Wilma Dykeman, novelist, journalist, and state historian, was born in Asheville, North Carolina, on May 20, 1920. In 1940 she married James R. Stokely. They resided in Newport, Tennessee, where they raised two sons. Stokely died in 1977. Dykeman holds her undergraduate degree, with a major in speech, from Northwestern University. She has received many honorary degrees and awards including the Sidney Hillman Award (shared with her husband James) and a Guggenheim Fellowship; she has been a Senior Fellow of the National Endowment of the Humanities and a Tennessee Conservation Writer of the Year.
Dykeman launched her career as a Tennessee historian with the publication of The French Broad, released in 1955 as part of the Rivers of America series of the Rinehart publishing company. Of Dykeman's three primary concerns in her writing, The French Broad addresses the first–early Tennessee history and the distinctive character of the state's mountain people. Her later Tennessee: A Bicentennial History (1976) is another classic text of the state's history. In 1981 Governor Lamar Alexander appointed Dykeman the official state historian. A second major concern is Dykeman's treatment of civil rights and human freedom. Works like Neither Black Nor White (1957) and Seeds of Southern Change: The Life of Will Alexander (1962), both written in collaboration with Stokely, demonstrate a passionate commitment to civil liberties. A third concern is her reverence for and affirmation of life, human dignity, and the environment. This is perhaps reflected best in her novels such as The Tall Woman (1962), The Far Family (1966), and Return the Innocent Earth (1973). Scholar Thomas D. Young observed that a theme shared by all three novels is “the unique role of the mountain woman in her family and the community.” (1)
Dykeman lives in Newport and continues to write and speak about the themes, people, and events that have shaped her native Appalachian region, the state, and the South. As state historian, she is an effective spokesperson for the importance of history in the present and future and she was the first to raise her voice in support for the production of a Tennessee encyclopedia to celebrate two hundred years of statehood.
Sam B. Smith, “Wilma Dykeman and James Stokely,” in An Encyclopedia of East Tennessee, ed. Jim Stokely and Jeff D. Johnson (1981), 163-65