Elizabeth Lamont, PhD
1920s LMU and the Flowering of Appalachian Literature
About two years ago, I received an email from LMU historian Earl Hess asking me if I’d like to write a few chapters of a larger LMU history he was planning. My task would be to explore the role LMU played in the development of three of our most famous alumni, the Class of 1929’s James Still, Don West, and Jesse Stuart. I jumped at the chance. As Berea’s George Brosi has marveled, “Never before or since has such a distinguished group of writers graduated from any regional institution in the same year.” Indeed, the three form what is today viewed by regional literary critics as “the headwaters of Appalachian literature.”
At LMU, Stuart is probably the best known. A prolific and internationally celebrated poet, short story writer, and novelist, he was beloved by millions of Americans, and Esquire magazine’s most frequently published writer before the Second World War. His phenomenal success earned him the title of Appalachia’s best-selling author.
James Still, hailed as “The Dean of Appalachian Literature,” was the recipient of prestigious literary awards and fellowships too numerous to mention, and as early as the 1930s his advocates included Robert Frost and Robert Lowell. His novel River of Earthwas declared a “work of art” by Timemagazine.From the 1970s on, Still’s exalted position within the Appalachian literary canon has remained unrivalled.
Don Westspoke through his poetry, stories, and essays for working-class and Appalachian pride. His second book of poems, Clods of Southern Earth, is claimed to have sold more copies than any book of American poetry with the exception of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.Considered Appalachia’s literary conscience, West blazed the trails for later generations of socially-conscious mountain writers.
As enthusiastic as I was about my new project, however, I had excellent reason to believe that LMU had littleimpact on the three men’s development as writers. Regional scholars have been arguing for decades that 1920s LMU was little more than a “primitive mountain institute” and that it wasn’t until Still, West, and Stuart embarked on graduate studies with Vanderbilt’s Agrarian elites that they encountered a cultural milieu valuing and nurturing students with literary talent and aspirations. While scholars did acknowledge that West and Stuart hadbeen inspired by one teacher at LMU, English professor Harry Harrison Kroll, they observed that we fired him in Stuart’s and West’s junior year, effectively ending whatever peripheral role LMU played in their literary development. As for James Still, conventional wisdom was that the university played no role in his development as a writer except for providing him with access to the library in which he labored as a janitor and—shades of Lincoln—taught himself late into the night.
My search for the facts began with the excavation of relevant documents housed in LMU’s archives and those of more than twenty universities or private collections. And what I turned up painted a far different picture of 1920s LMU than the scholarship had led me to expect.
First, I discovered from LMU publications written before Kroll’s arrival that university officials were already taking pains to describe themselves as promoting, among other qualities associated with Lincoln, the literary genius which inspired the son of a poor backwoods farmer to write the simplest and most profound statement of American principle, The Gettysburg Address. But more to the point, LMU officials and faculty, all largely outsiders, viewed the advancement of literary culture among southern mountaineers as the most efficient means to attain their larger goal of “educational uplift.” As a result, they had their students join literary societies, such as the one Still, Stuart, and West joined, Grant-Lee -- in lieu of what faculty and administrators at the time dismissed as “Greek societies with barred doors guarded by snobs.” Each year, members of LMU’s literary societies competed with one another for monetary prizes in poetry, fiction, the essay, and oratory, with the winners honored at formal banquets. More awards were given for literary achievement than in any other pursuit at 1920s LMU.LMU’s student newspaper trumpeted opportunities for students to enter national short story and poetry contests offering thousands of dollars in prizes. “What is Poetry?” one article in The Blue & Grayasked, “why, it’s the thought of a god sent to earth to be crucified by men, and resurrected, and later worshipped by only a few.” When the Jenkin Lloyd Jones Chair of English Literature was established in 1924, student attendance at the ceremony was mandatory. There, students were reminded that a love of literature was vital to the “abundant life, as literature provided blessings and unexpected resources of pleasure and inspiration amid the struggles and poverty, the monotony and loneliness, and the ever recurring moods and sorrows of human life.” The speaker – a visiting minister, mind you -- went so far as to warn that students remaining indifferent to the literary arts were doomed to live “stupid and dull lives.”
