The Bluegrass State is home to numerous 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 29 writers.
This year, the Hall of Fame committee has selected five writers whose work spans from the 19th century to the present day. The 2017 inductees are Barbara Kingsolver, Gayl Jones, Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr. and A.B. Guthrie Jr.
Here, you’ll find profiles of these writers, along with excepts of their work.
Barbara Kingsolver • b. 1955
Matthew Gilbert of the The Boston Globe once characterized Barbara Kingsolver as the “Woody Guthrie of contemporary American fiction,” primarily because of the broad spectrum of social/political issues that appear in her writing. In a 2010 interview, she discussed her fiction with Maya Jaggi of The Guardian:
I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political. Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person… It is… a powerful craft…
Kingsolver was born on April 8, 1955, in Annapolis, Maryland, but grew up in Carlisle, Kentucky, where her father, Wendell, had a medical practice. When she was 7, her father took the family to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), Democratic Republic of the Congo, where her parents were public health missionaries. This experience prompted Kingsolver to pen the 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible. This epic story about an evangelical Christian family on a mission in Africa became her best-known work. The novel, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, won the National Book Prize of South Africa and was an Oprah Winfrey “Oprah’s Book Club” selection.
While researching for the novel, Kingsolver read Jonathan Kwitny’s Endless Enemies, a book characterized as “America’s worldwide war against its own best interests,” and said of the experience: “The analogy struck me as novelesque: a study of this persistent human flaw—arrogance masquerading as helpfulness—could be a personal story that also functioned as allegory.”
Kingsolver has been the recipient of the 2000 National Humanities Medal, James Beard Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edward Abbey EcoFiction Award, Physicians for Social Responsibility National Award, Arizona Civil Liberties Union Award, and Orange Prize for Fiction. Every book Kingsolver has written since 1993’s Pigs in Heaven has been on The New York Times Best Seller list. Additionally, Kingsolver was named one of the 100 Best Writers of the 20th century by Writer’s Digest.
Kingsolver holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from DePauw University (magna cum laude) and a master’s degree in biology and ecology from the University of Arizona. She has held a variety of jobs, including archaeologist, art class model, grant writer, housecleaner, X-ray technician, biological research assistant, medical document translator, copy editor, typesetter, science writer and feature writer for journals and newspapers. Since 1985, she has focused on writing and publishing, having published numerous newspaper and magazine articles and 14 books, including novels and collections of short stories and essays.
One seminal moment in the direction of Kingsolver’s thematic focus occurred when she moved with her first husband, Joe Hoffmann, to a small cabin in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona, where they became active in organizations that investigated human-rights violations and supported Latin American refugees seeking asylum. She later wrote of the experience:
I had come to the Southwest expecting cactus, wide open spaces, and adventure. I found, instead, another whole America… this desert that burned with raw beauty had a great fence built across it, attempting to divide north from south. I’d stumbled upon a borderland where people perished of heat by day and cold hostility by night.
This set the course for her social and political activism. Since then, Kingsolver has been deeply involved with disparate parts of what she calls “other whole Americas.”
She says of her writing process: “I tend to wake up very early… I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency… people often ask how I discipline myself to write… For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.”
Excerpt from Homeland:
Homeland is a three-part story featuring 11-year-old Gloria “Waterbug” St. Clair, who is charged with replacing her grandmother as a “Beloved Woman,” whose responsibility is to be the keeper of her Cherokee tribe’s history, myths and legends. This is a daunting responsibility for Waterbug to remember Great Mam’s knowledge of family history, the myths of the Cherokee Nation, and the lessons to be found in nature.
In section III of the story, Great Mam reiterates the folktale behind Gloria’s Cherokee name, Waterbug. What follows is a conversation between Waterbug and Great Mam about this colorful creation myth.
Before there was a world, there was only the sea, and the high, bright sky arched above it like an overturned bowl.
For as many years as anyone can imagine, the people in the stars looked down at the ocean’s glittering face without giving a thought as to what it was, or what might lie beneath it. They had their own concerns. But as more time passed, as is natural, they began to grow curious. Eventually it was the waterbug who volunteered to go exploring. She flew down and landed on top of the water, which was beautiful, but not firm as it had appeared. She skated in every direction but could not find a place to stop and rest, so she dived underneath. She was gone for days and the star people thought she might have drowned, but she hadn’t.
Here, the story takes a turn with her disappearance as she explores the world beneath the water to look for an answer. As is typical in many Native American creation myths, an explanation is given as to how land formed upon the great expanse of water.
