Arnow, Harriette Simpson (1908–1986)
Arnow, Harriette Simpson (1908–1986)
American author of cultural histories, short stories, and novels, including The Dollmaker. Name variations: H. Arnow, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harriette Simpson, H.L. Simpson. Born Harriette Louisa Simpson on July 7, 1908, in Wayne County, Kentucky; died in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 22, 1986; daughter of Elias Thomas Simpson (a teacher, farmer, and oil driller) and Millie Jane (Denney) Simpson (a teacher and homemaker); attended Berea College, 1924–26; graduated University of Louisville, B.S., 1931; married Harold B. Arnow, on March 11, 1939; children: Marcella Jane Arnow ; Thomas Louis Arnow.
Published Mountain Path (1936); Hunter's Horn (1949); The Dollmaker (1954); Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960); Flowering of the Cumberland (1963). Given Berea College Centennial Award (1955); granted honorary degrees from Albion College (1955), Transylvania College (1979), and University of Kentucky (1981); given Outstanding Alumni award from University of Louisville, (1979).
Harriette Arnow's best novels grow out of the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, just as the author herself had her roots in those Appalachian hills. Her fiction, and the lives of the people in the region were, she said, shaped by the land and the Cumberland River.
Arnow's own ancestors migrated to an area of Kentucky near the Big Sinking Creek in the 18th century. These English and Scotch-Irish pioneers brought their sense of independence and strict religious beliefs across the mountains from Virginia and North Carolina. When Arnow was born, her father Elias was employed as a schoolteacher in rural Wayne County. Her mother, too, had been a teacher before her marriage. Thus, even though Harriette grew up in a provincial setting, she grew up among literate people with a great respect for education and learning. Her father was, however, unable to support a family on a teacher's salary, so when Harriette was four years old, they moved to the town of Burnside, a regional center of lumbering and transportation with approximately 1,000 inhabitants where her father took a position as a bookkeeper.
After only one year, the Simpsons left Burnside for a house with 30 or 40 acres on a hill outside of town. Life on the hill led Harriette to love the outdoors, both the semi-cultivated land of her mother's garden and the unspoiled woods and streams. Days followed no regular routine: meals were prepared when people were hungry and laundry done when everything was dirty.
The Simpson family and Harriette's maternal grandmother were inveterate storytellers. Among her earliest memories, Arnow recalled hearing a kind of ongoing oral history of her forebears, as well as stories of wars and the supernatural. Books were an integral part of life in Harriette's youth, and the happiest time of the year was Christmas when, as Arnow said, "nothing on earth had quite the promise of a new book."
She made her first attempt at writing fiction in the fourth grade. For a class assignment, Arnow was to write of something she had always wanted. She described a big desk with many drawers and pigeonholes, narrated from the point of view of the desk. Her teacher was so impressed that she read the tale aloud to the class, giving Harriette her first public encouragement.
Within the next year, life changed for the Simpsons. Money continued to be scarce, so Elias took a job in the oil fields of Lee County in eastern Kentucky. World War I took many young men from the area, and Harriette would remember her mother reading and writing letters for parents whose illiteracy kept them from communicating with their sons in the service. After the war, the influenza epidemic of 1918 raged through the area, causing Millie Jane to keep her children out of school and to teach them at home. Early the next year, the family moved to Lee County to be with their father.
Schools were poor or non-existent in Lee County, so after a year of being taught at home by her mother, 11-year-old Harriette and her sister were sent to boarding school at St. Helen's Academy. An excellent student, Arnow was ready for high school at 12, and was sent in 1920 to the Presbyterian Stanton Academy. There she participated in the Literary Club and became more interested in writing stories and poems.
Again finances forced the family to move, this time back to the house near Burnside. Arnow left Stanton Academy and somewhat resentfully enrolled in Burnside High School. There, although the curriculum was not as stimulating, she loved her classes in history and agriculture. While in high school, she submitted her first story for publication to Child Life. Although the piece was not published, the editors taught the prospective author an important lesson. She had sent the story typed, single-spaced on small pieces of paper. It was returned to her retyped—double-spaced on standard size paper—with a note saying that the editor had inadvertently torn the original copy.
