Melville’s classic novel.

Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer became a bestseller when published in 1999, the same year as her second collection of short fiction, The Disobedience of Water: Stories and Novellas. Both books are about human relationships and emotions, touching on themes Naslund has explored many times in her fiction: the quest for compatible relationships and a questioning of spiritual and philosophical issues.

The success of Ahab’s Wifetook Naslund around the world for readings and signings. Then she decided her next novel must keep a promise she made to herself four decades earlier in Alabama. The result was Four Spirits (2003), her second bestseller. It weaves together the lives of racists and civil rights crusaders, blacks and whites around the 1963 bombing at Birmingham’s 16thStreet Baptist Church, which killed four girls and wounded 14 other worshipers.

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette (2006), was Naslund’s attempt to “set the record straight” about the queen who lost her head during the French Revolution. That book was followed in 2010 by another historical novel of sorts, Adam & Eve, which explores the impact of science and the way people interpret sacred texts.

Naslund’s most recent novel, The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman (2013), brings historical fiction home — literally. The novel-within-a-novel tells the story of 18thcentury painter Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, a survivor of the French Revolution who was widely disliked for her sympathetic portraits of Marie Antoinette, and a fictional contemporary writer living in Naslund’s home on Old Louisville’s St. James Court.

After teaching for a year at the University of Montana, Naslund joined the University of Louisville’s English faculty in 1973. She was director of Louisville’s creative writing program for a dozen years and found time to be a visiting professor of creative writing at Indiana University and Vermont College.

Naslund helped start and was program director of Spalding University’s acclaimed Low Residency MFA in Writing program. She also founded Louisville Reviewand Fleur-de-Lis Press, which publishes the first books of authors whose work has been featured in the literary journal. She fully retired from teaching in 2017.

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