When she joyfully broke the surface again she had the answer: on the bottom of the sea, there was mud. She had brought a piece of it back with her, and she held up her sodden bit of proof to the bright light.
There, before the crowd of skeptical star eyes, the ball of mud began to grow, and dry up, and grow some more, and out of it came all the voices of life that now dwell on this island that is the earth. The star people fastened it to the sky with four long grape vines so it wouldn’t be lost again.
Waterbug brings the story into the present in her conversation with Great Mam, who derives the essence of folktale by implying how it is passed to succeeding generations. The tale has its own evolution, as it is added to while the earth also progresses through time.
“In school,” I told Great Mam, “they said the world’s round.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t round,” she said. “It’s whatever shape they say it is. But that’s how it started. Remember that.”
These last words terrified me, always with their impossible weight. I have had dreams of trying to hold a mountain of water in my arms. “What if I forget?” I asked.
“We already talked about that. I told you how to remember.”
“Well, all right,” I said. “But if that’s how the world started, then what about Adam and Eve?”
Gayl Jones • b. 1949
In a 1982 interview with Charles Rowell, Gayl Jones said that, just like most people, she felt “connections to home territory—connections that go into one’s ideas of language, personality, landscape.”
Born to Franklin and Lucille Jones on Nov. 23, 1949 in Lexington, Jones formed early “connections” with the South that are reflected in her personal life as well as in her writing. After high school, she left Kentucky to attend Connecticut College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1971, and was accepted into the graduate studies creative writing program at Brown University, earning a master’s degree in 1973. By 1975, she had earned her doctor of arts degree in creative writing.
Jones studied under poet Michael Harper, who introduced her first novel, Corregidora (1975), to Toni Morrison, who became her editor. Following graduation, Jones’ second novel, Eva’s Man (1976), was published. She taught briefly at Wellesley College and then was an assistant professor of English and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, Jones’ short-story collection White Rat (1977); a volume-length poem, Song for Anninho (1981); and a volume of poetry, The Hermit-Woman (1983), were published.
Jones left the United States for Europe in the early 1980s. While there, she published another novel, Die Volgelfaengerin (The Birdwatcher), and the poetry collection Xarque and Other Poems (1985). Her first book of literary criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), was published after her return to the U.S. in 1988.
Jones’ novel The Healing (1998) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Just one year later, her most recent novel, Mosquito (1999), was published.
Jones sometimes uses traditional oral storytelling in delivering her stories. Much of her work explores a theme of contradictory, co-existing emotions. This theme, specifically of love and hate, is especially visible in Corregidora when Ursa and her mother discuss the grandmother’s relationships with her former owner and lover, Corregidora:
“I think what really made them dislike Martin was because he had the nerve to ask them what I never had the nerve to ask.”
“What was that?”
“How much was hate for Corregidora and how much was love.”
She draws many of her themes from her African-American heritage and personal life experiences. Perhaps most important throughout the psychological development of her characters are their indelible voices that speak their truth.
Jones’ controversial novel Eva’s Man was published in 1976. This is the story of Eva Medina Canada, who, because of a long history of severe sexual and emotional abuse, ends up in a mental institution for murdering her lover and castrating him with her teeth. Some have criticized the novel, saying that it depicts characters that perpetuate negative stereotypes about African Americans.
Jones’ said to June Jordan in a May 16, 1976 edition of The New York Times Book Review: “I put those images in the story to show how myths or ways in which men perceive women actually define women’s characters… Right now, I’m not sure how to reconcile the things that interest me with ‘positive race images.’ ”
Written almost 25 years after Jones’ first novels, The Healing draws on many of the same psychological themes and oral storytelling techniques from her earlier works, using black dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration that fuses time and place throughout the novel.
What prompts Jones to write such incredibly violent and painful-to-read stories of abuse? Jones responded in an interview with Claudia Tate: “Aside from seeing myself outside of the conventional roles of wife and mother… and my wanting to make some kind of relationship between history and autobiography, I cannot… I generally think of Eva’s Man as a kind of dream or nightmare, something that comes to you, and you write it down.” Jones’ honesty in her work continues to awe readers with its complex style and depth of emotion.
“Deep Song,” from The Iowa Review
The blues calling my name.
She is singing a deep song.
She is singing a deep song.
I am human.
He calls me crazy.
He says, “You must be crazy.”
I say, “Yes, I’m crazy.”
He sits with his knees apart.
His fly is broken.
She is singing a deep song.
She is singing a deep song.
“Yes, I’m crazy.”
I care about you.
I care about you.
