- Never Been Rich: The Life and Work of a Southern Ruralist Writer, Harry Harrison Kroll
Richard Saunders concedes that Harry Harrison Kroll’s lack of an enduring reputation and his settled status as a popular rather than a literary writer make him an unlikely subject of scholarly interest. But Saunders argues persuasively that Kroll is actually a very worthy subject, both for his staggering productivity, “nearly 30 books, [and] over 900 short stories” (xiv), and for his approach to writing as a source of income first and an aesthetic exercise second. Kroll’s history of publication in innumerable pulp magazines and with second-tier novel publishers offers an alternative view of creative writing as blue collar, made-to-order piecework, and illuminates the shifting tastes of editors who both shaped and responded to the demands of an unsophisticated, average reading public over more than half a century.
Tom Douglass’s back-cover assertion that “Appalachian scholars, southern literary scholars, and those interested in education history and the history of the book will find this work of significant interest” is a pretty fair assessment. Though not a native of Appalachia, Kroll based This Ancient Grudge, described by Saunders as the finest of Kroll’s novels, on the Hatfield-McCoy feud. And while the nature and degree of his influence on Appalachian literary icons Jesse Stuart, James Still, and Don West are, predictably, debatable, all three knew him as a member of the English faculty at Lincoln Memorial University. Stuart and West both dedicated books to him.
The story of Kroll’s childhood and youth in western Tennessee and northern Alabama illuminates the slow collapse of the agrarian economy of the Old South and explains biases and loyalties that would characterize and perhaps limit his most serious fiction. His earning of a high school diploma after marriage, and his dogged pursuit of bachelor’s and master’s degrees while writing, teaching, and raising a family, and the phenomenal energy and self-confidence that characterized both his teaching and his writing will be the most satisfying facets of the book for readers who want Kroll, an indifferent son and a self-absorbed, unfaithful husband, to be the hero of his own story. Kroll was unrelenting and unrepentant in his approach to writing as a means of making money; his long and apparently successful career as a college teacher may also be studied as a closely calculated means of utilizing one’s talents and inclinations to best economic advantage. If this was a cynical approach on Kroll’s part, and a harsh assessment on the part of Saunders, it is at least honest on both their parts, as well as provocative to anyone teaching or pursuing writing-related [End Page 91] work as a means of supporting a writing career that isn’t supporting itself. On the other side of that coin, those who teach creative writing, in the absence of a personal or professional compulsion to produce and publish regularly, may be led to reflect on their own motivations and methods. Kroll’s belief, as a teacher, that quantity leads to quality, and his faith, as a marketer, that any writing that sells is good writing, may be as off-putting to some of Saunders’s readers as they were to many of Kroll’s colleagues and contemporaries.
Whatever may be said of his writing, Harry Harrison Kroll was a realist in his personal and professional lives, with all the self-absorption and instinct for self-preservation that the label implies. As resurrected by Richard Saunders, Kroll himself appears to be more flawed, more complex, and more memorable than any character he was capable of creating.
The single flaw of any significance in Never Been Rich is the excessive length of some chapters. Readers who lack the time to read chapters three and four (seventy-one and sixty-three pages respectively) at one sitting may flounder in the crossing. Just keep rowing.