The South | Kentucky | UK

The UK Connection
by Tom Thurman

Southern American literature of the 20th century is dominated by the figure of William Faulkner, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Oxford, Mississippi. Many people, however, overlook the fact that Faulkner’s work was out of print by 1945, and that only through the efforts of teacher, scholar, and author Malcolm Cowley was Faulkner rescued from literary obscurity. (That scenario underscores the significant link between those who write and those who teach writing, a point to which we’ll return.) Writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty later became prominent contributors to the Southern literary renaissance, and today authors like Larry Brown, Harry Crews, and Lee Smith continue to explore Southern territory.

Kentucky contributed many authors to this collection of work held together by a strong sense of place. An abbreviated list of major Kentucky writers includes Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, James Still, Harriette Arnow, and of course Robert Penn Warren, the only person ever to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry. A more contemporary catalog of writers with strong Kentucky connections would have to include Marsha Norman, Barbara Kingsolver, George Wolfe, and Chris Offutt, among many others.

The University of Kentucky has played a major role in the nurturing and development of literary talent within the state, particularly in the 1950s. Attention had already come to a creative writing teacher at UK through the work of A.B. Guthrie, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for his novel The Way West. Walter Tevis, a student of Guthrie’s, later developed into one of the country’s more popular novelists through works like The Hustler (1959), which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Paul Newman. During this fertile period of the 1950s, two UK writing teachers emerged who would exert a major influence over their students: Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel.

Both men had achieved recognition through publications of their own, yet it was the guidance and inspiration they provided for five young aspiring Kentucky writers for which they may now be best remembered. Those writers are Wendell Berry, Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

These five do not constitute a “school” or movement of any kind. They do not think of themselves in this manner, and neither should anyone else. They do share a common background—all were born in Kentucky except for Gurney, who was born just across the state line in Grundy, Virginia, but was raised in Hazard, Kentucky—and a common point in time, having been born between 1932 and 1940. They all now live in Kentucky, after much coming and going (see our illustrated timeline for more about the complex, intersecting trajectories their lives have followed). And they all have at one time or another been employed by the University of Kentucky, in various capacities and for varying lengths. But it was their shared experience as students at UK during the 1950s that served as the foundation for their mutual friendship. There they encountered other young people who shared their literary ambitions—and teachers who made them believe that a life devoted to such ambition was actually possible.

Both Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel left lasting impressions upon those who came into contact with them. Ed says of Summers that “He was punctilious. He made sure you dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s, and he was a very good, sharp critic.” Hazel, on the other hand, “sort of went for the bigger picture. He wanted the language to come to life. He was hoping to get a kind of poetry out of us, even in the fiction classes.”

But the influence of these two teachers extended far beyond the classroom. Gurney remembers that Summers “was very cultivated and sophisticated. That such a person would accept me, it was very encouraging.”

Hazel, especially, left his mark in ways other than on the page. In fact, says Jim, “He operated completely outside the classroom. And you might say he would be better called a mentor than a teacher. He was our guide.”

Bob Hazel Handsome and charismatic, Bob Hazel was a larger-than-life figure who dropped the names of famous writers as if they were close friends, talked about a glamorous former life in Greenwich Village, ran up beer tabs with students at the campus hangout favored by the artsy crowd, and invited them to his home to talk writing and to socialize with his beautiful young wife. “He fancied himself as young and mod and hip and on the radical side of things—a cutting-edge kind of figure,” Gurney recalls.

Though Bobbie Ann, as the young woman in the group, was not part of the “boys’ club” surrounding Hazel, she, too remembers him as an inspirational figure. “Robert Hazel was this personality that drew people toward him, people who wanted to say something and be an artist,” she says. “He made being an artist or a writer sound glamorous and important.”

Among Hazel’s specific advice to his charges: Leave. If you want to write, go away from Kentucky and experience something of the world.

And so, armed with a passion for words and a desire for exploration, all five young writers left the state for extended periods of time. But then, having established their literary reputations, they gradually returned, and today all five live in Kentucky again.

All five also have maintained ties with the University of Kentucky. Gurney and Jim both teach at UK, Wendell and Ed have each done so in the past, and Bobbie Ann is the university’s first Writer-in-Residence. The joint reading that was the basis for the Living by Words television production, in October 2001, was a celebration of friendship and an acknowledgment of the importance of Hollis Summers, Robert Hazel, and UK in all of their lives.

by Gregory A. Waller
Chair, Department of English
University of Kentucky

Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman form a peculiar sort of literary community that stretches over decades, tied by place and by a life-long commitment to writing as expression and profession, art and calling. Theirs is a community that in the 1950s—and in a place like Kentucky—could probably only have been formed around a university or college. We’re all lucky that their lives intersected in Lexington. All five of these world-class writers came through the University of Kentucky’s Department of English, had some of the same teachers, overlapped in and out of their classes. What’s amazing decades later is to see the ongoing weaving of their lives and to hear five voices that are so complementary and yet so individually distinct as they speak through a full range of literary genres: poetry, short fiction, novel, essay, and memoir. Together and individually, these writers are a testament to the enduring power of place and to the too-often overlooked diversity of Kentucky.

It is encouraging to think that these five authors could carve out a space at UK in the 1950s, finding inspiration and encouragement in what was no doubt a pretty straight-laced English Department. All, in turn, have at some point found their way back to UK. And thus it is with great pleasure and gratitude that the Department of English is able to help applaud the accomplishments of Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman—acknowledging their good spirits and their dedication to the writing life and celebrating their ability to draw from, attend to, chastise, laugh at, and evoke Kentucky over the last decades of the 20th century and now into the 21st.

Photo of Bob Hazel © copyright James Baker Hall. All rights reserved.