He lifts his eyebrows.
The blues is calling my name.
I tell him he’d be better
do something about his fly.
He says something softly.
He says something so softly
that I can’t even hear him.
He is a dark man.
Sometimes he is a good dark man.
Sometimes he is a bad dark man.
I love him…
Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb • 1876-1944
Paducah native Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb was perhaps one of Kentucky’s most versatile writers and personalities from the 1920s to the ’40s. Journalist, essayist, syndicated columnist, novelist, poet, scriptwriter, actor, storyteller, humorist, lecturer and Academy Award ceremony host were among the many roles Cobb played in a career that spanned more than 50 years.
As a journalist, he wrote for the Paducah Daily News, Louisville Evening Post, The Evening Sun (New York), The Evening World (New York), The Cincinnati Post and The Saturday Evening Post.
Cobb was anti-Prohibition and a prominent member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. The Association is credited with the demise of Prohibition in 1934. His crusade prompted him to write a novel, Red Likker (1929), which was touted as the only American novel devoted entirely to the whiskey industry. The novel is set in the post-Civil War era and focuses on an old Kentucky family headed by Col. Atilla Bird, who operates Bird & Son Distillery until Prohibition closes it in 1920. Cobb once lamented that prior to Prohibition, “Men of all stations of life drank freely and with no sense of shame in their drinking… Bar-rail instep, which is a fallen arch reversed, was a common complaint among us.”
Cobb authored 69 published books, including novels, memoirs, short story collections, essay anthologies, and collections of newspaper and magazine articles. His first book, Talks with the Fat Chauffer, debuted in 1909, and his last was 1950’s Piano Jim and the Impotent Pumpkin Vine, published posthumously. Although many of his works had a serious bent, several were comedic and infused with his rural Kentucky hyperbolic wit and sense of humor.
Three of his short stories—“All-American Story Teller,” “Peck’s Bad Boy” and “Pardon My French”—were adapted to the movie screen in 1921. He continued writing for the film industry well into the 1930s.
The Woman Accused, starring Cary Grant and Nancy Carroll, was released in 1933. Cobb teamed with director John Ford and Fox Studios, who made Judge Priest in 1934, which starred Will Rogers in the title role and included the writer in a small acting part. This was the most elaborate of Ford’s Cobb films and was based on three specific stories: “The Sun Shines Bright,” “The Mob from Massac” and “The Lord Provides.” Ford later adapted the material from the Cobb stories for the 1953 film The Sun Shines Bright, in which Charles Winninger played the role of Judge Priest.
Cobb appeared in 10 movies between 1932 and ’38. His major roles were in Pepper (1936) and Hawaii Calls (1938). He was selected to host the 6th annual Academy Awards in 1935.
Critic H.L. Mencken compared Cobb to Mark Twain. Cobb also garnered respect from the renowned Joel Chandler Harris and others, but his literary reputation faded rapidly at the turn of the 1940s. Many critics have suggested that his writing was caught in the wake of post-Civil War, when, according to Bruce Eder, “his benign vision of the rural south no longer seemed relevant or accessible amid the rising of the civil rights movement and the call for an end to segregation.” Cobb’s style, like many of the local-color writers of the era, grew increasingly dated and out-of-step with contemporary writing.
After a period of declining health, Cobb died March 10, 1944 and is buried in Paducah’s Oak Grove Cemetery.
Excerpt from Cobb’s 1929 novel Red Likker, Chapter XII, “The Gentle Art of Distilling.” In this scene, Col. Atilla Bird, patriarch of the Bird & Sons Distillery, is entertaining Gilmartin, an eastern U.S. reporter who is visiting to interview Bird for an article on the bourbon industry.
“You have heard, I reckon, of the powerful stuff that the natives make up in our mountains and sell without ever getting Uncle Sam’s consent—Moonshine?”
“Yes, but I thought it was so called because they made it at night for fear of revenue agents.”
“Not at all. It’s because it’s so white and clear—like liquid moonbeams. It’s a mighty innocent looking fluid, but you don’t want to tamper with it much while you’re standing on rocky ground—you might bruise yourself when you fall down. Yes, indeed, the ‘free stiller,’ as he calls himself, has quite a little vocabulary of his own. I reckon you never heard of such a thing as a ‘blind tiger,’ did you?”
Gilmartin confessed that he never had.
