Arnow, Harriette (Louisa) Simpson
ARNOW, Harriette (Louisa) Simpson
Born 7 July 1908, Wayne County, Kentucky; died 22 March 1986, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Also wrote under: H. Arnow, Harriette Simpson, H. L. Simpson
Daughter of Elias and Mollie Jane Denney Simpson; married Harold Arnow, 1939; children: Marcella, Thomas
Harriette Simpson Arnow's best fiction is rooted in Kentucky, her native ground. With both parents being descendants of original Kentucky settlers, Arnow grew up hearing family stories dating from the American Revolution. These kindled her desire to write fiction, and tell stories herself. She attended Berea College for two years, taught school for a year, then studied at the University of Louisville, where she received a B.S. degree in 1930. In an act her family viewed as scandalous, Arnow quit her job in 1934 and moved to a furnished room in downtown Cincinnati near the city library, resolving to read "the great novels" and to write. She supported herself with odd jobs and worked for the Federal Writers' Project. After her marriage to newspaperman Harold Arnow, she moved with him to a farm in southern Kentucky. They later settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1950.
Arnow received national attention in 1935 with two short stories published in little magazines. Both demonstrate her skill at characterization and at depicting shocking violence. In 1936, she published the novel Mountain Path. It is based on Arnow's experience of boarding with a hill family in a remote Kentucky hollow and teaching in a one-room schoolhouse; her year there was her first prolonged stay with the people who were to become the primary subjects of her fiction. The novel received appreciative reviews from such respected critics as Alfred Kazin, who decried Arnow's inclusion of Kentucky fiction's stock material—a mountain feud—but praised the novel's most notable accomplishments: its realistic, uncondescending portraits of the hill poor and its "intimate revelation and occasional power." Although in this novel, as in her subsequent ones, Arnow accurately—at times excessively—documents hill customs and dialect, her primary concern is moral choice and responsibility.
"The Washerwoman's Day," published in Southern Review (Winter, 1936), is Arnow's best and most anthologized short story. She movingly depicts the self-righteousness and the arrogance church members feel toward the "poor white trash" who violate their notions of decency. This story anticipates Arnow's fuller treatment of narrow piousness in Hunter's Horn (1949) and The Dollmaker (1954).
Hunter's Horn, Arnow's second novel, was a critically acclaimed bestseller. The story of a hill farmer's obsessive chase after an elusive red fox, the book dramatizes the cost of a compulsion as maniacal and as mythic as Ahab's stalking of Moby Dick. Its riveting subplot centers on the fox hunter's daughter, Suse, who yearns to escape mountain provinciality and impoverishment. The inability of her father to defy ingrained community values causes her to be bound to a life that will "break her to the plow." Compelling characters and fluid prose, described by Malcolm Cowley as "poetry of earth," make this novel exceptional.
Arnow's third novel, The Dollmaker, is a masterwork. Another bestseller, it earned critical accolades, coming in second to Faulkner's The Fable for the National Book Award. Gertie Nevels, the hulking heroine who tries to preserve her integrity and her family's unity after their migration from the Kentucky hills to a wartime housing project in Detroit, is Arnow's most arresting character. Arnow's chronicle of Gertie grappling with religious and social prejudice, labor strikes, economic insecurity, family strife, and her own faintheartedness is a profound rendering of hope, disappointment, and anguish. A novel rich on many levels, The Dollmaker mirrors Gertie's struggle in its primary symbol, the cherrywood man Gertie carves. The novel won Arnow the Friends of American Literature Award and was voted best novel of the year in the Saturday Review's national critics' poll. Paramount Pictures bought the film rights and Jane Fonda played Gertie in a made-for-television movie in 1983.
Two social histories were the result of 20 years of research on the settlers in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee from 1780 to 1803. Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960), which won an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History and a citation from the Tennessee Historical Commission, celebrates the settlers' resourcefulness in conquering a hostile environment—getting food, clothing, and shelter, and struggling to hold the land against Indians and governments. A companion piece, Flowering of the Cumberland (1963) focuses on the activities requiring social intercourse and an exchange of goods and services—language, education, household life, agriculture, industry, and trade. Besides demonstrating a command of several fields of learning, these volumes, containing vivid reenactments of the settlers' everyday crises, are often as gripping as Arnow's best fiction.
Arnow's more recent novels, The Weedkiller's Daughter (1970) and The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution (1974), lack the full-bodied characters and the narrative drive that propel her earlier novels. The former has a new setting—suburbia—and the latter a different time from that of her distinguished fiction. Although Arnow's work enjoyed a reassessment in the 1980s, it has still not achieved the stature her talent merits. Too often writers whose work is firmly rooted in one locale are relegated to a minor status by the term "regional," which can suggest a limited appeal. Arnow's regional association can be doubly damaging to her reputation. Since Kentucky is often excluded from "southern" literature, and "Appalachian" literature has only recently become a separate category, Arnow's books are frequently not on lists of fiction demarcated by region.
