TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE
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Writers of Tennessee
The literature of the early settlers is found in the written forms with which they transacted the business of their everyday lives. These trail-clearers, fort-builders, and Indian-fighters gave historians of a later day the framework of their collective biography in the various documents they published.
The first writers, in the professional sense of the word, were concerned with religious and political controversy, history, and law. J. G. M. Ramsey, a physician and scholar, wrote the one-volume Annals of Tennessee (1853), a valuable and detailed source of information on pioneer life and government. Through his newspaper and broadside writings he was instrumental in the building of the first steamboat in Knoxville and in securing the first railroads for East Tennessee. John Haywood, of Nashville, justice of the State supreme court, was the author of the widely known Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee (1823). His Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee (1823), a book now all but forgotten, is sought by collectors.
Charles Todd, a Presbyterian minister and newspaper editor, is believed to have been the State's first novelist. His Woodville, or, The Anchoret Returned (1832) is wholly a product of Tennessee. At a date when book-publishing was considered the exclusive province of the northeastern States, this 278-page novel was published from the printing shop of F. W. Heiskell in Knoxville, on thin linen stock that came from an East Tennessee paper mill. The book's pages differ in size, but the type is uniform and clear. Woodville contains little local color. The author states in his preface that, since the novel's characters and scene have "true-life" origin, he judges it honorable not to be explicit. Therefore, the village S----- "is situated in a lovely valley and immediately on the shore of a beautiful river." The emotions of his characters Todd describes in the ponderous and moralistic style of the early nineteenth century.
In pioneer days, when an editor could term a fellow citizen a "lowborn loon" with no fear of legal aftermath, newspapers in Tennessee were usually one-man affairs. A printer by profession, the publisher aired his own opinions and gathered his paper's news. The pioneer newspaperman set up his business in centers of State or Territorial government. The birth of the newspaper was often due to some cause vital to the community's growth (such as agitation for railroads). When the cause was won or lost, the newspaper ceased to exist. Or, if rumor reached the publisher's ears that some settlement was having a livelier contemporary history than the community in which he was then working, he moved his newspaper there.
George Roulstone, a New Englander, published the State's first newspaper, the Knoxville Gazette, at Rogersville, November 5, 1791. As soon as the Indian troubles subsided - these having prevented the paper's first issue from being published in Knoxville - Roulstone moved his newspaper to that center of State government and there continued its publication.
Mark Twain's "Journalism in Tennessee," with its uproarious account of fist fights, duels, and horse whippings among editors, was small exaggeration. Well toward the close of the last century Tennessee editors were an outspoken and violent breed. Characteristic of the vituperative type of editor was W. G. (Parson) Brownlow who contributed forcefully to early journalism. From 1843 when Brownlow's Whig, published in Jonesboro, won its fight against Andrew Jackson and the Democratic supremacy, his papers continued to be storm centers of political and religious turmoil. The Whig was removed to Knoxville in 1849; and in 1861, because its editor openly supported the Unionist cause, the paper was suppressed by the Confederates. Brownlow resumed publication of the paper in 1863 when Union forces took possession of Knoxville; its publication was continued in that city until 1869. Brownlow was successively editor of the Daily Chronicle, the Independent Journal, and the Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator - a title later changed to Weekly Whig and Chronicle. "Cry Aloud and Spare Not," the belligerent motto of the paper, adequately characterized its editorial policy.
The first verse published in Tennessee appeared in the early newspapers; poems by the editor and literary subscribers were used as fillers or given column space on the last page of these four-page folios. In Colonel James Smith's Account of Remarkable Occurrences, published at Lexington, Kentucky, 1799, is what is believed to be the first poem composed in Tennessee territory. Smith, with four others, explored the Cumberland down to the Ohio in June 1776. At the mouth of the Tennessee three of the adventurers turned homeward, but Smith and a Negro boy continued their journey into Tennessee country. Smith received a severe cane stab in his foot and, while he waited for his injury to mend, he composed the poem that appears in his reminiscences.
David Crockett, Tennessee bear hunter, politician extraordinary and hero of the Alamo, was one of the first humorists of the South and a trail blazer for the American school of humorous writing. A thorough Tennessean, Crockett knew the State from Hangover Mountain to Reelfoot Lake Although there is much controversy over the authorship of A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee... Written by Himself (1834), the vital brawny qualities of the Colonel are unquestionably present in this hair-raising classic of the Southern frontier.