And LMU’s Class of 1929 seems to have more or less bought it. According to a poll published in the student paper, The Blue & Gray,the 38-member class of 1929 voted English “the most popular course” on campus. Their “favorite author” was Shakespeare, followed by nobody’s idea of an easy read, Thomas Hardy. So much for the theory that Still, Stuart, and West would not encounter a literary environment until they embarked on graduate studies at Vanderbilt.
Photograph by Jackie Walker
But I also learned that the celebrated Kroll didn’t just appear here, as if by magic. The prolific poet and short story writer was hired by LMU President R.O. Matthews as part of his larger mission to professionalize LMU’s faculty in the mid-twenties. Announcing that the university would begin hiring only professors who were “trained and equipped not alone to teach an art or science but to be able do what [they] teach others to do,” Matthews’ philosophy was, at least with regard to the teaching of creative writing in American colleges and universities, decades ahead of its time.
Indeed, Kroll’s contract stipulated that he was not to serve just as an English professor but to write while on campus, and thus “inspire [his students] by example.” Intentionally or otherwise, Matthews ensured that, from 1926 to 1928, LMU’s English program mirrored those at only the most forward-thinking universities. Not even the Ivy League schools did so at the time, and to this day, the majority of American colleges do not teach creative writing courses, much less hire writers-in-residence. As Jesse Stuart recalled, “For us students, Kroll was the first flesh-and-blood writer we ever met. When we passed by his house late at night we’d see his light on and him through the window working furiously on his novel.” For his part, Kroll was not satisfied to merely model the writing life to his aspiring student writers. He immediately set to work establishing LMU’s first literary magazine, Lyrics from LMU. In its introduction, the rural proletarian Kroll’s respect for his Appalachian students is obvious. “The students whose work goes into this little volume are mountain boys and girls,” he wrote. “That they possess ability and marked promise will be evident. . . . Best of all, they typify the mountain spirit that knows no superior save God. Their words grow out of the soil from which they sprang which has given them a true feeling for beauty.”
Although, like many a writer before and since, Kroll proved a colorful and even scandalous figure on campus, he was a true visionary in the teaching of creative writing. His memoirs, and those of his students, as well as course descriptions in LMU catalogues from the time, make it evident that Kroll instituted the exact kind of creative writing workshops at LMU that were being simultaneously explored at The University of Iowa in the mid-to-late 1920s. Ultimately Iowa’s experiment gave rise to The Iowa Writers Workshop, which would be America’s premiere writing program for half a century. LMU fired Kroll for many reasons, not the least of which was that he wrote a novel here deemed too racy by others on campus, The Mountainy Singer,but the fact remains that from 1926 to 1928 – the Class of 1929’s freshman, sophomore, and junior years -- LMU’s writing students benefited from cutting edge creative writing pedagogy, assuming they so chose.
Traditional practice at the time focused student attention on the imitation of Anglo-American stylistic touchstones, but Kroll directed LMU’s students’ attention homeward to the Appalachian experience and language. He ordered Stuart and West, for example, to write about only the “vital things of their lives . . . the cabin hearthstones, the mountain burial plots, the camp meetings, blood feuds, and the mountaineer’s eternal struggle with the earth and seasons.” He dared them to “write the wildest stories that ever happened” back home so such tales wouldn’t die, and to write like “folks at home talked.” They were to crank it out, too, because, as Kroll warned, “Writers learn through trial and error. Mostly error. Writers learn by writing millions and millions of words.” Then he requiredthat they send their poems, stories, and essays to any of the hundreds of agricultural and church-affiliated magazines then headquartered in Nashville. “Damned,” wrote Jesse Stuart, if the campus “didn’t bloom in song, like England did in the reign of Queen Elizabeth” -- especially when word got around campus that one story could fetch as much money as a week’s worth of labor at the LMU rock quarry.
