Uncommonwealth: 'Legions of great Kentucky writers' get Hall of Fame nominations though some not well known

Alice Hegan Rice wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.
Alice Hegan Rice wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch.

When Lexington's Carnegie Center released its list of finalists for induction this month into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, the marquee names lit up the list, among them historian Thomas Clark, Green up County native Jesse Stuart, Trappist monk Thomas Merton and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Other Kentuckians were far less well-known but still quite interesting. The lesser-known writers contribute mightily to the geographic and cultural diversity of the state, yet many of us probably have heard little about them.

In 2013, six writers — Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still and Robert Penn Warren — were inducted as the inaugural class. Seven writers will be inducted this year, Chethik said, adding, "it's hard to choose among the legions of great Kentucky writers."

This year's nominees include:

■ Etheridge Knight of Paducah (1931-1991), winner of the 1987 American Book Award for The Essential Etheridge Knight. A black poet who was born in Mississippi and grew up partly in Paducah before his family moved to Indianapolis, Knight quit school at 16 and got a bachelor's degree many years later — after he became well-known as a poet and teacher.

Imprisoned for theft to feed a heroin addiction, Knight wrote poems including On Watching Politicians Perform at Martin Luther King's Funeral; For Malcolm, a Year After; and It Was a Funky Deal.

From the poem on Martin Luther King's funeral: "Hypocrites shed tears/ like shiny snake skins/ words rolling through the southern air/ the scent of flowers mingles with Jack Daniels and Cutty Sark/ the last snake skin slithers to the floor where black baptist feet have danced in ecstasy."

There is also this one, about a prisoner called Little Rock who underwent an apparent lobotomy: "And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed/ He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things/ We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do/ The fears of years, like a biting whip/ Had cut deep bloody grooves/ Across our backs."

■ Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), whose father had been a slave, grew up in rural Pike County.

Waller quit publishing her work during her 30s, after her lawman husband died and she moved to Neenah, Wis., where she is buried.

Researcher Mary Elliott Flannery, in her introduction to Smith's poetry, describes Smith's works as "possessed of much pathos and beauty, having an originality all their own."

In a poem to a dead classmate, she wrote: "Little thought I, friend of mine/ You'd be called so soon to shine/ In that galaxy of diadems up there/ But it was our Father's will/ And He speaks to-day, 'Be still!'/ To my sad and sorrow-stricken heart down here.'"

In a poem to the readers, Smith notes: "Within my room sometimes/ I've sat me down to rhymes/ Aesthetic and sublime/ While on my desk were school books/ So careless piled and laid/ The morrow's problems all unsolved/ The history unread."

■ Alice Hegan Rice (1870-1942) of Shelbyville and Louisville, who wrote the abidingly popular Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, about a plucky but poor widow raising her children in a depressed Louisville neighborhood. The book sold 650,000 copies in its first two years.

It was adapted for a popular stage run in the United States and England; it also was adapted for radio and four times by the movies — in 1914, 1919, 1934 and 1942. The 1934 version starred W.C. Fields.

Induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame begins with a call to the public for nominations, which then are funneled to a committee headed by Lori Meadows of the Kentucky Arts Council and including writers, a state librarian and professors, explained Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center's executive director. A completed list is sent to the Carnegie Center, where 13 finalists are selected.

To be eligible for the Hall of Fame, a writer must be deceased, have written works considered to be enduring in stature, and be connected in a significant way to Kentucky.

"So it's pretty broad," Chethik said. "We're really looking for people who grew up here, who came of age here, who lived here their entire lives, or maybe came to Kentucky and adopted us as a home at some point in their lives ... a place they are rooted from or have passed through."

Chethik said that making the final cut is difficult "because there are so many to choose from, and they write in so many different genres. Someone may look at a nonfiction writer and say they don't deserve the same status as a fiction writer. How do you compare a poet to a historian, and which one are we going to choose? The more we do this, the more writers come out of the woodwork."