After his defeat in the race for Congress against Andrew Jackson's candidate, Crockett announced to the opposition, "You can go to hell, I'm going to Texas." There he wrote Col. Crockett's Exploits and Adventures in Texas (1836). In this book, in his autobiography, and in An Account of Col. Crockett's Tour to the North and down East (1835), Crockett describes how he drank, hunted, speculated, begot children, farmed badly, and, when settlers built cabins near him, moved farther into the wilds.
Little of permanent value was achieved in the fields of fiction, poetry, biography, or journalism until after the War between the States, but George Washington Harris and Opie Read further developed the humor of the mountains and the canebrakes. Harris, the first Tennessean to write realistically of the Appalachian mountain folk, introduced the lank uncouth East Tennessee mountaineer, Sut Lovingood, a chronic drunkard and "a nat'ral born durn'd fool," whose main purpose in life was to raise "perticklar hell." Readers of the Sut Lovingood Yarns (1867) were delighted with a kind of humor that depended on rowdy and ludicrous situations. The tortuous dialect, which all but requires a key, foreshadows the writing of Nye, Nasby, and others of the bucolic and red-flannel era of American life. Harris also wrote political articles.
Opie Read, of Nashville, the author of Len Gansett (1888), A Kentucky Colonel (1890), The Jucklins (1896), and numerous other novels, reports the customs and manners of earlier Tennessee in an easy conversational style. His pathos and humor, depending upon stock situations and obvious play on words, are in the vein of newspaper feature writing. Several of Read's novels were published in the Arkansas Traveler, of which he was the founder and editor (1883-91). After removing from Little Rock to Chicago, he wrote his autobiography, I Remember (1930).
The principal novelists of the late nineteenth century used the State as a background for romantic fiction, and of these John Trotwood Moore and Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary N. Murfree) are the best remembered. Moore, who came from Alabama in 1885, described Middle Tennessee in the years before and immediately after the War between the States. In The Bishop of Cottontown (1906) he attacked the system of child labor in Southern cotton mills. Miss Murfree chose the region of the Great Smokies for her pictures of a backwoods people and their never-ending struggles for existence. Drifting down Lost Creek, and The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885) are representative works.
Maria Thompson Daviess wrote of the Nashville region - Harpeth Valley, Providence Road, and Paradise Ridge. Her characters are kind-hearted, gentle country-folk who live in an aura of optimism. Some of the novels are propaganda for movements dear to the author; The Tinder Box (1917) deals with woman suffrage and Over Paradise Ridge (1915) with the back-to-the-farm movement. Henry Sydnor Harrison, of Sewanee, wrote several sympathetic novels about middle-class people. Queed (1911) and V.V.'s Eyes (1913) were best sellers.
The "lost cause" was a favorite subject of Tennessee poets of the period after the War between the States. Virginia Frazer Boyle, of Memphis, romanticizes the antebellum and wartime South in Love Songs and Bugle Calls (1906). Against the same background Abram J. (Father) Ryan, one of the prominent poets of the Confederacy, wrote mystic and devotional verse. Father Ryan saw action in the Tennessee campaigns, and in "The Conquered Banner" and "Sword of Robert E. Lee" he proclaims his unreconstructed sentiments.
Walter Malone, of Memphis, wrote serious verse and nature poems, profuse in imagery. "Opportunity" - a standby of expression teachers - found in his Songs of East and West (1906) and a lengthy narrative in verse, Hernando De Soto (1914), are his best known. Will Allen Dromgoole, of Nashville, wrote of the cabin dwellers of East and Middle Tennessee. For years she conducted a weekly page known as "Song and Story" in the Nashville Banner. In prose and poetry she used the dialects of the Negro, the mountaineer, and the "po' white trash." The Heart of Old Hickory and Other Stories of Tennessee (1895) and the Doll's Funeral juvenile verse, are representative of her work.
Many editors and historians made valuable contributions to the understanding of Tennessee. Albert Virgil Goodpasture, whose histories are source books for early State history, was co-author, with William Robertson Garret, of the History of Tennessee, Its People and Its Institutions (1900).
Will T. Hale, of Clarksville, editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Nashville American, and Knoxville Sentinel, described the rural sections, and in dialect verse and prose interpreted the homely philosophy of Tennessee villages and farms. Among his best known works are Showers and Sunshine (1896), poems; The Backward Trail (1899), stories of the Indians and the Tennessee pioneers; and Great Southerners (1900), biographical sketches.
