Where does Tennessee literature begin? With the poems and stories composed and handed down orally by the Native Americans long before the white explorers and settlers came? With the accounts of the Spanish expeditions of Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo? If one limits consideration to material written in English, then the literature of Tennessee perhaps begins with the accounts written by early travelers, especially those chronicling their journeys between Nashville and Knoxville as they passed through the “wilderness,” the land controlled by the Native Americans as late as 1838. Among them were the Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury; Andre Michaux, the French botanist; Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans and future king of France; and the Moravian missionaries Abraham Steiner and Frederick Schweinitz–all of whom left a record of their journeys made between 1795 and 1802.
The first fictional journey from Nashville to Knoxville is accomplished in the first novel set in Tennessee, Anne Newport Royall's The Tennessean; A Novel, Founded on Facts (1827). The melodramatic plot places the action in such cities as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and even Mexico City, but there are scenes in Tennessee, usually in Nashville or the nearby Rutherford County. At one point the narrator, Charles Burlington, and others make a three-day journey on horseback through the wilderness from Nashville to Knoxville, where the narrator catches the stage for Philadelphia.
The Tennessean was written by an outsider and published in New England. It remained for Charles W. Todd, a man about whom little is known, to write the first novel by a Tennessean, the first to be published in Tennessee: Woodville; or, The Anchoret Reclaimed. A Descriptive Tale (1832). Much of the setting is in the mountains of an unnamed Southern state, presumably Tennessee, and some of the action takes place at “the —– Springs,” presumably based on Montvale Springs, a popular resort south of Maryville.
The novels by Royall and Todd could not hope to rival in popularity or longevity a book published in 1834, the Narrative of the Life of David Crockett. Of all the books to which Crockett's name was attached, this appears to have been the only one to which he contributed in any way. Almost equally famous were the Crockett Almanacs, which appeared for years after Crockett's death at the Alamo in 1836.
Excerpts from the Crockett almanacs frequently appear in national anthologies of humor and of American literature, and the same may be said for the work of George Washington Harris, a Southern frontier humorist who lived in Knoxville for a number of years before the Civil War. Harris created a rustic central character from the copper mining section of southeastern Tennessee, Sut Lovingood, who appears in story after story, recounting his latest adventures to his city friend George. The first Sut story, “Sut Lovingood's Daddy 'Acting Horse,'” appeared in New York's Spirit of the Times in 1854, and numerous others appeared over the years, frequently in Tennessee newspapers. They were later collected in Sut Lovingood. Yarns Spun by a “Nat'ral Born Durn'd Fool” (1867), a classic of nineteenth-century Southern humor. Despite the difficulty of Sut's dialect (the spelling of almost every word is changed to reflect its pronunciation), the seeming delight in cruelty and pain, and the male-oriented humor, the Sut Lovingood stories are more likely to appear in a college anthology of American literature than anything else written in Tennessee before the twentieth century.
The years following the Civil War saw the rise of the local color movement in American fiction. In New England, in the West, and in the deeper South, writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Bret Harte, and George Washington Cable devoted themselves to depicting the scenery, customs, the ways of speaking, thinking, and acting of those who lived there. Tennessee was not to be left behind. Although most attention was paid to Mary Noailles Murfree, who wrote under the masculine pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock, there were at least three other women who wrote about the Tennessee mountains in short stories and novels published in the North.
Murfree's best book is her first, a collection of stories previously published in the Atlantic Monthly called In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), which she followed up with her best mountain novel, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885). Unquestionably Murfree put the Tennessee mountains (she depicted both the Cumberlands and the Great Smokies) on the literary map. Much admired in her own time, Murfree was later rejected as an outside interpreter and creator of stereotypes of people she did not really understand. It was, of course, hard for a Philadelphia-educated Episcopalian from Murfreesboro to identify completely with the mountaineers, and her summers at Beersheba Springs and Montvale Springs were less than ideal circumstances for learning about the people she described for her readers. Nevertheless, Murfree does present some rather admirable women characters such as Cynthia Ware of “Drifting Down Lost Creek,” the first story in the collection.
Less well known than Murfree's was the work of Will Allen Dromgoole and Sarah Barnwell Elliott, who also wrote of the Tennessee mountains and mountaineers. A fourth woman, Sherwood Bonner, though not a Tennessean, wrote of the Cumberland Mountains in a series of stories for Harper's Weekly. These were collected in Dialect Tales (1883).