“Except hereabouts you probably never would,” continued the Colonel. “It’s a term that’s peculiar to the high country down there. I presume it always will be. It’s like this: you’ll be going along up through the mountains and in some isolated place you’ll come to a tight log-shack that hasn’t got any door to it that you can see nor any chimney nor any window either. Where a window ought to be there’s a little squared opening that appears to be boarded up solidly, with a semicircular shelf or sill like half a barrel-head projecting out as a sort of underlip at the bottom end of the planking.
“We’ll assume you’re thirsty and you crave an uplifting beverage to relieve that thirst. So you get down off your horse and you walk up to that little rounded shelf and you put down on it two-bits or six-bits or a dollar—it depends on what size flask you want—and then you get back on your horse and you ride off without looking back. It’s not mountain etiquette for you to look back and, on the part of the total stranger, might be unhealthy.
“Well, in half an hour or so you come again. While you were away, the blank-face shutter has revolved and the money you left there has disappeared and in its place is your bottle of white likker. You take it and withdraw, taking care not to go prying the premises or showing any undue curiosity whatsoever while you’re in the vicinity.
“Afterwards you’ll probably remember that the shack apparently has no eyes, so to speak, and that the mud-daubing between the logs made stripes along the walls and sort of mildly suggested a tiger’s streaked coat. Hence the name.”
Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr. • 1861-1949
Joseph Seamon Cotter’s life spanned two centuries of monumental change for African Americans—the end of slavery in the 19th century and the long battle for equality in a white-dominated world of the 20th century. The great black historian and author Joseph R. Kerlin said that Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr. was “… an Uncle Remus with culture and conscious art.” Cotter was a highly regarded storyteller, poet, playwright and educator who extolled the virtues of advancing his race. According to Joan R. Sherman in her work Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, he encouraged the self-help ethic, pride, humility, hard work, education, and a positive, optimistic outlook ...
Cotter was born in Bardstown to Martha Vaughn, a literate and religious woman who was freeborn of mixed blood—African, Native American and English. His father was Michael Cotter, a white man of Scotch-Irish ancestry. He had learned to read by age 4 but dropped out of school after completing the third grade to help support his family. He had no more formal education until 1883 when, at 22, he enrolled in a night school for black students in Louisville. Cotter attended that school for 10 months, earning his high school diploma and teaching credentials.
He continued his education by studying at Indiana University, Kentucky State Industrial College and Louisville Municipal College. There is no record of him having earned a college diploma, but by 1892 had earned life teaching certificates as a grammar teacher and school principal.
During a career in education that spanned more than 50 years, he served in various teaching and administrative and capacities at Western Colored School, Ormsby Avenue Colored School, Eighth Street School, Paul Laurence Dunbar School and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor School in the Louisville area. He founded the Paul Laurence Dunbar School in Louisville in 1893 and served as principal of the black high school until 1911, when he took the position as principal at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, which he held until 1942. Paul Lawrence Dunbar is said to have visited Cotter’s family in 1894, which prompted several correspondence exchanges of poetry and discussions about the craft. Cotter maintained a close friendship with Dunbar.
He married fellow educator Maria F. Cox in 1891, and they had four children: Leonidas, Florence, Olivia and Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr., who also became a promising poet, but died at 23.
Cotter’s early poems were published in prominent newspapers of the day such as the Louisville Courier-Journal. He won an Opportunity Prize Contest sponsored by the newspaper for his poem “The Tragedy of Pete.” Cotter also contributed to various periodicals, including National Baptist Magazine, Voice of the Negro, Southern Teacher’s Advocate and Alexander’s Magazine.
Historian Sherman says that during five decades of writing, Cotter’s interests ranged from industrial education in the 1890s to the “zoot suit.” He was known to satirize the “the foibles and frailties” of African Americans. Cotter experimented with a variety of forms and styles of poetry. Among those were the traditional ballad and various sonnet forms. His subject matter included social satire, historical tribute, racial issues and philosophy.
Cotter died at his Louisville home on March 17, 1949 and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery.
“Frederick Douglass,” from Links of Friendship
O eloquent and caustic sage!
Thy long and rugged pilgrimage
To glory’s shrine has ended;
And thou hast passed the inner door,
And proved thy fitness o’er and o’er,
And to the dome ascended.
In speaking of thy noble life
One needs must think upon the strife
That long and sternly faced it;
But since those times have flitted by,
Just let the useless relic die
With passions that embraced it.
There is no evil known to man
But what, if wise enough, he can
Grow stronger in the bearing;
And so the ills we often scorn
May be of heavenly wisdom born
To aid our onward faring.
Howe’er this be, just fame has set
Her jewels in thy coronet
So firmly that the ages
To come will ever honor thee
And place thy name in company
With patriots and sages.
