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Literary Kentucky
by Gurney Norman

This essay was written to accompany an exhibition of manuscripts, photos, letters, and other material related to Kentucky writers. Organized by the Special Collections & Archives department of the University of Kentucky’s M.I. King Library (see our interview with the curator), the exhibit was part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of its Creative Writing Program held by the UK English Department in 2001. Gurney Norman is the director of the Creative Writing Program.

When I came to the University of Kentucky as a freshman in 1955, I quickly discovered the Margaret I. King Library. Work assigned by my professors sent me there on official study business nearly every day. As I became familiar with the library, I felt so comfortable in the general atmosphere that it literally felt like home. I had the sense that, even as a student, the library was something I was part of, that I was welcome there as a member. The reference room, the browsing room, the periodical room, the endless rows of books in the stacks, all drew me like a hungry person to a banquet table. Simply browsing through the card catalog was its own deep satisfaction.

Some time in my first year as a student at the University, I discovered Special Collections. I went looking for it after one of my professors told me the library collected materials by writers—such things as letters, manuscripts, photographs—and it was possible to go look at them. In high school I had read books by many Kentucky writers, including John Fox Jr. The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903) and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908) had both made strong impressions on me. Encouraged by the professor, I made my way to an upper floor of M.I. King and spent an hour reading through a sheaf of letters John Fox Jr. had written by hand.

This was an uncanny experience for me at the time, and I’m not sure just why. I know it had to do with the handwriting. The hand that wrote those letters had also written words in books that had filled my mind with permanent pictures, images, and characters. The boy Chad and his dog Jack in Little Shepherd. Chad riding the log rafts down the Kentucky River to the Bluegrass. The beautiful June Tolliver leaning against the tall pine tree in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Fox’s handwriting made me feel that I was close to the source of something magical, something about art, story, literature that filled me with awe.

It has been nearly one hundred years since John Fox Jr. wrote The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. The entire twentieth century has come and gone since that novel entered the American consciousness. What we have of that century now are human memories and material records of the time. In this new twenty-first century, life is lived at a pace that was unimaginable in Fox’s day. The tempo of modern living and our new means of communication do not encourage the processes of memory or of record-keeping as they were practiced by the older generations. Family storytelling is not strong in today’s society. Writers no longer produce “manuscripts” as in former times. It’s hard to know what a collection of literary artifacts might look like one hundred years from now. Already library collections include audio-visual and digital literary archives. Whether such materials will have the power to produce a sense of awe in those who view them remains to be seen.

One thing we do know, though, is that, as the decades of the twentieth century unfolded, writers in Kentucky did their work and so did the librarians. In the past one hundred years, UK’s Special Collections (now called Special Collections & Archives) has gathered a large and comprehensive collection of primary literary materials. The collection is still housed in the M.I. King Library, though in quarters substantially larger than the single room I discovered nearly half a century ago. While the primary users of these materials are scholars, the collection is a treasure belonging to all the people, a part of Kentucky’s true common wealth.

The “Literary Kentucky” exhibit focuses on materials from Kentucky writers of the twentieth century. It is not meant to be a comprehensive representation of all important writers from Kentucky. Far from it. All of Kentucky’s university and college libraries have collections of rare and significant materials by Kentucky writers. Most institutions of higher learning in the state offer creative writing courses and programs that have made major contributions to the cultural life of Kentucky and the nation. As the new century begins, the entire state of Kentucky is experiencing a moment of phenomenal literary ferment as books by Kentucky writers pour from the presses at the rate of several per week. Many of these novels, short stories, poems, essays, and autobiographies have received critical acclaim.

Already 2001 has proven to be memorable in the University’s literary history. One of the highlights of the year has been former UK student Kip Cornett’s substantial financial gift to support the English Department’s Visiting Writers Series. This gift has allowed the Department, for the first time, to do long-range planning for visits to the campus by prominent authors.

New books by former UK creative writing students Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Baker Hall, Leatha Kendrick, and Maurice Manning mark 2001 as an historic year. Mason, a 1962 graduate of UK, returned to her alma mater in 2001 as the new University Writer-In-Residence. James Baker Hall, a former UK student and for twenty-seven years a teacher of creative writing at UK, was named Kentucky’s Poet Laureate in 2001. His new book of photographs, A Spring-Fed Pond, will appear in October [2001]. A related event was the summer publication of Home and Beyond, a collection of short stories by Kentucky writers, edited by Morris Grubbs, who recently completed his Ph.D. in English at UK. Such a moment in any program’s history clearly calls for a celebration.

Special Collections & Archives has generously timed its “Literary Kentucky” exhibit to coincide with the first week of the UK Creative Writing Program’s “Half-Century of Excellence” celebration. Public readings and other literary events are scheduled monthly through next April. Creative Writing at UK is (with no pun intended) a storied program. There have always been talented students at the University who showed early interest in writing fiction and poetry. Novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, a Lexington native, is perhaps the best-known literary person to graduate from the University in the pre-war era. Hardwick graduated from UK in 1938 and stayed on to earn her Master’s Degree in English in 1939.