Mention should also be made of an Englishwoman of the same time period, Frances Hodgson Burnett, best known for her novels Little Lord Fauntleroy (1896) and The Secret Garden (1911). Burnett lived first in New Market and later in Knoxville (1869-73) and wrote several stories and novels making use of Tennessee settings.
If the nineteenth-century women local colorists were “outsiders,” the first “insider” to write seems to have been Emma Bell Miles of Walden's Ridge and Chattanooga whose book The Spirit of the Mountains appeared in 1905. A nonfiction work, it describes in some detail such cultural elements as education, religion, superstition, and music as they were to be found in the mountains she knew.
Of course, not all of Tennessee literature concerned itself with the mountains or came out of East Tennessee. By the early 1920s a group of writers associated with Nashville's Vanderbilt University began to take center stage in the state's literature. Under the leadership of such men as John Crowe Ransom, a group of professors and students gathered to discuss literature and philosophy and to read their works to each other. Beginning in 1922, they published a “little magazine” called The Fugitive, and the name came to be applied to the group, which included Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Walter Clyde Curry. The one female Fugitive was Laura Riding; another woman closely connected with the group, though an important novelist in her own right, was Caroline Gordon, who married Allen Tate in 1924.
The last issue of The Fugitive appeared in December 1925. At Vanderbilt the old Fugitive group was replaced by the Agrarians, though some–Ransom, Davidson, Tate, Warren–were members of both groups. The Agrarians concerned themselves with political and economic issues and especially with their application to the South. In 1930 the group published its manifesto I'll Take My Stand, the title a line from the song “Dixie.” For the most part the essays set forth conservative positions, with Warren's “The Briar Patch,” dealing with the racial question, a notable exception. To many the collection of essays seemed a futile attempt to turn back the clock, to reject “progress,” embracing as it did an agricultural way of life and attacking industrialism. Others praised what seemed an incisive critique of many elements of life in the 1920s.
Although the work of Ransom and Tate regularly appears in the major national anthologies–especially Ransom's “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” (1924) and Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (1930)–the most widely known member of the Fugitive and Agrarian groups is surely Warren. Looking back from 1986, Douglas Paschall declared that Warren was “indisputably Tennessee's most significant man of letters.” His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men (1946), based on the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long, is perhaps the most distinguished in a group of novels which includes several set in Tennessee, among them The Cave (1959), Flood (1964), and Meet Me in the Green Glen (1971). One of Warren's most frequently anthologized stories, “Blackberry Winter,” is set in Middle Tennessee during an exceptionally cold June.
Warren was also a poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Promises (1957), and in collaboration with Cleanth Brooks, another Vanderbilt alumnus well known for his books of literary criticism, he edited the highly influential textbooks Understanding Poetry (1938) and Understanding Fiction (1943). Brooks and Warren, along with Ransom, Tate, and others, practiced what was called “new criticism” (after the title of Ransom's 1941 book, The New Criticism), in which the critic focuses on the work of art itself, subjecting it to close analysis.
In time most of the prominent Fugitives and Agrarians left Vanderbilt. Tate ended his teaching career at Minnesota; Warren ended his at Yale. Ransom left Vanderbilt for Kenyon College in 1937 and taught there until his retirement. Only Davidson finished his teaching at Vanderbilt.
Naturally, not all Tennessee writing during the time was done by those connected with Nashville. East Tennessee's Anne Armstrong published in 1915 a novel set in Knoxville (though the city is called “Kingsville”) entitled The Seas of God, a phrase from Whitman's “Passage to India.” In 1930 she published a better-known novel, This Day and Time, set in Sullivan County before the completion of the South Holston Dam. Evelyn Scott of Clarksville, a rebel against middle-class morality who in 1913 at the age of twenty ran off with a married man and lived with him in a common-law marriage in Brazil for six years, wrote a series of novels. The best known is The Wave (1929), set during the Civil War. Her Brazilian experience is detailed in the autobiographical Escapade (1923).
Though little remembered now, T. S. Stribling of Clifton published a number of novels in the 1920s and 1930s. The Store (1932), second in his trilogy on Southern life which extends from the Civil War to the 1920s, received the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a Tennessean. Another almost-forgotten novelist of the time was Harry Harrison Kroll; the most noted of his twenty novels is Cabin in the Cotton (1931), which was made into a film starring Bette Davis.
