The origins of West Virginia’s literary heritage predate statehood. While numerous published writers made Western Virginia their home, there are a select few whose influence and importance stand out. Novelist, journalist, and travel writer Anne Royall (1769–1854), who spent her early adult years at Sweet Springs in Monroe County, was one of the earliest. Aside from her uncommon independence for a woman of her day, Royall’s outspokenness toward prominent figures and issues anticipates by decades the muckraking tradition that was eventually to characterize American journalism. In addition to her novel, The Tennessean (1827), she is noted for Letters from Alabama (1830) and Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States (1826).
The African-American essayist and Civil War officer, Martin Delany (1812–85), was born at Charles Town and is best-known for his anti-racist writings, most particularly Blake: or, the Huts of America, originally serialized in 1859–62. David Hunter Strother (1816–88), born at Martinsburg, established himself as an illustrator and travel writer under the pen name Porte Crayon and went on to greater fame as a Civil War correspondent and military officer. Yet another literary pioneer is Rebecca Harding Davis of Wheeling (1831–1910), author of one of the earliest and most enduring examples of social realism, the short story ‘‘Life in the Iron Mills’’ (1861).
Western Virginians produced a rich historical literature, particularly from the region’s dramatic frontier period. The best-known accounts are Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 (1824) by Joseph Doddridge (1769–1826); Chronicles of Border Warfare (1831) by Alexander Scott Withers (1792–1865); and History of the Early Settlement and Indian Wars of Western Virginia (1851) by Wills De Hass (1817–1910). Trans-Allegheny Pioneers by John P. Hale (1824–1902) was published in 1886. Supplementing these is the extensive collection of interviews, letters, and documents compiled by Lyman Draper (1815–91) from 1840 to 1891.
Two of West Virginia’s governors were accomplished men of letters. George Wesley Atkinson (1845–1925) authored The History of Kanawha County (1876), and William Alexander MacCorkle (1857–1930) is noted for The White Sulphur Springs (1916), Some Southern Questions (1908), and for his memoir, The Recollections of Fifty Years of West Virginia (1928).
The emergence of West Virginia writers of national prominence begins in the late 19th century. Harrison County’s Melville Davisson Post (1869–1930), author of the Uncle Abner detective stories, is widely regarded as influential in the development of the modern mystery genre. The poet Anne Spencer (1882–1975), who grew up in Bramwell, Mercer County, was a noted participant in the Harlem Renaissance. Poet and essayist John Peale Bishop (1892–1944) was born at Charles Town and shared the international literary spotlight with the likes of Faulkner and Gertrude Stein.
Pocahontas County poet Louise McNeill (1911–93) came into prominence with her collection titled Gauley Mountain (1939), and served as West Virginia’s poet laureate from 1979 until her death. Also notable in the early 20th century was Julia Davis (1900–93) of Clarksburg, author of The Shenandoah (1945) in the Rivers of America series, among other works. Bridging the period of the Second World War were writers such as Webster Springs native Hubert Skidmore (1909–46), whose social realist fiction often dealt with class and cultural conflict in West Virginia. His novel, Hawks Nest (1941), was a fictionalized account of the death toll in building the Hawks Nest Tunnel. His twin brother, Hobert (1909–69), was also an author, whose works included a fictional treatment of twin brothers, The Years Are Even (1952).
It was the post-war period, however, that occasioned the first full flowering of West Virginia literature. There are the notable literary contributions of Moundsville’s Davis Grubb (1919–80), whose suspense novel, Night of the Hunter (1953), was a National Book Award finalist. Fairmont native John Knowles (1926–2001) rose to enduring prominence for A Separate Peace (1960); he also wrote A Vein of Riches (1978), a novel based on his hometown’s rich industrial heritage. A less acknowledged but much accomplished writer, William Hoffman (1925-2009) began what became a long literary career in this same period.
It is also in this period that we find the towering achievement of Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet. These five novels— Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat, and The Killing Ground—published between 1956 and 1982, can be regarded as a literary reckoning with the West Virginia experience. Collectively they constitute not only an impressive aesthetic accomplishment but also a near-definitive coming to terms with regional social history in a narrative, fictional form. Settle (1918-2005) wrote many other novels, including several about West Virginia. The magnitude of her work exceeds any literary precedents.
It would be another generation before anyone would undertake anything approaching Settle’s project. This time Wheeling served as the historical backdrop for the novels of Keith Maillard Light in the Company of Women (1993), Gloria (1999), Clarinet Polka (2003), Alex Driving South (1980), and Hazard Zones (1995).
Also prominent among this next generation was short-story writer Breece D’J Pancake (1952–79) who grew up in Milton, Cabell County. Though mindful of earlier work, particularly Tom Kromer’s (1906–69) Waiting for Nothing (1935), Pancake exhibited a vision of common local experience, teaching Appalachian writers that regional everyday life could provide a landscape for new and original work.