After her graduation in 1924, Arnow followed her parents' decision that she should train to be a teacher and entered Berea College. There the strict religious rules and the requirement that every student work several hours each day at the school's craft industries were difficult for her. She continued with her writing and enjoyed her classes, especially English and science, but after two years her parents insisted that she leave Berea and take a teaching position. She took a job in a remote one-room rural school. The country was beautiful, people were friendly, but Arnow at first felt she had been banished from civilization. Her experiences during that year would become the material for her first novel, Mountain Path.
After two years as principal of a small school near her family's home, Arnow was able to return to college at the University of Louisville, where she earned her bachelor's degree in 1931. By this time, she was convinced that her vocation lay in writing. After two more teaching jobs, in Pulaski County and in Louisville, she gave up the classroom. Exhausted and with no money, Arnow left Kentucky for a northern Michigan resort, where she spent the summer of 1934 working as a waitress and beginning serious work on Mountain Path. In the fall, she moved to Cincinnati, where, over her family's objections, she continued to wait on tables, to read, to write, and at last, to publish.
Her first short story, "Marigolds and Mules," in which natural beauty contrasts with industrialization, appeared in Kosmos in 1934. The following year "A Mess of Pork," about a strong hill woman motivated by vengeance, appeared in The New Talent.
After reading the latter story, an editor from Covici Friede publishers contacted Arnow, asking to see more of her work. With some rewriting, she was able to publish Mountain Path in 1936. The novel grew from her experience of boarding with a family during her first teaching job. The protagonist, Louisa, is an outsider who comes to respect the mountain people. The novel has been praised for its characterization, which is neither sentimental nor condescending.
Even with her novel in print, Arnow still supported herself with odd jobs and by working for the Federal Writers Project, where she did historical studies of early Cincinnati. In 1938, she met journalist Harold Arnow whom she married the following year. Both wished to retreat to a place where they could write with minimal interruption, so they bought an abandoned farm in Kentucky on Little Indian Creek of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Life there was primitive, and the Arnows nicknamed the place "Submarginal Manor."
Arnow's next novel, Hunter's Horn, would not appear until 1949. Developments in her family and in the world delayed her plans to focus on her writing. In 1939, she gave birth to a stillborn child, but two years later on September 22, 1941, her daughter Marcella was born. After Marcella's birth, Harriette and her husband decided that their isolated home was not a practical place to raise a family. Thus in 1944, Harold took a job as a reporter with the Detroit Times, and leaving his wife and daughter behind to dispose of their property, moved to Detroit.
Like many industrial cities, Detroit was jammed with people, drawn there to work in the war industries and causing a major housing shortage. The Arnows found a rental in one of the wartime housing projects, hastily constructed to provide temporary shelter for the thousands of migrants. The surroundings—the crowded conditions and the heterogeneous population—were different from anything Harriette had ever experienced. She gave birth to a son Thomas on December 15, 1946, and attempted to continue writing. Her determination to write meant that she rose each day at 4:00 am to take advantage of a few quiet hours before her family awakened.
In 1949, she published her second novel, Hunter's Horn. A segment of the work had appeared earlier in the Atlantic as a short story called "The Hunter." Set in the Kentucky hills, Hunter's Horn concerns a farmer, Nunn Ballew, and his obsession with hunting a red fox known as King Devil. Critics frequently compare Ballew's chase with Ahab's fixation on the white whale in Moby Dick. The characters in Hunter's Horn live among limitations imposed by their mountain environment and the narrowness of their fundamentalist religious beliefs. In a sense, Ballew's hunt for the fox provides a rare opportunity for creativity, a chance to rise above the routine of life in Little Smokey Creek. Yet killing the fox ultimately brings tragedy to the hunter and his family. The characters in Hunter's Horn include not only Nunn Ballew, Arnow's most powerful male character, but also several outstanding female characters, including Ballew's daughter Suse. Suse is the focus of a parallel plot that concerns the narrow options for women and the inevitability of biology as destiny.
