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‘How Come There Are So Many Good Writers Working Now in Kentucky?’
by James Baker Hall

This article appeared in the March/April 2002 edition of Blue Moon, a bimonthly arts magazine published by the Kentucky Arts Council.

In correspondence recently with a New York literary agent, I found scrawled across the bottom on a typewritten letter, “How come there are so many good writers working now in Kentucky? Isn’t this a subject for investigation?” The number of significant national and international reputations in progress hereabouts is indeed worth noticing. Translators the world over are trying to figure out the way Kentuckians talk because of the work of Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, Chris Offutt, and others. Of the last seven winners of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the most prestigious award for first volumes, three have been Kentuckians, which means the next generation of exceptional accomplishment is emerging.

The numbers attract attention, and so does the fact that most of these “good writers” working now in the state are Kentuckians writing about things Kentucky. In my rounds as Poet Laureate I make sure to celebrate all this, ask those listening to take notice. Shiloh and Other Stories, The Memory of Old Jack, Come and Go, Molly Snow, Clay’s Quilt—I start naming names and titles, and people in the audience sometimes join in, The Natural Man, Kinfolks, and what about Crystal Wilkinson and Blackberries, what about Maurice Manning, T. Crunk, Davis McCombs? However many get named, the ones unmentioned constitute the weight beneath the surface that moves the tip in such an interesting way.

How could all this be happening in a state infamous for its illiteracy, where even the privileged are too often scarred by philistinism? Is it explained simply by the existence of limestone in the drinking water, or is it more complex than that? Does our proximity to the big caves work us in our sleep, leading us to dig deeper and stay under longer, to comprehend more readily that the rocking world rests on the back of a turtle emerging from slumber?

“When did it start?” I was asked last night at a meeting of the Harrison County Book Club. In the first half of the twentieth century Robert Penn Warren, the U.S.’s first Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer in both fiction and poetry, gave the state something it hadn’t had before to be proud of, and there were other writers of lasting accomplishment in that era; Elizabeth Maddox Roberts and Harriette Arnow, to mention only the first two that come to my mind. But the story I’m alluding to is of the second half, and involves a lot more than place of birth. Although some of Warren’s stories are set in the state, and he is obviously and importantly a Southerner, his reputation attaches him more to Yale and such like than to us. His friends, the poet Alan Tate and the critic-scholar Cleanth Brooks, were likewise born in the state, but it takes a bean counter to claim them—it’s like the Jews wanting Jack Benny and Sammy Davis Jr. on their list.

Perhaps the most coherent and easily told part of the story, for sure the only part I’m qualified to tell, commenced in the mid-fifties at UK. Wendell, Ed, Gurney, Bobbie Ann, and I were students there, getting a fire lit by a real fire-lighter, the poet Robert Hazel, and by the community of ambition he created. Robert singled us out for special attention and encouraged us to think of ourselves as would-be members of the world family of art, with deeper ties to Chekhov and Flaubert than Jesse Stuart and Cotton Noe. Although Bobbie Ann wasn’t transformed on the spot by Robert and his teachings and delivered to the rest of her life straightway, we guys were, more or less, or so it seems to me now. Our continuing friendships have been important to our lives as artists, in matters large and small. We line-edited each others’ work on and off for years; we passed inspiration and challenge and confidence and support and encouragement back and forth. You’d be hard put to find four more different spirits, nor is there anything here the literary historians would call a “school,” but there is something of a family; the bond of our common heritage and formative experience has proven profound and lasting.

That we all returned to the state to live after significant time elsewhere, and to UK to teach the courses that had such an influence on our lives—with Bobbie Ann now among us, as UK’s first (non-teaching) Writer-in-Residence—is one of the more obvious episodes in the story now attracting attention in the literary world. None of us would have been the same, probably, without the others, nor without the direct and indirect influence of Robert Hazel. Which thank God doesn’t “explain” the first thing about Guy Davenport or Kristina McGrath or James Still. How could it be otherwise among cave-dwellers, on the rocking back of the turtle?

Or Normandi Ellis, or Nikky Finney, Chris Offutt, Jane Gentry, Chris Holbrook, Frank X Walker, Jeffrey Skinner, Silas House, Sena Naslund, Gayl Jones, Dot Sutton, Martha Bennett Stiles, Harry Brown, Mary O’Dell, Marcia Hurlow, Kathleen Driskell, Paul Griner, Lynn Pruett, Steven Cope, Kim Edwards, Cia White, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Erik Reece, Fred Smock, Jonathan Green, Frank Steel, Peggy Steel, George Ecklund, Sue Grafton, Sarah Gorham, Leatha Kendrick, George Ella Lyon, Richard Taylor, Jeff Worley, Joe Survant, Fred Smock, or any of the other working Kentucky fiction writers and poets publishing nationally whose names I’m sadly forgetting at the moment, or don’t know about to begin with.

© copyright 2002, Kentucky Arts Council. Reprinted by permission.