Murfree, Mary N. (1850–1922)
Murfree, Mary N. (1850–1922)
American novelist and short-story writer. Name variations: (pseudonyms) R. Emmet Dembry, Charles Egbert Craddock (1878–85). Born Mary Noailles Murfree on January 24, 1850, at Grantland plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee; died on July 31, 1922, in Murfreesboro; daughter of William Law Murfree (a lawyer and plantation owner) and Fanny Priscilla (Dickinson) Murfree; educated at home and in schools in Nashville and Philadelphia; attended Chegaray Institute, 1867–69; never married; no children.
In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), The Mystery of Witch-Face Mountain, and Other Stories (1895), The Phantoms of the Foot-Bridge, and Other Stories (1895); novels: Where the Battle Was Fought (1884), The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885), Down the Ravine (1885), In the Clouds (1886), The Despot of Broomsedge Cove (1888), In the "Stranger People's" Country (1891), The Story of Old Fort Loudon (1899), A Spectre of Power (1903), The Amulet (1906), The Fair Mississippian (1908), The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance of Tennessee (1912), The Story of Dulciehurst: A Tale of the Mississippi (1914); frequent contributor to national literary magazines, including Lippincott's and The Atlantic Monthly.
Mary N. Murfree, whose fiction set in the Tennessee mountains established her as one of the most popular authors of her day, was born on January 24, 1850, near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a town named for her great-grandfather. Her father William Law Murfree was a lawyer and a prosperous plantation owner, and her mother Fanny Dickinson Murfree came from a politically prominent family who owned plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi. At the age of four, Murfree was left partially paralyzed by a fever, a condition that most likely stimulated her interest in reading and writing. In 1856, her family moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she and her older sister Fanny attended the Nashville Female Academy until 1862. Their father tutored them during the Civil War, and after the war's end they attended the Chegaray Institute, a French boarding school in Philadelphia, from 1867 to 1869.
In 1869, the family suffered severe financial losses due to the falling price of cotton. They moved back to Murfreesboro, building a smaller house to replace the mansion that had been gutted during a nearby battle. Murfree's father entertained his daughters with stories, many in local dialects. She and her father also wrote stories together during this period, and a light satiric comedy on social life, "Flirts and Their Ways," became her first published work, appearing in May 1874 in Lippincott's under the pen name of R. Emmet Dembry. In May 1878, The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove, by Charles Egbert Craddock, her new pseudonym, was published in the Atlantic Monthly.
In 1881, after Murfree moved to St. Louis with her family, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the new editor of The Atlantic Monthly, urged Charles Egbert Craddock to concentrate on mountain stories. Eight of these were published as In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), an instant success that is also considered one of Murfree's best books. Critics of the day called it "a milestone in American regional writing," and the book contributed greatly to the local-color movement in American fiction, in which writers strove to depict the distinct character and flavor of a region and its people. In quick succession came Where the Battle Was Fought (1884), The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885), and Down the Ravine (1885), a boys' story serialized by Wide Awake magazine. Soon readers were wondering just who "that man Craddock" was, but Murfree's identity was kept secret until 1885, when, fearing that it would be found out anyway, she revealed the truth to Thomas Bailey Aldrich. The revelation gained nationwide publicity (there was much amazement that a woman was writing such "vigorous" fiction), and her popularity increased further. She published the novels In the Clouds (1886) and The Despot of
Broomsedge Cove (1888), and was acclaimed on a par with such other eminent local colorists as Sarah Orne Jewett , Bret Harte, and George W. Cale; for over a decade, not one of her stories was rejected for publication.
In 1889, Murfree returned with her family to their Grantland plantation, where her writing was their chief source of income. Two years later, she published In the "Stranger People's" Country, now considered her most fully realized and compelling novel. Another collection of short stories, The Phantoms of the Foot-Bridge, and Other Stories, appeared in 1895. The public's reading taste gradually changed, however, and interest in local color faded. Pressed by financial considerations, Murfree dutifully switched to writing historical novels, including The Story of Old Fort Loudon (1899) and A Spectre of Power (1903), and also tried romances. None of these were as popular as her mountain stories had been, and eventually she returned, with some success, to the subject she knew best. Although modern-day readers and critics may have difficulty with what are generally agreed to be her stereotypical characters and intrusive authorial voice, her complete familiarity with the environment of the Tennessee mountains, and the freshness and fidelity with which she depicted both it and the people who lived there, remain worthy of attention. Murfree spent her last years blind and restricted to a wheelchair. In 1922, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of the South, and died that July in Murfreesboro.
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Cary, Richard. Mary N. Murfree. NY: Twayne, 1967.
Parks, Edd Winfield. Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary Noailles Murfree). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1941.
A collection of Murfree's papers are at Emory University Library. Her manuscripts are held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont