It is tempting to assume that great authors just sit down and write great books. The writing is so good, they make it look easy.
"Mrs. Arnow writes so well, with so little apparent effort, that critical examination seems almost irrelevant," author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Harriette Simpson Arnow's most famous novel, The Dollmaker. "It is a tribute to her talent that one is convinced, partway through the book, that it is a masterpiece."
But nothing came easy to Arnow (1908-1986), a native of Appalachian Kentucky whose five novels, three non-fiction books and many short stories earned her acclaim as one of the 20th century's great American writers.
Arnow was a tiny, tough woman whose prolific literary output was a testament to determination. She overcame many obstacles, from economic hardship and the sexism of her era to the everyday distractions of being a wife and mother.
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Evidence of Arnow's struggles will be on display soon at the University of Kentucky's Margaret I. King Library. The exhibit marks the completion of a 20-year effort by UK's Special Collections Division to sort, catalog and, in some cases, make sense of 145 boxes of Arnow's personal papers.
The exhibit opens with a program that includes remarks by Appalachian Journal editor Sandy Ballard, who is writing a biography of Arnow, and Gurney Norman, a UK English professor and former Kentucky poet laureate.
Later in life, Arnow became an encouraging but demanding teacher at writing workshops in Murray and Hindman, where Norman became her friend. "She could be very intimidating," he said. "She was not, shall we say, a warm and fuzzy personality, but she was very generous."
Arnow's books are not warm and fuzzy, either: most are gritty tragedies about mountain people struggling against their circumstances. Don't expect happy endings. In The Dollmaker, Gertie Nevels leaves her beloved Kentucky farm to follow her husband to a factory job in Detroit. They find only hardship and despair.
Still, in a 1979 Kentucky Educational Television documentary, Arnow insisted to interviewer Al Smith that she was not a pessimist. "If I were a pessimist," she said, "I would have never have tried to write, because writing is such a gamble."
The UK exhibit, organized by graduate student Amber Surface, uses notebooks, drafts and letters related to Arnow's novel Hunter's Horn to show her creative process. Memorabilia from The Dollmaker will be used to show how that novel was prepared for publication and became a best seller.
Arnow's papers include the dime-store composition books she used to write first drafts in barely legible pencil scrawl, and her intense correspondence with editors. She made notes on both sides of everything. Her manuscripts show exhaustive rewriting and rearranging — cut-and-pasted paragraphs with editing marks everywhere. Her children drew pictures on some manuscripts.
Norman said Arnow's jumbled papers could never have been made useful to scholars without 20 years of hard work by Kate Black, curator of UK's Appalachia collection, and a parade of graduate students.
"It was as if someone had taken all of these papers and thrown them up in the air," Black said. "We did a lot of piecing together."
Black also found a carefully arranged scrapbook of reviews, letters and memorabilia related to publication of The Dollmaker in 1954. She said a family member must have put it together; it was too organized to have been Arnow's work.
The collection includes Arnow's baby shoe, diplomas, fan mail and an odd assortment of news clippings, saved perhaps as inspiration for future stories. Arnow also kept her membership materials from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union. "She was a complicated woman," Black said.
The papers offer a glimpse into the intense ambition and conflicted emotions of this early feminist — who did not call herself a feminist. Writing masterpieces while caring for husband Harold, a newspaper reporter, daughter Marcella and son Thomas made for a demanding life.
"I may be more housewife than writer," Arnow told Smith in their 1979 interview.
On the back of one page of manuscript, UK archivists found this scribbled note from her husband: Harriette — The burners on stove do not work. The oven does work: Can you cook a bite in it? H.