Dargan, Olive Tilford

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DARGAN, Olive Tilford

Born 1869, Grayson County, Kentucky; died 22 January 1968, Asheville, North Carolina

Also wrote under: Fielding Burke

Daughter of Elisha F. and Rebecca Day Tilford; married PegramDargan (died 1915)

Raised in Kentucky and Missouri in an academic family, Olive Tilford Dargan was educated at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, and later at Radcliffe College, where she met her future husband, Pegram Dargan. She began her writing career as a poet and lyrical dramatist living in New York, but, following her husband's death by drowning in 1915, she returned to Kentucky and wrote about the southern mountain people. Her literary approach ranged from bemused local color anecdotes written during the 1920s to angry Marxist novels written during the Depression. Throughout her long life, Dargan published social fiction under the pseudonym Fielding Burke while using her real name for poetry and local color stories. In 1916 Dargan was awarded the Southern Society of New York Prize for the best book written by a Southerner, and in 1924 she received the Belmont-Ward Fugitive Prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina.

Dargan's early lyrical dramas give some clues to the intensely political nature of her mature fiction. The Mortal Gods (1912), though archaic in form and remote in setting, is nevertheless a powerful study of the oppression of the working class in modern industrial society. In her collection of plays, The Flutter of the Gold Leaf (1922), Dargan explores conflicting emotional and intellectual loyalties, and the different impulses created by personal and public roles. The plays were not well received by critics.

Dargan's more conventional poetry was treated admiringly. The sonnet collection, The Cycle's Rim (1916) was described by one reviewer as "in a class with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese."

The extent of Dargan's left-wing intellectual leanings becomes apparent in Highland Annals (1925), a collection of short stories about the poor white inhabitants of the southern mountains. Although these sketches exhibit many of the traditional features of Southern local color writing—tall tales, extravagant humor, rhapsodic appreciation of nature, quaintness of language and custom—they also note the ominous threat of the exploitative cotton mill and the vulnerability of the poor white woman who suffers both for her class and for her sex.

A bloody strike among hitherto docile workers in a textile mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929 gave Dargan the ideal setting for her first novel. Call Home the Heart (1932) is about the predicament of Ishma, a Southern poor white woman who is torn between her love for her husband, family, and mountain life, and an overwhelming desire to seek freedom from the obligations they heap upon her. But when Ishma deserts her family for an urban, industrial life with a lover, she only finds a new set of duties. She discovers the poor worker trapped by the cruel paternalism of the textile factories, and she slowly educates herself in the intricacies of Marxist socialism until she is ready to participate fully in strike organization. However, just when Ishma's intellectual principles appear to have triumphed, she flees back to her husband and family, driven by ancient prejudices against the black workers who embrace her, and drawn by her yearning for a husband's love and the tranquil beauty of the mountains. Many critics applauded what they called the novel's final "retreat into art" after Marxist and feminist "propaganda." Dargan, however, leaves no doubt that Ishma's retreat, though passionate and consoling, is a failure of principle—a step backward from the new consciousness she seemed to be approaching. The novel implies there can be no reconciliation of pleasure and principle, that one must always be subordinate to the other.

Dargan returned to the predicament of Ishma in her second proletarian novel, A Stone Came Rolling (1935). Here the heroine achieves the triumph of principle, but only at the cost of the death of her beloved husband. She returns to dedicate her energy to revolutionary activities with a new sense of the danger of a wasted life. Though Dargan's novels show a clear Marxist emphasis, their power lies in their sensitivity to the circumstances of an intellectual and passionate woman who discovers personal happiness is the price demanded by both the traditional feminine role and the revolutionary feminist one.

After the 1930s, Dargan, like most other leftward-leaning American writers, retreated from extreme ideological concerns. She returned to anecdotal fiction of the mountain people in From My Highest Hill (1941), and to a liberal treatment of labor warfare among organizing mine workers in Sons of the Stranger (1947). Yet it is in the earlier novels of political engagement that Dargan produced her finest and most original work.

Other Works:

Path Flower, and Other Verses (1904). Semiramis, and Other Plays (1904). Lords and Lovers, and Other Dramas (1906). Lute and Furrow (1922). The Spotted Hawk (1958). Innocent Bigamy, and Other Stories (1962).


Polsky, T., North Carolina Authors: A Selective Handbook (1952). Rideout, W. B., The Radical Novel in the U.S. 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (1956).

Reference Works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). WW of Women (1914).

Other reference:

Nation (8 Jan. 1936). NR (29 Jan. 1936). NYTBR (15 Dec. 1935). North Carolina Librarian (Spring 1960). SRL (16 April 1932). Writers's Markets and Methods (interview, 1950).