Our Commonwealth is home to a plethora of exceptional writers. The Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame was created in 2012 by Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning to recognize authors “whose work reflects the character and culture” of Kentucky. Since its inception, the Hall has honored 19 writers.
This year, the Hall of Fame committee has selected five writers whose work spans from the 19th century to the present day. The 2016 inductees are Bobbie Ann Mason, James Lane Allen, Harlan Hubbard, Alice Hegan Rice and Jean Ritchie.
Following are profiles of these writers, along with excepts of their work.
Guy Mendes photo
Bobbie Ann Mason
Western Kentucky native Bobbie Ann Mason has been writing and publishing since the 1970s. Her first book publication was her dissertation Nabokov’s Garden: A Guide to Ada, released in 1974. To date, she has published 17 volumes, including five novels, seven collections of short fiction, one memoir, one biography and two works of literary criticism. Her publishers have included Harper and Row, HarperCollins and Random House.
Mason once said: “I grew so sick of reading about the alienated hero of superior sensibility who so frequently dominates 20th-century American literature that I decided to write fiction about the antithesis.” As a result, she is known for launching a movement in fiction known as “Shopping Mall Realism” because of its realistic regional dialogue. She is frequently labeled as a minimalist or “dirty” realist and most identifies with what John Barth called “blue-collar hyper-realist super-minimalist.” Mason has said that her style “comes out of a way of hearing people talk.” Many of her stories place characters at transitional points in their lives where they are forced to make hard decisions. David Quammen of The New York Times Book Review said, “Loss and deprivation, the disappointment of pathetically modest hopes, are the themes Bobbie Ann Mason works and reworks. She portrays the disquieted lives of men and women not blessed with much money or education or luck, but cursed with enough sensitivity and imagination to suffer regrets.”
Mason’s most critically acclaimed book is the collection of short stories Shiloh and Other Stories (1982). Novelist Ann Tyler hailed her in the New Republic as “… a full-fledged master of the short story.” Robert Towers in The New York Review of Books said, “Bobbie Ann Mason is one of those rare writers who, by concentrating their attention on a few square miles of native turf, are able to open up new and surprisingly wide worlds for the delighted reader.” Another critic characterized this work as describing “… the lives of working-class people in a shifting rural society dominated by chain stores, television, and superhighways.” Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, Harper’s, The Southern Review, Mother Jones and other nationally recognized magazines. Her major awards include Best American Short Stories (1981, 1983), the PEN/Hemingway Award (1983), National Book Award finalist (1983), The Pushcart Prize (1984), O. Henry Award (1986, 1988), The National Endowment for the Arts Award (1983), Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography (1999) and Southern Book Award for fiction (2002).
Mason graduated from the University of Kentucky (B.A., 1962), the State University of New York at Binghamton (M.A., 1966) and the University of Connecticut, Storrs (Ph.D., 1972).
Her short story “Residents and Transients” first appeared in the Boston Review and later in Shiloh and Other Stories. The conflicts between what is past and present, childhood and adulthood, and divergences between rural and urban life make it one of the top stories in the collection.
Excerpt from “Residents and Transients,” in which Mary is the narrator, Larry her lover, and Stephen her husband:
“In the wild, there are two kinds of cat populations,” I tell him when he finishes his moves [Monopoly]. “Residents and Transients. Some stay put in their fixed home ranges, and others are on the move. They don’t have real homes. Everybody always thought that the ones who establish the territories are the most successful—like capitalists who get ahold of Park Place … They are the strongest while the transients are the bums, the losers.”
“Is that right? I didn’t know that.” Larry looks genuinely surprised …
I continue bravely. “The thing is—this is what the scientists are wondering about now—it may be that the transients are the superior ones after all, with the greatest curiosity and most intelligence. They can’t decide.”
It is a hot summer night, and Larry and I are driving back from Paducah …
We round a curve. The night is black. The yellow line in the road is faded. In the other lane I suddenly see a rabbit move. It is hopping in place, the way runners will run in place. Its forelegs are frantically working, but its rear end has been smashed and it cannot get out of the road.
