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Curating Kentucky
An Interview with Jim Birchfield

James Birchfield is the curator of books for Special Collections & Archives at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library. In the fall of 2001, he curated an exhibit entitled “Literary Kentucky” that complemented the series of readings given by Kentucky writers as part of the UK English Department’s celebration of 50 years of creative writing. (See the accompanying essay by Gurney Norman.) The exhibit included manuscripts, photographs, and other material related to the five writers featured in Living by Words as well as other Kentucky authors.

The interviewer was KET’s Guy Mendes, producer/director of Living by Words.


Guy: | Tell me how this exhibit came to be.

James Birchfield: | Gurney had been eager to see a display of contemporary Kentucky authors come together, and with 2001, he thought this would be a great time to carry this out. So we got together and did some planning, borrowed some photographs, borrowed some manuscripts, pulled some things from our collection, and installed a very nice show. We have a survey of Kentucky writing from 1900 to 2000, and then with special emphasis on Kentucky authors who have been associated with UK: Bobbie Ann Mason, Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman himself.

Guy: | Can you give me your take on Kentucky’s literary tradition?

Jim: | I think Kentucky is very fortunate in its literature, and I think there’s great enthusiasm for it and great interest in it. I think in a way it comes from the tradition of literary realism. And 1900, where we begin, is interesting because it leaves what’s called a genteel tradition and goes into the field of realism, which comes through Mark Twain and the oral tradition of storytelling and making literature the way people really speak and think and talk. I think Kentuckians respond to that. And I think our writers are especially gifted at it, and I think we benefit from that sense of immediacy in discussion and storytelling. Gurney himself makes the point that Kentuckians have a tradition of storytelling, an oral tradition of literature and song, and that they do respond to that.

Guy: | Would you list some of the Kentucky writers who have contributed to Kentucky’s tradition and whose work is represented in this exhibit?

Jim: | Kentucky has produced some real jocks in the field of not just Kentucky literature, but American literature. We have people like Elizabeth Hardwick, for example, who graduated from UK, went to New York, married Robert Lowell, and was the founder of the New York Review of Books. We have a manuscript of one of her books on exhibit, and we have several of her published books to show as well.

There’s Allen Tate, who was from Winchester. We have a nice interesting letter from Allen Tate, an original manuscript, on display, with several of his books. His wife, Caroline Gordon, was from the same town as Robert Penn Warren. We have several of her books on view, and then we have several shelves of Robert Penn Warren, who was from Todd County. We have about half of Robert Penn Warren’s manuscripts, and he’s been here, read for, spoken at the University of Kentucky and has had a nice relationship.

We have, also, Walter Tevis’s chief book, The Hustler. We have the typescript here in the cabinet, which he gave to the library some years ago, and we have an edition of it published by the Oxford University Press. We have books by Pulitzer Prize winner A.B. Guthrie and books by Harriette Arnow, who wrote The Dollmaker. That was made into a movie with Jane Fonda, a TV movie. So we have any number of major figures who have come out of Kentucky and made American literature great in the 20th century. So those are things that strengthen this show and make it very appealing.

Guy: | Why do a show like this?

Jim: | A show like this is important to the community and important to the library because it shows the importance of preserving the materials that generate the publications that people use for research, for entertainment, and that preserve our history. And you can see that in something like the Harriette Arnow materials, where we have the little blue quiz booklets where she begins to write her book, and then we have a typescript, and then we have her corrected proofs, and then we have the final book—you can see a book in the making. You can see a book being created, just the way you can see with Gurney’s manuscripts, in his cabinet, paper that’s been typed and then that’s been written on in pencil and written on in red ink. It shows the creative process to the public and helps them understand how a work of art is generated with words.

Guy: | Could you speculate on the impact of this particular group of five writers who came through UK in the ’50s?

Jim: | I think it’s certainly fair to say that the UK writers that began here in the 1950s have had a lot of impact on the future of Kentucky literature because so many of them have been involved in education. And many of them, while they taught at other places, have come back to UK in a number of instances and have had students of their own. They’ve inspired other writers the way A.B. Guthrie inspired writers at UK like Walter Tevis, and the way Hollis Summers did. It’s kind of a regenerative process in that, I think, the success of these people will inspire others [who] will create new successes—as with the Affrilachian poets, for example, that Gurney Norman has been very eager to foster here.