There have followed several highly regarded literary figures from West Virginia, each with a sense of place as integral to their fiction, yet each distinctive in voice. Jayne Anne Phillips (Machine Dreams, 1984; Fast Lanes, 1987; Shelter, 1994), Richard Currey (Wars of Heaven, 1990), Pinckney Benedict (Wrecking Yard, 1992; Dogs of God, 1994), Lisa Koger (Farlanburg Stories, 1990), Meredith Sue Willis (Oradell at Sea, 2002), and Gretchen Laska (The Midwife’s Tale, 2003) have all created imaginative landscapes that are identifiably West Virginian and yet avoid the conventions of local color writing so prevalent in regional literature since the late 19th century. The latter half of the 20th century saw the coming of age of West Virginia literature; never before have so many written so well. But, as with so many West Virginians in the 20th century, most of the authors have left to find their careers elsewhere though they still write about West Virginia. Of this generation, Denise Giardina, author of acclaimed coalfields novels Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), and other novels, continues to reside in the state.
Coming of age as a literary theme also finds voice in this critical period of West Virginia writing. Chuck Kinder’s Snakehunter (1973) and Lee Maynard’s Crum (1988) put small town and rural experiences of growing up on the state’s literary map.
Not surprisingly, nonfictional memoir also flourishes in our state’s literature. Notable instances include Louise McNeill (Milkweed Ladies, 1988), Cynthia Rylant (But I’ll Be Back Again, 1989), Henry Louis Gates (Colored People, 1994), Mary Lee Settle (Addie, 1998), and John O’Brien (At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, 2001). Red, White, Black & Blue: A Dual Memoir of Race & Class in Appalachia (2004) by William Drennen and Kojo Jones, edited with analysis by Dolores Johnson, is an unusual collaborative memoir. Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys (1998) was the most popular of these books, becoming a best-selling book and successful movie. In these memoirs, the same features so prominent in literary fiction are in evidence: West Virginia as both shared landscape and a uniquely lived experience, providing a setting for themes both particular and universal. Clearly, there are numerous forms of nonfiction, such as Strother’s travel writings, that transcend ordinary journalism. A more recent candidate would be Jedediah Purdy’s evocation of West Virginia as a tonic to the prevailing culture of cynical commercialism, For Common Things (1999).
Other areas of West Virginia literature have demonstrated growth in quality and number in the postwar era. In the case of poetry, this trend is evident in the anthology assembled by Barbara Smith and Kirk Judd: Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry, 1950–1999 (2000). More than 130 contributors were included, ranging from traditionalists such as Louise McNeill and Kanawha County’s Muriel Miller Dressler (1918–2000)—-the book’s title is taken from a line in Dressler’s signature poem ‘‘Appalachia’’—-to current poets, such as Maggie Anderson and Marc Harshman. Harshman was appointed West Virginia’s poet laureate in 2012, following the death of Irene McKinney, who was appointed to the post in 1994.
Children’s literature underwent a parallel development in the last decades of the 20th century. From a modest number of authors, notably Jean Lee Latham (1902–95) and Alvena Seckar, an explosion in juvenile literature has followed the publication of Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains (1982). While Rylant has gone on to publish more than 60 books for children, she has been joined by several other writers, including Marc Harshman, Anna Egan Smucker, Cheryl Ware, Cheryl Ryan, Robyn Eversole, Joseph Slate, and Brenda Seabrooke. Three West Virginia children’s authors have received the prestigious Newbery Award: Latham (1956), Betsy Byars (1971), and Rylant (1993). In addition to these, the Newbery Award-winning author, Phyllis R. Naylor, set her Shiloh novels (1991, 1996, and 1997) and the boys versus girls series (1993–2003) in actual West Virginia locales.
The one kind of genre fiction that has fared well in West Virginia is mystery, something that might have gratified Melville Davisson Post. Aside from writers of literary thrillers such as Benedict and Hoffman, traditional mystery novels and stories have been plentiful from John Suter (1914–96), Dave Pedneau (1947–90), John Douglas, Carlene Thompson, and John Billheimer.
The inability to either evade or completely erase demeaning prejudice has perhaps proven to be the sort of creative tension that can provoke and sustain a rich and diverse literary countertradition. In the opening lines of Richard Currey’s novel Lost Highway (1997) the protagonist, returning home to West Virginia, recalls his initial sense of shame regarding the place of his origin. When he first left the state, he had passed himself off as a Virginian, but eventually abandoned the pretense. This is but one instance of a prevalent feature in West Virginia literature: a dual consciousness of shame and pride in response to popular conceptions and stereotypes. West Virginia writing has undeniably turned out to be an effective personal and cultural response to a generally negative image, capable of subverting that image in equally imaginative ways and turning it to purposes the larger culture could hardly have anticipated or intended.
Written by Gordon Simmons