By the time we reach home I have become hysterical. Larry has put his arms around me, trying to soothe me, but I cannot speak intelligently and I push him away. In my mind, the rabbit is a tape loop that crowds out everything else.
Inside the house, the phone rings and Larry answers. I can tell from his expression that it is Stephen calling … When Larry hands me the phone I am incoherent … “Listen,” I say in a tone of great urgency. “I’m coming to Louisville—to see that house …”
Stephen is annoyed with me. He seems not to have heard what I said …
“Those attachments to a place are so provincial,” he says.
“People live all their lives in one place,” I argue frantically. “What’s wrong with that?”
I rush outside … I listen to the katydids announce the harvest. It is the kind of night, mellow and languid, when you can hear corn growing. I see a cat’s flaming eyes coming up the lane to the house. One eye is green and one is red, like a traffic light. It is Brenda, my odd-eyed cat. Her blue eye shines red and her yellow eye shines green. In a moment I realize I am waiting for the light to change.
James Lane Allen
James Lane Allen has the distinction of being called Kentucky’s first important novelist. His appeal was international: His work was widely read in Great Britain and the United States. He belongs to a period of the late 19th-century local color era, characterized by a particular attention to capturing regional vernacular. The Oxford Companion to American Literature says that this movement was under the dual influence of romanticism and realism. Authors in this era looked to distant places and eccentric customs, painting them with exotic scenes filled with accurate details. Critics of this movement purported that it was dominated by nostalgia or sentimentality.
Allen’s writing roots began with literary criticism, but after the 1891 launch of Flute and Violin, and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances, he forged a highly successful career in fiction, travel writing and drama. He published 20 books in a career spanning 34 years and was a contributor to many of the most prominent magazines of his time, including Harper’s Magazine, Century Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly.
Allen was born in 1849 on a farm near Lexington, where he was exposed to a genteel life in the antebellum South. He graduated from Kentucky University (now Transylvania University) in 1872 and earned a master’s degree there in 1877. He taught at various schools in Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia.
Allen moved to New York City in 1893 in an effort to promote his writing career. In 1894, his novel A Kentucky Cardinal was released, making him a commercial as well as a critical success. It was followed by the best-selling novel The Choir Invisible in 1897. His last book, The Landmark, was published in 1925 after his death.
Excerpt from “The Parson’s Magic Flute” from Flute and Violin, and Other Kentucky Tales and Romances:
On one of the dim walls of Christ Church, in Lexington, Kentucky, there hangs, framed in thin black wood, an old rectangular slab of marble. A legend sets forth that the tablet is in memory of the Reverend James Moore, first minister of Christ Church and President of Transylvania University, who departed this life in the year 1814, at the age of forty-nine. Just beneath runs the record that he was learned, liberal, amiable, and pious …
… it appears that he was a Virginian, and that he came to Lexington in the year 1792—when Kentucky ceased to be a county of Virginia, and became a State. At first he was a candidate for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church; but the Transylvania Presbytery having reproved him for the liberality of his sermons, James kicked against such rigor in his brethren, and turned for refuge to the bosom of the Episcopal Communion. But this body did not offer much of a bosom to take refuge in …
He beat the canebrakes and scoured the buffalo trails for his Virginia Episcopalians, huddled them into a dilapidated little frame house on the site of the present building, and there fired so deadly a volley of sermons at the sinners free of charge that they all became living Christians. Indeed, he fired so long and so well that, several years later under favor of Heaven and through the success of a lottery with a one-thousand-dollar prize and nine hundred and seventy-four blanks there was built and furnished a small brick church, over which he was regularly called to officiate twice a month, at a salary of two hundred dollars a year …
… being a bachelor and a bookworm, therefore already old at forty, and a little run down in his toilets, a little frayed out at the elbows and the knees, a little seamy along the back, a little deficient at the heels; in pocket poor always, and always the poorer because of a spend-thrift habit in the matter of secret charities; kneeling down by his small hard bed every morning and praying that during the day his logical faculty might discharge its function morally, and that his moral faculty might discharge its function logically, and that over all the operations of all his other faculties he might find heavenly grace to exercise both a logical and a moral control; at night kneeling down again to ask forgiveness that, despite his prayer of the morning, one or more of these same faculties—he knew and called them all familiarly by name, being a metaphysician—had gone wrong in a manner the most abnormal, shameless, and unforeseen; thus, on the whole, a man shy and dry; gentle, lovable; timid, resolute; forgetful, remorseful; eccentric, impulsive, thinking too well of every human creature but himself; an illogical logician, an erring moralist, a wool-gathered philosopher, but, humanly speaking, almost a perfect man.
Harlan Hubbard’s realization that industrialism and consumerism posed a threat to the environment and to human survival changed his life forever. So did his marriage to Anna Eikenhout in 1943, his subsequent 1944 launch of a shanty boat onto the Ohio River in northern Kentucky for an eight-year-long adventure, and his return to live a Thoreauvian life at Payne Hollow in Trimble County. When writer and director Morgan Atkinson produced the 2012 documentary Wonder: The Lives of Harlan and Anna Hubbard, she declared: “What Henry David Thoreau did for two years Anna and Harlan Hubbard did for 40 except they did it in the 20th century. Anna and Harlan chose to live life as few people in modern times have. In so doing they inspired thousands.”
Anna and Harlan welcomed countless visitors to their humble abode on the river. Sometimes, entire classes of college students studying botany, writing, art, music or utopian societies came to visit. Some just came to help in the everyday chores of gardening, cutting firewood, cooking or helping check Harlan’s trout lines on the river.
Harlan Hubbard was born in 1900 in Bellevue, a city in northern Kentucky opposite Cincinnati. After the death of his father in 1907, he moved to New York City to be with two older brothers. He was educated at Childs High School in the Bronx, the New York National Academy of Design and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Hubbard published 12 books from 1953-1996, including journals, travel essays and artwork (woodcuts and paintings) with publishers such as Dodd-Mead, Eakins Press, OYO Press, Larkspur Press, Gnomon Press and The University Press of Kentucky.
Anna passed away in 1986 and Harlan in 1988. They bequeathed Payne Hollow to Paul Hassfurder, an artist they had befriended.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Payne Hollow: Life on the Fringe of Society:
This winter evening as I write within the circle of mellow lamplight, the sound of crushing ice comes up from the river as one slowly drifting floe after another rakes along the ridge of piled-up ice which forms the shore. It is an elemental earth-voice, like wind, rain and breaking waves, at once soothing and awful. In an interval of silence I look through the window into the cold, faint light of the young moon which hangs just over the distant ridge of hills beyond the river. It shines on rippling water between the broad sheets of ice, reminding me of a summer night when the same moon’s reflection on the smooth river is shattered by a soft breeze coming out of Payne Hollow. In my mind I can see the rhythmic flashing of many fireflies against the heavy foliage. The earth is good and the changing seasons are a joy.
Across the room, with her own lamp and window, and her own thoughts, Anna is washing the supper dishes. The gentle clatter that drifts over me does not penetrate my consciousness, for it has long been in the background of my accustomed stint of writing in the half hour just after supper; an arrangement that put to some use this fragment of time at the tag end of the day. With some encouragement I might have dried the dishes; instead, I wrote in the journal.
Keeping a journal is a habit of mine from way back. It has been done in spurts, however, and often neglected for long periods. The most-lively records were made during my long canoe trips on the Ohio, when I achieved as close a communion with the river as I would in later years on the shantyboat. The shantyboat led to Payne Hollow, and the beginning of our life here was another time of ecstasy. With our minds and hands busy shaping our new home, the most matter-of-fact entries in the journal transcended the commonplace and sometimes contained a gleam of poetry.
Some memory of our stay here will possibly remain and we may become a legend of Payne Hollow, distorted by time and repetition. In the distant future, someone may relate … how his grandfather, as a small boy, used to go down into Payne Hollow when it was still a wilderness. There on the riverbank, in a house which they made out of rocks and trees lived a couple all by themselves. They planted a garden, kept goats, ate weeds and groundhogs and fish from the river … The man worked with axe and hoe, without machines. He painted pictures of the old steamboats and made drawings of the life they lived.
Reprinted with permission of Gnomon Press.
Alice Hegan Rice
Alice Hegan Rice, a lifelong resident of Louisville, was made famous by her best-selling 1901 novel Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which sold 650,000 copies in its first two years. The novel was inspired by her involvement with the city’s underprivileged children in the slum known as the Cabbage Patch district where, at 16, she served as an aide at a Presbyterian mission Sunday school. Rice and Mary Louise Marshall, daughter of the mission superintendent, Burwell K. Marshall, founded the Cabbage Patch Settlement House in Louisville in 1910. Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch has been reprinted more than 50 times, translated into several languages, and was the basis for numerous stage, radio and screen productions, including three Hollywood movie versions. The best known is the 1934 film starring Pauline Lord and W.C. Fields.
Critic and scholar Mary Boewe in her book Beyond the Cabbage Patch: The Literary World of Alice Hegan Rice (2010) wrote that, in Rice’s idyllic view, the reader can see through the Wiggs story “… the obvious elements of Victorianism: the virtues of domesticity, an exaltation of motherhood, the work ethic, the evils of drink, female interdependence, child-rearing techniques, child labor concerns, social welfare programs, and the intricacies of etiquette.”
Rice and her husband, dramatist and poet Cale Young Rice, were well known in the 20th-century publishing world, which often put them at social and literary events that included such iconic personalities as Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Henry Watterson, Theodore Roosevelt and Thornton Wilder.
Rice published more than 20 books between 1901 and 1942 with prestigious publishers such as The Century Company, Appleton-Century-Crofts and Grosset & Dunlap.
Rice died Feb. 10, 1942 and is buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. Her autobiography, The Inky Way, was published posthumously in 1942.
Excerpt from Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch:
“Mrs. Wiggs’s Philosophy”
“My, but it’s nice an’ cold this mornin’! The thermometer’s done fell up to zero!”
Mrs. Wiggs made the statement as cheerfully as if her elbows were not sticking out through the boy’s coat she wore, or her teeth chattering in her head like a pair of castanets. But, then, Mrs. Wiggs was a philosopher, and the sum and substance of her philosophy lay in keeping the dust off her rose colored spectacles. When Mr. Wiggs traveled to eternity by the alcohol route, she buried his faults with him, and for want of better virtues to extol she always laid stress on the fine hand he wrote. It was the same way when their little country home burned and she had to come to the city to seek work; her one comment was: “Thank God, it was the pig instid of the baby that was burned!”
So this bleak morning in December she pinned the bed-clothes around the children and made them sit up close to the stove, while she pasted brown paper over the broken window-pane and made sprightly comments on the change in the weather.
The Wiggses lived in the Cabbage Patch. It was not a real cabbage patch, but a queer neighborhood, where ramshackle cottages played hop-scotch over the railroad tracks. There were no streets, so when a new house was built the owner faced it any way his fancy prompted. Mr. Bagby’s grocery, it is true, conformed to convention, and presented a solid front to the railroad track, but Miss Hazy’s cottage shied off sidewise into the Wiggses’ yard, as if it were afraid of the big freight-trains that went thundering past so many times a day; and Mrs. Schultz’s front room looked directly into the Eichorns’ kitchen. The latter was not a bad arrangement, however, Mrs. Schultz had been confined to her bed for ten years, and her sole interest in life consisted in watching what took place in her neighbor’s family.
The Wiggses’ house was the most imposing in the neighborhood. This was probably due to the fact that it had two front doors and a tin roof. One door was nailed up, and the other opened outdoors, but you would never guess it from the street. When the country house burned, one door had been saved. So Mr. Wiggs and the boys brought it to the new home and skilfully placed it at the front end of the side porch. But the roof gave the house its chief distinction; it was the only tin roof in the Cabbage Patch. Jim and Billy had made it of old cans they picked up on the commons.
Jean Ritchie wrote in her book Singing Family of the Cumberlands:
“I was born in Viper, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountains, on the eighth day of December 1922. I think I was a little of a surprise to my mother who had thought that if a woman had a baby in her fortieth year it would be her last. Mom had my brother Wilmer when she was forty, and she settled back to raise her thirteen young uns without any more interference. Then when she was forty-four, I came along.”
This baby girl was destined to become an iconic figure in American folk music. She was discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax, and performed at Carnegie Hall and at London’s Royal Albert Hall. In 1959, she appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, along with Pete Seeger, Odetta, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. She became a fixture at Greenwich Village coffeehouses and often was on the New York radio broadcasts of folk singer Oscar Brand. She was a powerful influence on Bob Dylan and performed with such luminaries as Doc Watson and Lead Belly. Her songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Judy Collins, Dolly Parton and others.
Ritchie was a fierce promoter of songs that originated in the British Isles and were handed down from generation to generation in the Appalachian Mountains. She frequently sang traditional ballads such as “Barbara Allen,” “The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird” and “The Cool of the Day” in her unique, haunting, a cappella soprano voice. Audiences often reported that the hair stood up on the back of their necks when they heard her perform.
Ritchie wrote many famous original songs, including “Black Waters,” “Blue Diamond Mines” and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.” Her discography includes 33 albums recorded between 1952 and 2002.
Ritchie was a 1946 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kentucky with a degree in social work. She worked for a short while in New York at the Henry Street Settlement, an educational and social services center on the Lower East Side.
She published 10 books between 1964 and 1988, and wrote dozens of articles for magazines Sing Out!, Mountain Life and Work, Ladies’ Home Journal and others. Countless articles were written about her, appearing in prestigious newspapers, magazines (including Kentucky Monthly) and books.
Ritchie married photographer and woodcraftsman George Pickow in 1950, and together they published books and music, owned a recording label, and operated a dulcimer-making shop in Port Washington, N.Y. She passed away June 1, 2015 in Berea, where she had lived since her husband’s death in 2010.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Singing Family of the Cumberlands:
Mom and my sisters Ollie and Mallie would lay out the featherbeds on the floor for us, and we’d lie in the dark and make ghost noises with our mouths, or read out and tap-tap-tap, soft and low, on the floorboards to make the others think the knocking-spirits were about.
Before long then, one of us would catch everybody quiet and commence singing, down deep in the throat, ‘There was an old woo-oo-man all ski-i-in and bo-oo-ones! OOO-OOO-OOoo!’ This was the scariest song we knew and this was the best kind of place to sing it, for in the darkness there on the featherbeds there were all manner of ways to put a fright in the others. You could creep your cold hand up and just barely tickle someone’s face, or, in a prickly pause in the song, suddenly grab someone by the hair. Or you could creep up from the bed and get over next to the fireplace, slip on a pair of Mallie’s shoes and go with dragging footfalls toward the beds, making a dreadful moaning and groaning all the while. Or you could just shudder down into the featherbed, chilling all over with the delicious fright and getting the best scare out of your own singing of it.
There was an old woman all skin and bones,
She lived down by the old churchyard,
One night she thought she’d take a walk,
She walked down by the old graveyard,
She saw the bones a-laying around,
She thought she’d sweep the old church house,
She went to the closet to get her a broom,
She opened the door and
At the BOO, we’d all turn wild and scream like panthers in the woods, and raise such a ruckus that Mom would send in to tell us we better settle or Old Rawhead-and-Bloodybones would get us.