Kentucky's rich literary tradition is alive and well in the 21st century, with many contemporary writers publishing new works that gain regional and national acclaim.
However, today's generation of Kentucky writers owes a debt to the literary pioneers who preceded them. This list represents some of the most pivotal classic works — originally published at least 25 years ago — from Central and Eastern Kentucky writers. Some inclusions are obvious no-brainers, while others are a bit more obscure.
■ Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, 1853, by William Wells Brown. Born into slavery near Lexington in 1814, Brown escaped to Ohio in 1834 and spent many years in exile in England, where Clotel was originally published. The first published novel by an African-American, Clotel is a fictional account of Thomas Jefferson's slave offspring.
■ The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, 1903, by John Fox Jr. A Bourbon County native, Fox penned this coming-of-age story about an orphan boy from the mountains whose attempt to become a "gentleman" in the Bluegrass is thwarted by the onset of the Civil War.
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■ The Time of Man, 1926, by Elizabeth Madox Roberts. A major influence on America's first poet laureate and fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, Roberts was a Springfield schoolteacher who wrote this modernist masterpiece about the inner strength of a poor tenant farmer's wife.
■ River of Earth, 1940, by James Still. Widely considered the finest Appalachian novel ever written, River of Earth chronicles Depression-era mountain life through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.
■ Foretaste of Glory, 1946, by Jesse Stuart. A Greenup County schoolteacher, Stuart wrote many books about Eastern Kentucky, but the premise of Foretaste of Glory is one of his most original. When the northern lights are spotted further South than usual, mountain folks think the world is ending.
■ The Dollmaker, 1954 , by Harriette Arnow. Jane Fonda revived mainstream interest in this book with her 1984 TV movie portrayal of Gertie, a mountain woman whose family moved to Detroit to find work but found only heartache. Gertie uses her mountain wood-carving skills to earn the family's way back home.
■ Nathan Coulter, 1960, by Wendell Berry. The first novel by the celebrated author and 2011 winner of a National Humanities Medal is a lean manuscript about the coming of age of a young boy in rural Kentucky. It is the first novel in Berry's Port William series.
■ Divine Right's Trip, 1972, by Gurney Norman. Norman's counter-cultural novel features Kentucky native and young hippie D.R. Davenport as he makes a cross-country trek from California to his Kentucky homeland in a VW bus.
■ The Queen's Gambit, 1983, by Walter Tevis. A Madison County writer, Tevis is probably best known for his novels that inspired movie adaptations, like The Color of Money, but The Queen's Gambit is a terrific page-turner set in Kentucky. A Mount Sterling orphan's life is changed when a janitor teaches her how to play chess.
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