Robert Love (Bob) Taylor, editor of the Taylor Trotwood Magazine, was a humorist of the old school. Gov. Bob Taylor's Tales (1896) contains "The Fiddle and the Bow," and some of his most quoted lines. A1most every Tennessean knows at least one Bob Taylor yarn. C. P. J. Mooney, editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, wrote in defense of the interests of the farmers of Tennessee and the mid-South.
The Sewanee Review, founded at the University of the South in 1892, claims to be the oldest quarterly in the United States in continuous publication. Among its famous editors have been William Peterfield Trent and John Bell Henneman. Under William S. Knickerbocker, its present editor, the Sewanee Review has published much competent literary criticism during the past decade.
Many of the younger Tennessee writers show a lively and skeptical interest in State history, past and present, and a large part of their efforts has been directed toward reinterpreting the South of the War between the States. In biographies of statesmen and military leaders, panoramic novels, and volumes of poetry, they patiently vivisect the period and its people. Commonly they are protagonists of the South, but with no rosecolored conception of the aristocratic tradition of the Old South. The modern writer breaks with the past, and his sentence structure is as unconventional as his viewpoint. He gives his attention to the everyday life of the common people, too frequently disregarded or depicted romantically in earlier Southern literature. In direct and vigorous prose that often has a stark beauty, these writers tell the story of sharecropper, politician, mountaineer, and frontiersman. If the scene of the book is contemporary, the bitter details may have their origin in the author's own life.
Of first rank among genre writers is T. S. Stribling, of Clifton, realist of the Tennessee and North Alabama hills. His novels, written in a straightforward, forceful style, deal with the moral codes, social practices, and economic conditions of Southern life. Stribling's first novel, Birthright (1922), his Teeftallow (1926) and Bright Metal (1928) are all set in Middle and West Tennessee. Two adventure novels, Fombombo (1923) and Red Sand (1924), and the short story collections, Strange Moon (1929) and Clues of the Caribees (1929), have a Venezuelan background. Stribling's most important work is the trilogy, The Forge (1931), The Store (Pulitzer Prize novel, 1933), and the Unfinished Cathedral (1934). The trilogy presents the rise of unscrupulous Miltiades Vaiden from middle-class Baptist farmer to storekeeper, cotton speculator, banker, and High-Church Methodist, and the retribution that overtook him when a poor-white enemy dynamited him in the unfinished cathedral that was to have been his monument.
Harry Harrison Kroll, of Murfreesboro, has written of the East Tennessee Mountains in Three Brothers and Seven Daddies (1932) and of the West Tennessee cotton country in The Cabin in the Cotton (1931). His vivid, often crude technique achieves a striking realism. His latest novel, I Was a Sharecropper (1937), is autobiographical. In 1938 one of Kroll's short stories appeared in the O'Brien collection of best stories. Fish on the Steeple (1935) by Ed Bell, of Smithville, is a well-written story of everyday life in a small mountain town in East Tennessee. Bell's style is starkly realistic.
Two West Tennesseans who have written with understanding of their section are Ridley Wills, of Brownsville, and Jennings Perry, of Jackson. Wills' two novels, Hoax (1922), the life of a young man from the age of eighteen to twenty-seven, and Harvey Landrum (1924), a psychological study of chinless Harvey Landrum, who tries to conceal a sense of inferiority behind a false front of bravery, are written in a frank but restrained prose style. Perry's Windy Hill (1926) is a love story with Jackson for its background.
Caroline Gordon (Mrs. Allen Tate), of Clarksville, writes of the Middle Tennessee planters before and after the War between the States. Penhally (1931) and Aleck Maury, Sportsman (1934) are her earliest novels. None Shall Look Back (1937) is a careful study and evaluation of the war in the eastern section of the State. Her latest novel is The Garden of Adonis (1937), in which she deals with the tenant-farmer situation. Miss Gordon has received a Guggenheim fellowship, and her short stories have appeared in the O. Henry and O'Brien collections.