Now thou art gone, the little men
Of fluent tongue and trashy pen
Will strive to imitate thee;
And when they find they haven’t sense
Enough to make a fair pretense,
They’ll turn and underrate thee.
“Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League,” from African American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology
’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
With all good things but dying.”
The world’s ago, and we’re agog
To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
However slight the winning.
What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric
Can match one of potatoes.
Ye orators of point and pith,
Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
Ere it is forced to feed you.
A little gold won’t mar our grace,
A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place
When money clinks its story.
Alfred Bertram Guthrie Jr. • 1901-1991
Bedford, Indiana native A.B. Guthrie Jr. moved to Kentucky in 1926 to become a reporter with the Lexington Leader, where he was to spend the next 17 years as city editor, editorial writer and executive editor. He began writing fiction in the early 1940s and in 1943 published his first novel, Murders at Moon Dance. In 1944, he was awarded a Neiman Fellowship from Harvard University, where he studied fiction writing. His novel The Big Sky, which traces the 1830 journey of a group of frontiersmen from St. Louis to the Northwest Territory, was published in 1947. Lewis Gannett, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, said the novel “belongs on the shelf beside the best stories Walter Edmonds and Kenneth Roberts have told of frontier days back East.”
In 1947, Guthrie went to the University of Kentucky English Department, where he taught creative writing until 1952. This period was productive for Guthrie, as he wrote and published his 1949 novel The Way West, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. The novel was another epic tale of a northwest journey, picking up where The Big Sky had left off and telling the story of a group of families from Missouri who traveled to the promised land of Oregon.
In 1952, RKO Pictures and Winchester Productions’ Howard Hawks directed a film version of The Big Sky, casting Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt, Jim Davis and Elizabeth Threatt in the primary roles. The movie The Way West was released in 1967, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring Douglas, along with Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark.
Guthrie was hired in 1951 by director George Stevens to adapt Jack Schaefer’s novel Shane to the silver screen. Guthrie received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay in 1953. In 1952, he was tagged by Hecht-Lancaster Productions to produce the screen adaptation of Felix Holt’s novel The Gabriel Horn, which was given the movie title The Kentuckian.
20th Century Fox bought the rights to Guthrie’s 1957 novel These Thousand Hills before it was in the final galleys. The movie was released in 1958, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Richard Egan and Lee Remick. Guthrie published five additional novels in the 1960s and ’70s, but none received the acclaim that his work enjoyed through the ’40s and ’50s.
Guthrie wrote an un-romanticized version of the settling of the West. His fiction was historically accurate, and his depiction of the challenges of the rugged landscape and frontier journeys were anything but idealized. Guthrie said of his avoiding writing the myths about the West: “I have a sense of morality about it. I want to talk about real people in real times. For every Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid, there were thousands of people trying to get along.”
His published works consisted of six novels, a book of essays, a children’s book, a book of poems and five mystery novels.
In 1931, Guthrie married Harriet Larson, who died in the early 1960s. They had two children: Alfred B. III and Helen (Miller). Guthrie married Carol B. Luthin in 1969. He died in 1991 and is buried on his ranch in Choteau, Montana.
Excerpt from The Big Sky:
Note: Boone is fleeing the consequences of a fight at a store where, in a drunken brawl, he has broken the nose of his neighbor, Mose Napier. He is looking for shelter for the night.
Boone hunched down, shivering, until after the gleam in the window itself had died. Then he edged ahead like a hunter and came to a small farmyard and made out the house and, to his right, the outline of a barn. He stole to the barn and felt for the door and let himself in.
The warm odor of cow came to his nose. He heard a soft breathing. “Saw Boss!” he said under his breath, closing the door behind him. He stood without moving, letting the animal warmth of the place get to his skin, then shifted his bag to the arm that held his rifle and stepped forward saying, “Saw! Saw!” His hand groped ahead, meeting nothing, and he wondered where the cow was, until his foot touched soft hide and he realized she was lying down.
“Saw!” he said expecting her to rise. “Saw!” But she lay there, and he thrust his hand down to the warm hide, wondering at her gentleness. He felt in the straw at her side to see that it was dry, and brought himself around and eased down on his butt in the soft litter and snuggled his back against her…
Out of the tired cloud of his mind Ma’s face appeared, the dark watery eyes, the broad nose, the pinched mouth, the sad look of having given up to work and worry about.
Pap… before he could stop it, a sob broke in his throat. He turned his face against the flank of the cow and let himself cry. “Good luck to you, too, Ma,” he said.