Great writers abound in Kentucky. In 2012, Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame to honor 200 years of writing excellence in the state. Since then, 13 Kentuckians—all deceased, their lives spanning nearly two centuries of the Commonwealth’s history—have been inducted into the Writers Hall of Fame.
This year brings the first living writer into the Hall: Wendell Berry. The Henry County native was chosen for induction by a statewide committee chaired by Kentucky Arts Council Director Lori Meadows. In addition to selecting Berry, the committee named five other writers posthumously to this year’s Hall of Fame class: Guy Davenport, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jim Wayne Miller, Effie Waller Smith and Hunter S. Thompson.
In this special story, you’ll learn about the lives and legacies of these outstanding Kentuckians.
Wendell Berry is Kentucky’s most prolific and perhaps best-known living writer. He has mastered three genres: fiction, poetry and nonfiction. His writing is indicative of the idea that “one’s work ought to be rooted in and responsive to one’s place.” His philosophy of peace, environmentalism, conservation and regard for the earth is best expressed in his own words in his book Home Economics:
“But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted. Once the values of things refer only to their future usefulness, then an infinite withdrawal of value from the living present has begun … Nothing (and nobody) can then exist that is not theoretically replaceable by something (or somebody) more valuable … ‘Waste,’ in such an economy, must eventually include several categories of humans—the unborn, the old, ‘disinvested’ farmers, the unemployed, the ‘unemployable.’ Indeed, once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a resource, we are all sliding downward toward the ashheap or the dump.”
Berry’s book publishing career began with his first novel, Nathan Coulter (1960); followed by a book of poetry, The Broken Ground (1964); and The Long-Legged House (1969), a collection of essays. His book publications currently number more than 88 volumes.
Berry has deep roots in Kentucky, being the eldest of four children born in Henry County to John Marshall Berry and Virginia Erdman Berry; both parents had ancestors who had farmed there for several generations. In 1965, Berry moved to a nearby farm at Lane’s Landing and began growing corn and small grains on what is now a 125-acre homestead. Berry has farmed and written there since. His experiences on the land and his decision to return to it inspired essays such as “The Long-Legged House,” from the book of the same title; and “A Native Hill.”
Berry attended Millersburg Military Institute, and then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Kentucky. He also attended Stanford University’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Wallace Stegner in a seminar that included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Wallace Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen and Ken Kesey.
From 1962 to 1964, Berry taught English at New York University in the Bronx. He taught creative writing at UK from 1964 to 1977 and again from 1987 to 1993.
Berry is one of the most highly decorated Kentucky writers. Among his prestigious awards are a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1961), National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Excellence in Writing (1971), Thomas Merton Award (1999), Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers (2009) and National Humanities Medal (2012). Berry delivered the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on April 23, 2012; gained fellowship in The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013; and became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013. He was named Kentucky Monthly’s Kentuckian of the Year in 2005.
“Lives do not have plots, only biographies do.” ― Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art
Although longtime University of Kentucky English Professor Guy Davenport claimed that writing fiction was just a hobby, he published eight collections of short stories, won a third prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1974, and was honored with the 1981 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Hilton Kramer, in The New York Times Book Review, wrote of Davenport’s conception of the short-story form: “He has given it some of the intellectual density of the learned essay, some of the lyric concision of the modern poem—some of its difficulty, too—and a structure that often resembles a film documentary. The result is a tour de force that adds something new to the art of fiction.”
South Carolina native Davenport could well have been called the quintessential Renaissance man, but one who believed that new ideas are not new—they have roots in the wellspring of the past. He was variously called a “postmodernist” and a “meta-modernist.” His notions ranged from the ancient to the present.
Davenport’s writing is filled with allusion and often delivered in a difficult prose style. He was sometimes accused of being obscure. He once told a Paris Review interviewer, “I don’t think I’ve ever consciously befuddled … I might be a better writer if I didn’t tuck in things for the reader to find out … the stories can still be read; the idea is that a deeper reading will continually be rewarded—this is the standard by which obscurity can be judged.”
He was the recipient of the 1992 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, which is intended to be an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential …” and awarded to those who “show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.” He shared this honor with such luminaries as Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, poet Adrienne Rich, writer and critic Susan Sontag, novelist Cormac McCarthy, and Highlander Center activist John Gaventa.
Davenport was educated at Duke University; Merton College, Oxford; and Harvard University. His career at UK spanned 28 years, and he is credited with having published more than 45 books of poetry, fiction and essays; and with contributing countless chapters, introductions, essays, commentary and other creative works to numerous anthologies, magazines and journals. His best-known work was, perhaps, his 1981 collection of essays The Geography of the Imagination.
