The Carnegie Center for Literacy inducted six writers into its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame during its inaugural ceremony last Thursday. The six authors chosen were Harriette Simpson Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still and Robert Penn Warren. The Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame was created “to honor the great literary history of Kentucky, and to encourage a new and growing pool of contemporary writers in the state,” Carnegie Center director Neil Chethik said at the ceremony.
After each inductee was announced, their work was read by a contemporary Kentucky author. The readers were Maurice Manning, Gurney Norman, Silas House, George Ella Lyon Jeremy Paden and Frank X Walker. A Carnegie Center committee selected he inductees were selected by a simple set of criteria: they had to be deceased, published, connected to the state in a significant way, and their writing had to be “of enduring stature,” Chethik said. Nominations were made by the general public and a committee of Kentucky Arts Council members, including former state poet laureates, novelists, bookstore owners, a publisher and a state librarian. Robert Penn Warren, born in Guthrie in Todd County, was the nation’s first poet laureate and the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and fiction, the latter for All the King’s Men. Harriette Simpson Arnow grew up near the Little South Fork of the Cumberland River in Wayne County. Her masterpiece, The Dollmaker, about an Appalachian family’s move to Detroit, is considered by many scholars to be a very early work of feminist fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1954. “It’s an American masterpiece and is a favorite of contemporary novelists, and continues to be really influential,” said House, who read from it. “It is a true writer’s novel.” William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Central Kentucky in 1814, but after 20 years, escaped to freedom in Ohio. He was a sought-after orator and activist in the abolition movement in the 1840s, and became the first African-American novelist and playwright. Harry Caudill was a Letcher County lawyer whose Night Comes to the Cumberlands brought attention to Appalachia and was instrumental in getting help for the region. Elizabeth Madox Roberts was born in Boyle County, and was short-listed to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1927 novel, The Time of Man. James Still was a native of northeast Alabama but lived in Kentucky longer than any other inductee, Chethik said. Still made his home on Bear Branch in Knott County, and worked at the Hindman Settlement School. His best known novel, River of Earth, was published in 1940, but he continued to write stories and poems throughout his life. “James Still was enigmatic,” said George Ella Lyon, who read two of his poems at the ceremony. “He was magical. He was paradoxical. He was very funny in a very dry, Still-ian way. He was just gentle.” She said ‘Still’ seemed the perfect name for him because he embodied stillness, “but his work is full of motion. It’s full of love of sound and rhythm.” Lyon closed the ceremony with one of Still’s poems, which she said “sends us on with the knowledge that though these writers whom we honor tonight have gone on to that great scriptorium and that great library in the next world, their voices are still living among us. We breathe their words, we read them tonight, and we have taken them into our molecules, and we will go on.” The other seven finalists were Thomas D. Clark, longtime University of Kentucky history professor and state historian; Guy Davenport, UK English professor at UK and acclaimed writer, critic, translator and visual artist; John Fox Jr., best known for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come; Janice Holt Giles of Adair County, who wrote historical fiction set in Kentucky and the western frontier; James Baker Hall, an award-winning writer, photographer, Kentucky poet laureate, and director of the UK creative writing program; Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, who wrote more than 70 books, including Seven Storey Mountain; and Jesse Stuart of Greenup County, known for his poems, short stories and novels set in southern Appalachia.