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Inspired by Stephen Bishop

The story of slave and Mammoth Cave guide Stephen Bishop has served as inspiration for at least two literary works: Elizabeth Orndorff’s prize-winning play Death by Darkness and Davis McCombs’ book of poetry Ultima Thule.

Davis McCombs spent several years as a park ranger at Mammoth Cave, exploring the same dark passages Bishop explored in the mid-19th century. In his preface to Ultima Thule, McCombs introduces facts about Bishop, “the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave from 1839 to 1849.” Bishop was a cave guide until his death in 1857, and he is credited with discovering miles of passageways. The book also includes a reproduction of a map of the cave made by Bishop and published in 1845.

Ultima Thule is organized in three sections. The opening section is in Bishop’s voice. In the other two sections, McCombs explores the history of the cave and the world both above and below ground in his own voice, sharing with Bishop a love for and fascination with this geological wonder. In his introduction to the book, poet W.S. Merwin writes, “In the poems in Bishop’s voice McCombs gives us a language that is, necessarily, his own, and in doing it plainly and without emphasis he creates a haunting, echoing distance, a sound from some unidentifiable place.”

Ultima Thule was the 2000 winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. Learn more about McCombs at the NEA Writers’ Corner and at bookclub@ket and about the history and culture of Mammoth Cave and Stephen Bishop at the Mammoth Cave web site.