In 1951, the Arnows moved from their crowded quarters in Detroit to a large parcel of land near Ann Arbor, 50 miles away. Harold commuted to the city. She referred to her rather "mixed up life," which did not allow time to review books or to write: "My problems I suppose are like the problems of a great many other women who hope to carry on after marriage and discover they cannot do as they did before," she said.
Her busy life notwithstanding, Arnow published what is generally considered her greatest work, The Dollmaker, in 1954. Gertie Nevels, the heroine, and her family move from the Kentucky hills to a housing project in Detroit called, ironically, Merry Hill. It is both a journey from
the land to the industrialized city and a story of family disintegration. The journey challenges Gertie's strength and values; it presents the dilemmas of work versus integrity and motherhood versus creativity. In the end, Gertie emerges with a new faith in the dignity of human beings but has earned this understanding with the loss of most of the things she loves.
The Dollmaker was both a critical and a popular success. Besides being a bestseller, it was the second place selection for the 1954 National Book Award. (William Faulkner won the award for The Fable.) It also won the Friends of American Literature Award and was chosen best novel of the year by The Saturday Review's national critics' poll. In 1983, the novel was adapted into an Emmy award-winning television film starring Jane Fonda . In addition, Arnow was honored with an honorary degree from Albion College, the Berea College Centennial award, and the Woman's Home Companion Silver Distaff award for her "unique contribution by a woman to American life."
After the success of The Dollmaker, Arnow wrote two works of social and cultural history of her native region. Dealing with southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee during the period from 1780 to 1803, Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963) grew from 20 years of research. Her goal was to recreate the life of the ordinary men and women who settled the area. She accomplished this by describing everyday activities—preparing food, washing clothes, making soap—as well as by telling the stories of individual pioneers whose varied motives brought them to the region. In 1961, Arnow won an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History and a commendation from the Tennessee Historical Commission for Seedtime on the Cumberland.
In Flowering of the Cumberland, Arnow continues the tale of the social institutions of the frontier. Her treatment of the Native American peoples of the area is unrelentingly hostile. She sees the Indians through the eyes of the settlers who lived in fear of massacres. On the other hand, she tells of the vital roles women played in the settlement—in no way inferior to men, but rather as "yoke mates." Flowering also includes chapters on the language patterns of the region, on religion, on education, and aspects of popular culture, such as songs, jokes, and games.
During the 1970s, Arnow published several additional books: two novels, The Weed-killer's Daughter (1970) and The Kentucky Trace (1974); and Old Burnside (1978), a work of nonfiction. None of these achieved the critical or popular success of her earlier works. The Weedkiller's Daughter is set in the Detroit suburbs and tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who rejects the conservative values of her parents. The plot and the characters who represent the "generation gap" seem trite and unrealistic. The novel seems to lack both the sense of place and the universal themes that distinguish her earlier fiction. The Kentucky Trace is set in a familiar geographical setting, but in the time of the American Revolution. Critics have suggested that the novel is a thin vehicle for Arnow's extensive knowledge of the history of the late 18th century.
In her later years, Arnow received recognition from the University of Louisville and Transylvania College (1979) and the University of Kentucky (1981). Those tributes were a sign that Arnow's work was receiving wider attention and recognition. She had suffered during much of her career with being labelled as a "regional" writer. Many would argue that Arnow's work transcends region, as she deals with both rural and urban settings. Others would consider her novels feminist or proletarian literature. Harriette Arnow herself claimed to be neither a novelist nor a historian but, like her ancestors, called herself a storyteller. Harriette Simpson Arnow died of heart disease on March 22, 1986, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Arnow, Harriette Simpson. Flowering of the Cumberland. NY: Macmillan, 1963.
——. Seedtime on the Cumberland. NY: Macmillan, 1960.
Eckley, Wilton. Harriette Arnow. NY: Twayne, 1974.
Hobbs, Glenda. "Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow," in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Edited by Lisa Mainiero. NY: Frederick Unger, 1979.
The Dollmaker, (150 min), starring Jane Fonda , directed by Daniel Petrie, 1983.
A collection of Harriette Arnow's manuscripts and papers is located at the Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.
Mary Welek Atwell , Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Radford University, Radford, Virginia