But the seed of the modern creative writing program we enjoy at UK today was planted in 1947 when Lexington newspaperman and fiction writer A.B. Guthrie Jr. began offering fiction writing classes on the UK campus. Following the success of his second novel, The Big Sky, in 1947, Guthrie’s third novel, The Way West, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950.

Guthrie left Kentucky in 1952, but not before influencing a generation of student writers at UK, including one young student named Walter Tevis, who showed Guthrie his short story about pool players. Tevis was a UK graduate who later went on to complete an M.A. in English at UK. With early encouragement from Guthrie, Tevis expanded his pool player story and saw it published in Esquire under the title “The Best in the Country.” Tevis continued working on his pool player story until it was published as the novel The Hustler in 1959. Paul Newman starred in the movie based on The Hustler, a role he reprised years later in The Color of Money, based on Tevis’s novel of the same name.

For some reason, I have always been fascinated by such literary lore connected to country places and towns I have lived in and identified with. There’s something about the convergence of story and landscape, of myth and reality that is meaningful to me in ways I can’t explain. I think many people who have strong place-identity share this fascination. For me, it has to do with tracks laid down by predecessors, and with evidence of their presence in such forms as literary archives. It meant something to me that my own creative writing classes in 1957 and 1958 met in the same McVey Hall classrooms that A.B. Guthrie and Walter Tevis and Billy C. Clark and so many other talented writers had inhabited only a few years before I arrived on the UK campus. Billy C. Clark was a young Korean War veteran who entered the University in 1953 and, under Dr. Hollis Summers’ tutelage, published a book of short stories while still an undergraduate student, followed by a novel the next year. It was meaningful that Dr. Hollis Summers had known Guthrie and had worked with Tevis and Clark and others, and now Dr. Summers was my teacher, too. Stories of my predecessors at UK who had found literary success fired my imagination and made me feel that I was part of a continuity, a member of something grand.

Established authors who occasionally visited the campus were part of this sense of membership. Hearing Robert Frost read his poems in Memorial Hall, shaking hands with Randall Jarrell in the Department hallway, having Jesse Stuart visit my writing class, all were important experiences.

As I took the full series of creative writing courses, I met other young students who took writing seriously and knew at an early age that writing would be a central part of their lives. Between 1952 and 1958, Wendell Berry, Billy C. Clark, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, Bobbie Ann Mason, and many other young writers came to the UK campus and found their way to the creative writing program. Prominent in my own life at the time was my friend William Moseley, a fine short story writer whose work appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review. A complete list of writers in the UK community in the 1950s would be long indeed.

The fact is, every decade since Guthrie taught his first fiction writing class has produced its own list of talented students who have gone on to publish significant poetry, fiction, and essays. One of my greatest satisfactions as a teacher of creative writing at UK since 1979 has been to witness the progress of my own former students. In 2000, Old Cove Press published a book of poems called Affrilachia by Frank X Walker, my student in the early 1980s. Through his poems about family relationships, issues of social justice, and feelings of connection to historic land, Walker asserts that African-American people in Kentucky have as strong a regional identity as anyone. “Indeed some of the bluegrass is black,” says Walker in his poem “Kentucke.” When Walker coined the term “Affrilachia” in the early 1990s, he expressed a sense of identity that many other young black writers felt, too, thus bringing into being the most dynamic literary group in Kentucky in the 1990s, the Affrilachian Poets.

For all our celebration of Kentucky writers who have, in varying ways, found a national audience, our “Literary Kentucky” project would not be complete if we did not acknowledge the many Kentucky writers whose work has been of the highest order but has not commanded national attention. The poet Albert Stewart of Knott County was such a writer. Soon after completing his M.A. in English in 1943, Stewart entered the Navy and saw action in the South Pacific. Some of his poems have to do with sea duty in wartime. In addition to his two fine books of poetry, The Untoward Hills and The Holy Season, Albert Stewart worked all his life to cultivate the literary fields of Kentucky so that younger writers might find opportunity. As poet, teacher, editor, publisher, and organizer of writers’ conferences, and as a personal mentor to young writers for fifty years, myself among them, Al Stewart designed his own literary career, a career equal in value to that of any post-war Kentucky writer.

Albert Stewart died in the spring of 2001 at the age of 87. Twenty-seven days later, his fellow writer in Knott County, the renowned poet and novelist James Still, died at age 96. The passing of these venerable men of letters in Kentucky is a somber reason why 2001 will be remembered as a watershed year in Kentucky literature.

We are in a new time in literary Kentucky. An older generation is passing as a new one emerges. A sense of connectedness among writers and readers, old and young, creates a strong sense of literary community. The readers and writers in this community do not feel bound in some naïve or false agreement on the worth of particular books and writers. But they do feel honest appreciation of the fact that literature flourishes in Kentucky, that it is diverse and ongoing, and that it is an indispensable element of cultural continuity and change through time.

The Celebration of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Kentucky and the Special Collections & Archives’ “Literary Kentucky” exhibit are retrospective looks at a literary tradition. While honoring writers of the past and present, it is hoped that these events will serve as a welcome to the emerging young writers, readers, teachers, and archivists who will shape the future of letters in Kentucky.

9 September 2001


© copyright 2001, Gurney Norman. Reprinted by permission of the author.