Sunday, July 7, 2013
A Noble Writer
I was never to meet her face to face. I was never to hear her voice. She never knew if I lived or died, and only by a circuitous path did I even come to know her, but she was and remains the most important person in my career as a writer.
When I was a young man I was obsessed with the drive to write a novel. Where this ambition came from, why it was so compelling, I do not know. All I was sure of was the story I wanted to tell. I took notes, I wrote character descriptions, and I attempted to outline chapters but I wasn’t writing. The skills weren’t there. The novel was not taking shape. Something was lacking, something was holding me back and I was in despair.
I was making a living back in those days as a radio writer, and I was beginning to wonder if I might ever achieve my real ambition which was to become a novelist.
Following my return from overseas service in World War Two and graduation from the University of Cincinnati I had been fortunate enough to find a job as a radio writer at the legendary station WLWT. In its earliest years it had been so powerful that it could be heard all over the United States. Even after its range was reduced it had been the stepping off place for a good many talented people such as Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Red Skelton. My job was writing radio scripts. I wrote documentary portraits of noteworthy people in the area, an occasional dramatic show and even continuity for a country western singer named Ernie Lee.
From WLWT I moved to New York and went to work as a staff writer at NBC.
One of my first assignments was to dramatize a book titled "The Time of Man" by Elizabeth Madox Roberts for NBC RADIO THEATER.
I looked up Miss Roberts and learned that she was born in Perryville, Kentucky, on October 30, 1881. She attended high school in Covington, Kentucky and briefly enrolled at the University of Kentucky, but was forced to drop out after one semester due to poor health. After teaching school for several years she enrolled at the University of Chicago, studying literature and philosophy and fulfilling a lifetime dream of acquiring a college education. Her writing was first printed in 1922 - A group of poems for young people titled "Under the Tree." The success of the book led her to write her first novel "The Time of Man" (1926) about the daughter of a Kentucky tenant farmer which garnered her an international reputation. She went on to write several more critically acclaimed novels. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1936 she began spending her winters in Florida. She died in Orlando Florida in 194l and was returned home to Springfield for her burial.
In reading her biography one item that caught my attention was that at one point Roberts had moved to New York from Kentucky and had written that first novel in a basement apartment on East 96th Street. I, too, was a transplanted Southerner, living on 87th Street, practically in a basement, so I felt an immediate kinship with her.
When I began reading the novel, I discovered something wondrous and completely life changing. Roberts’ characters spoke in a way that was totally unique yet was exactly what I had heard as a boy in Virginia.
The book is told from the viewpoint of Ellen Chesser, the teenage daughter of an itinerant farmer. I was struck by Ellen’s marvelous imagination and sense of wonder. Ellen’s mother is a character of great strength and perseverance. "The Time of Man" simply delighted me. It embodied the nobility I had always perceived in so called "common" people and I was elated by the newfound style and connection with another Southern writer. Her characters spoke a language that was familiar to me. The sound of it was already in my ears. But it was language that had been elevated from the everyday spoken word to the level of literature.
After adapting "The Time of Man" as a radio play I began work again on my own novel. When I went to the typewriter the words came in a rush. It was as if they had been there all along and Elizabeth Madox Roberts had opened a floodgate. Not long after reading her book, I wrote and published my first novel.
If it had not been for Elizabeth Madox Roberts my novels, as well as the television series they inspired, might never have been written for she helped me portray Southern hill folk not as ignorant, thick-browed, shaggy haired, moonshine swilling rednecks, but as the courageous, self reliant, decent, honorable people I knew so well.
My association with this remarkable woman does not end there.
This past winter the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society’s Honorary President, H. R. Stoneback proposed and the EMR Executive Committee approved the creation of The Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society Award for Southern and Appalachian Writing. The award carries with it Honorary Lifetime Membership in the Roberts Society and I am proud to say that I was the first recipient of that honor.
I hope that these notes will encourage you to read the works of this extraordinary writer. I would suggest that you start with her first novel that I love so well, "The Time of Man." If it is not in your local library you can request that they carry it. If there is no library in your area then you can obtain it from Amazon.com.
There is an excellent article about Roberts on a website called The University Bookman titled "The Time of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" by Katherine Dalton. There is also rich information on the Roberts Society website – www.emrsociety.com which I urge you to explore.
On the Society website you may click on "Buy EMR Books" and see what’s available, including studies of Roberts by H. R. Stoneback and others; also click on "Archives" and read the Roberts Society Newsletters, especially the 2012 edition where you will find many pieces on Roberts and other writers (including Earl Hamner!). You will also find information on the Roberts website about how to join the Roberts Society and support their good work.
And you may want to attend their annual April gatherings in Kentucky publicized on the website.