Evelyn Scott, of Clarksville, has made outstanding contributions in the fields of fiction, poetry, and autobiography. Although Evelyn Scott is concerned more with the portrayal and analysis of emotions than with political, military, or social events, the war background of her Civil War novel, The Wave (1929), is lucidly and authentically presented. Her prose works include her autobiographical Escapade (1923); the novels The Narrow House (1921), The Golden Door (1925), Migrations (1927), Blue Rum (1930); a collection of short stories, Ideals (1927); and two books for children, In the Endless Sands (1925), written in collaboration with Cyril Kay Scott, and Witch Perkins (1929). Two volumes of her poetry have been published: Precipitations (1920) and The Winter Alone (1930). In Background in Tennessee (1937), Evelyn Scott gives a frank account of the social life and customs in her native State.
Maristan Chapman, of Chattanooga, writes of-the Cumberland Mountain folk. Among her outstanding novels are Happy Mountain (1928), Homeplace (1929), Glen Hazard (1933), and Eagle Cliff (1934), written in collaboration with her husband, John Stanton Higham. (Chapman is Mrs. Higham's maiden name, and Maristan is a combination of Mr. Higham's middle name and his wife's given name.) All of these books are distinguished by simplicity of style and intuitive understanding of the mountain people. The characterizations and descriptions have a quiet charm, a lightness and freshness of approach.
John Porter Fort, of Chattanooga, has written with power and sincerity of the under-privileged groups. His Stone Daugherty (1929) and God in the Straw Pen (1931) show a deep understanding of pioneer life, and especially of the early revival movement. His first novel, Light in the Window (1928), deals with the development of an idealistic young Southerner.
Roark Bradford, of Memphis and West Tennessee, presents the Southern Negro with more realism and appreciative understanding than did many earlier writers. Ol' King David an' the Philistine Boys (1930) and the John Henry stories (1931) are the result of years of study and association with the workers of plantation, river, and city. In 1927 Bradford's short story, "Child of God," won the O. Henry Award; Green Pastures, Marc Connelly's stage adaptation of Bradford's Ol' Man Adam and His Chillun (1928) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. His latest book, The Three Headed Angel (1936), has the Tennessee hills for its background.
Negroes who have been concerned with problems of their race are George Lee (Beale Street; 1934); Thomas Talley (Negro Folk Rhymes; 1922), George McClellan (The Pathway of Dreams; 1916), and Thomas 0. Fuller (A Pictorial History of the American Negro; 1935).
Poetry of the period revolves around the Fugitive group, which was organized at Vanderbilt University in 1922, under the leadership of John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Ridley Wills, Merrill Moore, and Allen Tate. These poets have announced that "to the last degree in their poems they are self-convicted experimentalists." Through the Fugitive, a magazine of poetry published for three years at Nashville, the group has left its mark on present-day thought in the South. The work of Ransom, a student of John Donne, was first appreciated in England. The author of three books of poetry, Poems about God (1919), Chills and Fever (1922), and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927); the religious work God Without Thunder (1930), and numerous critical articles, he has received many poetry awards and a Guggenheim fellowship. Davidson is thoroughly Southern in his critical essays and in his two volumes of lyric and narrative poetry, The Tall Men (1927) and Lee in the Mountains and Other Poems (1938). Merrill Moore, of Nashville, adapts the sonnet form to modern thought in his The Noise that Time Makes (1929) and Six Sides to a Man (1935).
An outgrowth of the Fugitives is the Agrarian group. In the anthology I'll Take My Stand (1930), "all articles tend to suggest a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way; and all as much as agree that the best terms in which to represent the distinction are contained in the phrase, Agrarian versus Industrial." In Who Owns America; A New Declaration of Independence (1936), jointly edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, twenty-one essayists suggest what they believe to be the best means of bringing about adjustments necessary to save the democratic way of life. The Tennessee Agrarians include Ransom, Tate, Davidson, Frank Owsley, and Lyle Lanier.
One of the ranking critics in the South is Dr. Edwin Mims, head of the English department of Vanderbilt University and contributor to the Dictionary of American Biography, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and other scholarly publications. Dr. Mims has made a special study of the poetry of Sidney Lanier. The Advancing South (1926) and Adventurous America (1929) are excellent presentations of his critical opinion.
Dr. Walter Clyde Curry, a member of the Vanderbilt English department, is an authority on Chaucer and Shakespeare. His Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences (1916) is a close study of Medieval medicines and the part they played in the Canterbury Tales. Philosophical Patterns in Shakespeare (1937) is the most recent work in his series of literary interpretations.