But no one twenty years ahead of his time goes unpunished, and inevitably Kroll ran afoul of his more traditional-minded LMU colleagues, particularly Lucia Danforth, a cultured PhD who sponsored a rival writing group on campus that stressed the traditional study of literary classics and aesthetics. Its student leader, as it turns out, was none other than James Still. Like Danforth, the reserved Still considered Kroll’s proletarian emphasis upon the quantity of writing produced and sold vulgar. In an undergraduate essay, Still no doubt echoed Danforth’s theories when he insisted that the purpose of campus writing groups should be to “create within students a desire to acquire literary taste – one that distinguishes between the good and the bad in writing.” Only the growing awareness of what made writing good allowed students to engage in “a spirit of clear and meaningful literary rivalry,” he argued. In later years, Jesse Stuart claimed that the “great rivalry” between Danforth and Kroll trickled down to their students and “divided” the college “into two literary camps,” but it’s hard to know how much of what he recalled was filtered through the dark lens of his and Still’s sometimes bitter rivalry in later life. What we can know is that the Kroll-Danforth rivalry provided LMU’s aspiring writers with something even the best creative writing schools often fail to: diversity of literary theory and practice.As such, 1920’s LMU couldnurture both the aggressively market-driven ethos of Jesse Stuart and James Still’s more high-brow aspirations.
And what about all that talk among scholars of James Still locking himself into LMU’s library late at night so that he might read the best of classic and modern literature on his own because LMU lacked the faculty qualified to teach him? In a letter to Jesse Stuart written years after the fact, Still admitted that Danforth’s frequent loan of books was invaluable to him. Indeed, it turns out that Danforth’s impressive personal library was housed in a cabin close to LMU which she’d purchased and nurtured into an idyllic literary retreat she dubbed The Little Portion. According to Don West’s wife, Connie, a talented painter and LMU alum herself, Danforth’s art and music-filled log home was a magnet to students. It no doubt also served as Still’s earliest introduction to the type of literary rusticity he later so famously created for himself at the Ambergey Loghouse in Hindman, KY.
Another unsung LMU professor who greatly influenced Still was the extraordinary Vryling Buffum, a polished and witty Wellesley graduate who had been close friends with Emily Dickinson’s sister, Vinnie, and with whom Still remained in touch after graduation, even visiting her at her home in New England. It was she who taught Still a course in the History of the English Language, and it was in her class that the genteel young Alabaman would have first realized that cultured scholars existed who maintained that “someone else” would have to “point out” the “defects” of mountain language. “To me,” Buffum wrote, “it has the charm” and “characteristics” of “Shakespeare’s country.” Buffum spent her summers at LMU travelling the backwoods in search of Shakespearean linguistic remnants, a subject about which she lectured at LMU and upon which she presented papers at regional and national conferences. More to the point, she found Kentucky’s mountaineers delightful story-tellers, and she reveled in their humor. The non-Appalachian Still’s respect for and fascination with mountain life and language demonstrated throughout his long career shows Miss Buffum’s influence. There is also good evidence that the first essays he published in national journals were developed from research Miss Buffum assigned him into the origin of mountain names.
But perhaps the one person at LMU who most influenced Still’s literary careerwas English instructor and librarian Iris Grannis. Taking Still under her wing throughout his years here, she plucked the slight and bespectacled boy out of LMU’s rock quarry and secured for him the more appropriate position in the library. She also co-authored his first attempt at a novel and introduced him to Guy Loomis, the NY philanthropist and LMU donor who would serve as his patron for many years, a luxury Jesse Stuart and Don West would never have. Ironically then, it can be argued that LMU’s influence was of greater benefit to the writer who always claimed he had to teach himself in the library than it ever was for Stuart and West.
LMU also inspired its fledgling writers by ensuring a steady stream of visiting authors and Appalachian figures of note, such as Emma Bell Miles, Edwin Markham, May Slone, and Edwin Mims. Opportunities to edit and write for campus publications beyond Kroll’s literary magazine also abounded. Jesse Stuart grabbed the opportunity to become the editor of LMU’s student paper, The Blue & Gray, while James Still wrote the Lincolniana section of LMU’s promotional organ The Mountain Herald.Indeed, Stuart, Still, and West were all first published at LMU, and it was here that James Still won his first five literary prizes, staged his first stab at a play, and penned the first of his writings to be published in a national journal.
So as it turns out, LMU’s influence upon three young writers who went on to play such seminal roles in the flowering of Appalachian literature did not end and begin with the hiring and firing of Harry Harrison Kroll. The fact is that Jesse Stuart, Don West, and James Still embarked on their Vanderbilt years the products of a mountain college with its own proud and vibrant literary culture. Indeed, I’ve turned up so much buried material on the importance of Still’s, Stuart’s, and West’s LMU days to their literary careers that a few chapters in Earl’s book would no longer suffice. To tell the story at all well, I’ve had to begin my own book-length study of the subject. -e-