Far outdistancing other writers treating hill people from the southern Appalachian region, Arnow is the first and only American novelist to describe them with fidelity and justice and to place them in a setting authentic to the last detail. But Arnow does more than evoke an area no other writer has captured. Like Twain and Faulkner, she creates a private world whose inhabitants face dilemmas reaching beyond geographical boundaries. Her best fiction depicts the conflict between an individual conscience and society—whether it be family, community, or the wider world. If Arnow's novels at times need streamlining, they contain worlds as palpable and as real as the reader's own. If her hardy combatants fail to achieve their goals, they nonetheless take responsibility for the outcome of their lives, and endure.
By the 1990s Arnow had been called a regionalist, an Appalachian writer, naturalist, realist, and transcendentalist—yet she resisted categorization. As she commented in an interview, she thought of "Appalachia" as a chain of mountains and didn't like the appellation, "woman writer." ("Well, what's so unusual about a woman writer?" she has said. "They've been around since Sappho and before.") Additionally, she wasn't concerned "about posterity." Nonetheless, she realized her place in American literature with The Dollmaker which was reprinted in 1999, while critical attention since the 1970s had influenced the reprinting of another of her five published novels, Hunter's Horn (reprinted 1997), as well as her three nonfiction works. Her short stories and essays remain uncollected. In her later years, Arnow led writing workshops at the Hindman Settlement School Writers Workshop in Kentucky (1978-85) and other sites and was invited as a speaker on several occasions.
From the interviews conducted in her later years, we learn about Arnow's writing process. She always wanted to be a poet and "wasted a lot of time," as she puts it, imitating the style of Robert Browning and John Milton. Unable to write poetry, she turned to Milton's prose: "Reading (him) was like watching an incoming tide on a rocky beach… The whole sea carrying the burden of the tide, came crashing near me. So did Milton's sentences." Besides Milton, Arnow also admired Thomas Hardy and Mark Twain, and among her contemporaries Wilma Dykeman, Jim Wayne Miller, David H. Looff, and James Still. One of her concerns in her writing was that she was often "afflicted by too many words, like my characters." As an example, she cited that it took 13 years to write Hunter's Horn and 17 rewritings of the first chapter in order to hone "a style not exactly bleak, but not wordy, a narrative with no adverbs and few adjectives, a style 'of self."'
Most of Arnow's critical attention still focuses on The Dollmaker and the complexity of Gertie Nevels. In a critical text edited by Haeja K. Chung (Critique Spring 1995), Arnow's short stories, a journal, her social histories, and her other novels, including the unpublished "Between the Flowers," are thoroughly examined.
Old Burnside (1977, reprint 1996).
Short stories include: "Marigolds and Mules" in Kosmos (Feb.-March 1935), "A Mess of Pork" in The New Talent (Oct.Dec. 1935), "The Two Hunters" in Esquire (Jul. 1942), "Love?" in Twigs (Fall 1971), "Fra Lippi and Me" in Georgia Review (Winter 1979); articles and essays in Appalachian Heritage,Frontiers, Mountain Life and Work, Nation, Wilson Library Bulletin, Writer's Digest.
Unpublished novels, short stories, journal, drafts of published works, and correspondence are in the Special Collection at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
Ballard, S. L., Harriette Simpson Arnow's Central Novel: Hunter's Horn (dissertation, 1987). Brooks, C., Approaches to Literature (1939). Chung, H. K., ed., Harriette Simpson Arnow: Critical Essays on Her Work (1995). Chung, H. K., "Harriette Simpson Arnow's Authorial Testimony: Toward of The Dollmaker" in Critique (Spring 1995). Eckley, W., H. Arnow (1974). Groover, K. K., The Wilderness Within: American Women Writers and Spiritual Quest (dissertation, 1996). Haines, C. H., To Sing Her Own Song: The Literary Work of Harriette Simpson Arnow (dissertation, 1993). Hobbs, G., "Harriette Arnow's Literary Journey: From the Parish to the World" (dissertation, 1975). Hobbs, G. "Harriette Arnow's Kentucky Novels: Beyond Local Color," in KCN, (Fall 1976). Hobbs, G., "Starting Out in the Thirties: Harriette Arnow's Literary Genesis" in Literature at the Barricades: The American Writer in the 1930s (1982). Oates, J. C., afterword to Arnow's The Dollmaker (1972). Turner, M. B., Agrarianism and Loss: the Kentucky Novels of Harriette Simpson Arnow (dissertation, 1997).
Bulletin of Bibliography (March 1989). CA. DLB.
MELUS (interview, Summer 1982). MQR (Spring 1990). Nation (31 Jan. 1976). NYHTB (6 Sept. 1936). Harriette Simpson Arnow, 1908-1986 (video, 1987).
UPDATED BY KAREN MCLENNAN