Erik Reece, his former student and friend, said of Davenport: “He was an unqualified genius, so he talked over everybody’s head, but in a way that made you want to get to where he was.”
After retiring in 1992, he published three additional volumes of short stories and three collections of essays. Davenport died in 2005.
When Elizabeth Hardwick died at the age of 91 in 2007, The New York Times described her as a critic, essayist, fiction writer and co-founder of The New York Review of Books and one who “went from being a studious southern belle to a glittering member of the New York City intellectual elite.” Being a “southern belle” referenced her having been born in Lexington, educated in the public schools there and at the University of Kentucky, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1938 and a master’s degree in 1939.
Hardwick rejected a doctoral fellowship at Louisiana State University, home of The Southern Review, to seek the bohemian lifestyle in New York City at Columbia University, where she pursued her doctoral degree in 17th-century English literature. The rarity of female faculty appointments in academia made her abandon her pursuit in 1941 to publish short stories and return to Kentucky to write her first novel, The Ghostly Lover (1945).
Her New York Times obituary recounted a quote from a 1979 interview: “My aim was to be a New York Jewish Intellectual. I say ‘Jewish’ because of their tradition of rational skepticism; and also a certain deracination appeals to me—and their openness to European culture.” Her friend Diane Johnson once said Hardwick was “part of the first generation of women intellectuals to make a mark in New York’s literary circle.”
In 1963, Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy and Robert Lowell co-founded The New York Review of Books to which she contributed more than 100 reviews, articles, reflections and letters.
The scholar Lisa Levy once said, “Her criticism often identified with mad or tortured women, what [Joan] Didion identified as ‘women adrift’: Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Brontë, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Zelda Fitzgerald—rather than madmen and the women who loved them … She was conscious of the world, literary and lived, as comprising men, women, and their intersections, both rough and gentle.”
She married poet Robert Lowell in July 1949, staying married until 1972. Their daughter, Harriet, was born in 1957.
Hardwick was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947 and a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. She was the author of three novels, a biography of Herman Melville and four collections of essays.
Jim Wayne Miller
One of Jim Wayne Miller’s tenets as a poet was to provide the reader with the environment of deep discovery. He once said that he was often amused when a tourist fisherman stepped into the clear water of his native Buncombe County, North Carolina, and, much to his surprise, discovered that the pool was vastly deeper than he had imagined. “I want writing to be so transparent that the reader forgets he is reading and aware only that he is having an experience. He is suddenly plunged deeper than he expected and comes up shivering.”
After graduating from Berea College in 1958 and earning his Ph.D. in German Language and Literature from Vanderbilt University in 1965, Miller settled at Western Kentucky State College—which became Western Kentucky University the following year—for a 33-year teaching career in the Department of Modern Languages and Intercultural Studies. But he never strayed far from his Appalachian roots, becoming one of the premier Appalachian writers of his generation. He tirelessly promoted writing among eager audiences who attended his numerous workshops and speaking appearances throughout the South.
His honors include the Alice Lloyd Memorial Prize for Appalachian Poetry (1967), Thomas Wolfe Literary Award (1980), Zoe Kincaid Brockman Memorial Award, Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year Award and Appalachian Consortium Laurel Leaves Award. His most important works include Copperhead Cane (1964), The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same (1971), Dialogue with a Dead Man (1974), The Mountains Have Come Closer (1980), Vein of Words (1984), Nostalgia for 70 (1986), Brier: His Book (1988), Newfound (1989), His First, Best Country (1993), and The Brier Poems (1997).
The Appalachian writers’ community lost a great poet, novelist, essayist and dedicated promoter of the literary arts when Miller died Aug. 18, 1996. George Brosi, editor emeritus of Appalachian Heritage Magazine, said of him: “[He] is quite simply an icon in the field of Appalachian Literature—one of its earliest and most ardent supporters. [Author and poet] Fred Chappell has commented that ‘if it were not for Miller, the Appal-lit movement might have foundered before it got started.’ ”
Effie Waller Smith
Because of the difficulties African-American women faced in the post-Civil War era, Effie Waller Smith was an unlikely candidate to become one of the best-known poets of the early 1900s. She was born June 1, 1879, to former slaves Frank Waller and Alvindia “Sibbie” Ratliff on Chloe Creek near Pikeville. Waller had been educated on the same Virginia plantation as Kunte Kinte, author Alex Haley’s African ancestor. Later, Waller became an aide to Stonewall Jackson and purportedly served Jackson his last meal. Waller migrated to Pike County after the Civil War ended.