Samuel Cole Williams, of Johnson City, has made significant contributions to Southern historical writing in his Early Travels in Tennessee (1926-28), The Lost State of Franklin (1930), Beginnings of West Tennessee (1933), General John T. Wilder (1935), and Dawn of Tennessee Valley and Tennessee History (1937). His accounts of pioneer life and government are carefully documented and accurate and show a broad outlook, free from provincialism. Judge Williams' lifetime connection with the State bar furnished first-hand material for his History of Codification in Tennessee (1932). He has edited Timberlake's Memoirs (1927), Adair's History of the American Indian (1930), and an eight-volume Annotated Code of Tennessee (1934-35).
Philip Hamer, of Knoxville, is the author of the four-volume Tennessee, a History (1933), which is recognized as a standard work. Colonel Austin P. Foster, of Nashville, a man well-versed in Tennessee history, wrote (with John Trotwood Moore) Tennessee, the Volunteer State (1923), a book that is both readable and useful. Dr. Robert White, of Nashville, is a student of contemporary life. His Tennessee, Its Growth and Progress (1936) has been adopted by the State textbook commission for school use. The Sequel of Appomattox (1921), by Walter L. Fleming, of Nashville, is a study of Reconstruction days. Frank Owsley, of Nashville, has described in King Cotton Diplomacy (1931) the Confederacy's long and unsuccessful effort to gain the friendship and support of Europe. Robert Selph Henry, a native of Clifton, has given an authentic interpretation of the war period in The Story of the Confederacy (1931) and The Story of Reconstruction (1938).
George Fort Milton, Jr., editor of the Chattanooga News, is the author of The Age of Hate (1930), a biography of Andrew Johnson, and The Eve of Conflict (1934), a study of Stephen A. Douglas and the "needless war." Andrew Nelson, of Murfreesboro, author of the biography, Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (1931), has also written a fine historical novel of the War between the States, The Long Night (1936), in which the Battle of Shiloh is vividly described. Among Tennesseans who have written biographies of Andrew Jackson are James Parton (A Life of Andrew Jackson; 1859-60), and Samuel G. Heiskell (Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History; 1918). Richard Halliburton, of Memphis, with The Royal Road to Romance (1925), The Flying Carpet (1932), and other books of travel, has appeared regularly on the best-seller lists. T. H. Alexander, of Franklin, writer for the Nashville Tennessean, is one of the leading contemporary columnists in the State.
Of late years Tennessee newspapers have become almost indistinguishable from other standard papers published in the United States. The Nashville Tennessean, the Nashville Banner, the Knoxville Journal, the Chattanooga Times, or the Memphis Press-Scimitar might well be printed in Seattle, Miami, or Bangor, so far as style and makeup are concerned. Only on the editorial pages are found traces of the vigorous individualism which was the hallmark of Tennessee journalism in the early days. As late as 1908, Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Nashville Tennessean, was assassinated in the heart of the downtown district of the capital city because of his strong anti-liquor editorials.
Among present-day Tennessee papers of pre-Civil war vintage are the Memphis Commercial Appeal (1840), the Nashville Tennessean (1812), the Franklin Review Appeal (1813). Influential among county papers are: the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle (1808), the Athens Post-Athenian (1838), the Columbia Herald (1850), the Gallatin Examiner-Tennessean, the Pulaski Citizen (1854), and the Cleveland Banner (1854). The drift of population to the cities has caused a sharp decrease in the number of county papers. At the same time, due to consolidation and the economic depression, the total number of the State's news publications has declined rapidly. From 302 in 1913 there remained only 181 in 1937; of these, 148 are weekly and 33 are daily papers.
The South's native contribution to music has received interesting treatment by Tennessee writers. Folk Songs of the American Negro (1915), the work of John Wesley Work, Sr. (completed by his son, John Work, Jr., of Nashville), is the first serious study by a Negro of the musical expression of his race. In the same field James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1929) is widely known. Dr. Johnson, who was a resident of Nashville, was a poet and scholar, as well as a writer and collector of songs. His talents are represented by The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a novel; God's Trombones (1927), seven Negro sermons in verse; and Along This Way (1933), an autobiography. George Pullen Jackson, of Nashville, made a detailed study of mountain folk music in White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands (1933). W. C. Handy, of Memphis, composer of the "St. Louis Blues," is the author of Blues, an Anthology (1926), a study of jazz.
The folk background of this literature of music and the general interest in genre writing may indicate the trend of Tennessee literature of the future.
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TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE