Novelist and short story writer Thomas S. Stribling became the first Tennessean to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Stribling was born in Clifton on March 4, 1881, the son of Christopher and Amelia Waits Stribling. After abandoning teaching and the practice of law, he began to write formulaic adventure tales for leading popular magazines.
Stribling’s major work as a serious writer came between 1921 and 1938. He achieved success with his first novel, Birthright (1921), a book dealing with the problems of a Harvard-educated African American who returns to his hometown in Tennessee hoping to uplift his race. In the early 1930s he produced The Forge (1931), The Store (1932), and Unfinished Cathedral (1934), a massive 1,479-page trilogy still recognized as his most significant literary production. Set in Florence, Alabama, and its surroundings, the trilogy portrays the history of the Vaiden family from the beginning of the Civil War through the boom period of the twenties. In these works, Stribling critically examines the factors contributing to the decline of the planter-aristocrat after the Civil War and the emergence of a new breed of opportunistic, middle-class mercantilists. The Store enjoyed the greatest success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. His other novels dealing with the South include Teeftallow (1926), Bright Metal (1928), and Backwater (1930).
Stribling did not write anything of major significance after These Bars of Flesh, published in 1938. He brought his career to a close in the late 1940s and early 1950s by writing detective stories for commercial pulp magazines. After years of residence in Florida and New York City, Stribling returned to Clifton in 1959. He spent the last years of his life there, dying of cancer on July 10, 1968. His autobiography, Laughing Stock (1969), was published posthumously.
Combining keen insight and open receptivity to the life around him with a penchant for intricately designed plots, Stribling produced a group of novels that provided good reading and recorded social conditions during various eras. As a pioneer in the Southern Renaissance, Stribling helped forge a new view of the South and cleared the way for southern authors in the ensuing decades. In short, Stribling helped to create modern southern literature; in doing so, he has earned a place in the American literary chronicle.
Edward J. Piacentino, T. S. Stribling: Pioneer Realist in Modern Southern Literature (1988)