Over the years the Vanderbilt group exerted a strong influence on certain young Tennessee writers. Mildred Haun of Cocke County, for example, studied at Vanderbilt in the 1930s, where she was encouraged by Ransom and Davidson. In 1937, under the latter's direction, she completed a thesis on the ballads and songs of her native county, and three years later she published The Hawk's Done Gone (1940), a book of interconnected stories of the East Tennessee mountains told by an elderly “granny-woman.”
A very different writer who also studied with Ransom and Davidson at Vanderbilt was Randall Jarrell, who received his bachelor's degree in 1935 and then began graduate work, later following Ransom to Kenyon College. Though he published one novel, Pictures from an Institution (1954), Jarrell is best known for his poetry, especially one short poem taken from his World War II experiences, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”
Still another strongly influenced by the Vanderbilt group was Peter Taylor. In the 1930s Taylor had Allen Tate as his freshman English teacher at Southwestern in Memphis (later Rhodes College). So impressed was Tate with the young Taylor that he urged him to transfer to Vanderbilt in order to study under Ransom. When Ransom left, Taylor followed him to Kenyon, just as Jarrell did. Though he taught for many years in North Carolina and at the University of Virginia, Taylor did not forget his connection with Tennessee, as evidenced by his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Summons to Memphis (1986) and In the Tennessee Country (1994).
Another Pulitzer Prize winner among Tennessee writers is James Agee, who grew up in Knoxville and used the circumstances of his father's death in a May 1916 automobile accident as the basis for the novel A Death in the Family (1957). Not only did the novel win the Pulitzer; the drama based on the novel and retitled All the Way Home (1960) also won a Pulitzer. The novel's separately published prologue, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” has become still better known through a setting for soprano and orchestra by composer Samuel Barber.
Cormac McCarthy, who also grew up in Knoxville, wrote a notable series of novels set in East Tennessee, beginning with The Orchard Keeper (1965) and including Suttree (1979), which portrays the darker underside of Knoxville some forty to forty-five years ago. Again and again critics have compared McCarthy with Faulkner, and some readers find his prose too filled with violence, horror, and the macabre, but McCarthy has earned a wide following.
Many who were unaware of Memphis's Shelby Foote as a writer came to know him as one of the narrators in the PBS television series on the Civil War, a subject he had explored in detail in his three-volume trilogy The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-74) and still earlier in the novel Shiloh (1952).
Surely no Tennessee writer has achieved greater fame than Alex Haley. Roots (1976), tracing his family's origins back to the African Kunta Kinte, achieved phenomenal success and inspired a popular eight-part ABC television miniseries in 1977, as well as a sequel, Roots: The Next Generation, which was broadcast two years later.
Other notable African American authors associated with Tennessee include the poet Nikki Giovanni, a Knoxville native whose Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) established her as one of the new wave of black poets, and Ishmael Reed, a poet and novelist originally from Chattanooga, whose clearest link with the state is the collection Chattanooga: Poems (1973). Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940), one of the most distinguished African American novels, lived for a time in Memphis, as recorded in his autobiographical Black Boy (1945).
Among earlier black writers are Arnaud Bontemps, the noted poet, novelist, and short story writer who participated in the Harlem Renaissance and was associated with Nashville's Fisk University for some twenty-five years. Another writer having a long association with Fisk was the poet James Weldon Johnson, well known for God's Trombones (1927), The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and Lift Every Voice, which became a kind of national anthem for African Americans. Still earlier was George Marion McClellan, a Fisk graduate of 1885 who published three collections of poetry and a collection of short stories, Old Greenbottom Inn (1906).
Many other names could be added to those preceding, according to the taste of those proposing or objecting to the inclusion of a particular writer. New writers are appearing constantly, and older writers are adding to their works. The inclusion of more than one hundred writers in a bicentennial anthology, Home Works (1996), amply testifies to the fact that Tennessee literature is alive, thriving, and constantly growing.
Paul K. Conkin, The Southern Agrarians (1988); Douglas Paschall and Alice Swanson, eds., Homewords: A Book of Tennessee Writers (1986); Phyllis Tickle and Alice Swanson, eds., Home Works: A Book of Tennessee Writers (1996); Ray Willbanks, ed., Literature of Tennessee (1985); Thomas Daniel Young, Tennessee Writers (1981)