Smith and her siblings, Alfred and Rosa, attended school through the eighth grade, after which Effie went Frankfort to be trained as a teacher at The Kentucky Normal School for Colored Persons from 1900 to 1902. She held teaching posts in Kentucky and Tennessee for the next 12 years.
Her poetry was published in local newspapers by 1902. In 1904, she self-published her first volume of poetry, Songs of the Months, which contained 110 poems organized by sections featuring each month of the year. The verses included love, patriotic and nature themes. In 1909, two more volumes of her verse appeared. The first was Rhymes from the Cumberland, which offered meditations and remembrances of the Kentucky-Virginia Cumberland Mountains area and musings on religion and romance. The verses in her next volume, Rosemary and Pansies, focused on situational life issues. During 1908 and 1909, Smith also had three short stories published in Putnam’s Monthly: “The Tempting of Peter Stiles,” “A Son of Sorrow” and “The Judgment of Roxenie.”
Smith was 38 when her last published poem, the sonnet “Autumn Winds,” appeared in Harper’s Monthly in 1917. For some unknown reason, she never published again. She lived most of the rest of her life in Wisconsin where she had relocated in 1918, raising an adopted daughter named Ruth Virginia Ratliff Smith, who was the daughter of deceased friend Polly Mullins Ratliff. Effie Smith died in 1960 and was buried in Neenah, Wisconsin.
Scholar David Deskins, who edited The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith, is largely responsible for bringing her work back into national attention. Deskins was introduced to her work in the late 1960s by Pikeville College professor Bruce Brown. Deskins wrote in his introduction, “I decided that she was a writer of unusual talent who had failed to enter the permanent literary record. Further, I felt that her writings were worthy and that she was important, both from an artistic and a historical perspective.”
Hunter S. Thompson
Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his landmark article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”:
“Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track … nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.
“Old blacks arguing about bets; ‘hold on there, I’ll handle this’ (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, ‘Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.’ Thousands of teenagers, group singing ‘Let the Sun Shine In,’ ten soldiers guarding the American flag, and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.
No booze sold out here, too dangerous … no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach … Woodstock … many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.”
With this article, which appeared in the short-lived Scanlan’s magazine in June 1970, Thompson, a Louisville native, was credited with creating “Gonzo journalism,” a new, first-person style of reporting where the writer becomes the central character in the story, chronicling cultural shifts as an astute cultural observer of the 1960s and ’70s, and on the lookout for anything that would feature American hypocrisy. Biographer William McKeen noted that because of the article’s legendary status and Scanlan’s small circulation, the story was “one of the most famous and least read articles in Thompson’s career.”
This piece was more about the experience of attending the Kentucky Derby than the actual race. At the time, it was lauded as a journalistic breakthrough. Fan mail and phone calls poured in. Thompson said it was like “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool of mermaids.”
Born on July 18, 1937, Thompson is best known for authoring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He became a counterculture hero of sorts for his hard-driving lifestyle, revolving around drugs and firearms, which was particularly appealing to the college-age crowd.
Thompson began his journalism career as a sports reporter for an Air Force newspaper at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. Following his 1958 discharge, he secured a series of jobs at several small-town newspapers, along with a brief stint as a copy boy at Time magazine.
In his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1967), Thompson, in typical Gonzo style, chronicled his time infiltrating the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them,” he wrote about the experience.
Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, on the “Freak Power Movement” ticket in 1970, but was not elected. An article about the campaign, “The Battle of Aspen,” was his first of his many contributions to Rolling Stone magazine, for which he served as national affairs editor until 1999.
In 1971, an assignment for Sports Illustrated led to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, a best-selling book based on Thompson’s drug-fueled trek through Las Vegas. A critical and commercial success, the book was adapted into a 1998 film, directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Benicio del Toro and Kentuckian Johnny Depp, a devoted fan of Thompson’s. (Depp later starred in the 2011 film version of Thompson’s novel The Rum Diary.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, a compilation of his stories for Rolling Stone about the 1972 presidential campaign, was published in 1973.
Thompson ended his Gonzo article on the Derby by describing the chaotic scene at the end of the most famous two minutes in sports:
“Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution.”
This could well have been a description of Thompson’s life—he was famous for his antics, anti-authoritarian behavior and nonconformist reporting style. After several bouts of poor health, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 20, 2005, at his compound in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen. In August 2005, in a private ceremony commemorating his life, Thompson’s ashes were shot from a cannon to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”