- James Larkin Pearson: A Biography of North Carolina’s Longest-Serving Poet Laureate by Gregory S. Taylor
This biography of James Larkin Pearson begins with a brief history of North Carolina. From colonial days the state was stereotyped as the home of grubby, uncivilized, and uneducated people. Yet the negative nickname “Tar Heel” eventually became a source of pride. Likewise, Pearson began life as a poor, uneducated mountain boy from a farm family, but through hard [End Page 703] work he became the state’s official poet. “He was,” Gregory S. Taylor claims, “a prime example of the Tar Heel spirit” (p. xv). Through dogged persistence, Pearson turned hardship into opportunity, defeat into achievement, and personal beliefs and problems into poetry.
The book chronicles Pearson’s long life from his birth in 1879 in Wilkes County to his death and burial, also in Wilkes County, in 1981. Though Pearson never moved far, he played multiple roles: son, husband, caretaker, father, farmer, journalist, printer, and poet. Pearson wanted his personal story to be available and spent years writing his autobiography, although he never completed it. Taylor relies heavily on Pearson’s account but also draws from letters and papers in the collections at Wilkes Community College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While remaining true to Pearson’s intent to be intimate and personal, Taylor’s work presents the story objectively, chronologically, and fully.
Pearson’s life was filled with good times and bad. As a child he felt like a misfit, but through ambition and ingenuity, he became a successful young man, marrying his sweetheart, Cora Wallace, in 1907 and working as a writer and printer. When Cora’s chronic illness emerged and their baby was stillborn, difficulties mounted. Later they adopted a child, but Cora remained an invalid. The family settled in the small community of Boomer, North Carolina, where Pearson established his paper The Fool-Killer. His goal was to address every issue of the time, exposing fools and false ideas through humor and brutal honesty. The public loved his effort, and the paper thrived until World War I, about which he remained uncharacteristically silent. But his tenacity and effort ensured that the paper lasted until the Great Depression, when Pearson gave it up and returned to farming. Cora’s death in 1934 was his low point.
But Pearson’s recovery began that same year when he addressed the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association with his speech, “The Soul of Poetry,” which improved his spirit and moved the audience. Newspapers called him the North Carolinian who “‘put the life of the people into poetry’” (p. 131). His private life also improved with his marriage to Eleanor Fox. World War II brought another downturn in what Taylor calls Pearson’s “rollercoaster” life (p. 149). But through it all, Pearson continued to write poems and self-publish his books. In 1953 he was named North Carolina’s poet laureate, a title he retained for twenty-eight years.
Pearson was always known for his traditional style, which placed him with the nineteenth-century Fireside poets rather than the twentieth-century Moderns. He openly criticized the new poet as being “a slapdash word-slinger with loose ends flapping all over the place” (p. 155). Pearson was a man of strong opinions on many topics, including poetry. This biography illuminates his life with its long succession of troubles, triumphs, and strong opinions better than it explores his literary accomplishments. Personal struggles plus his ability to overcome hardship characterize this notable Tar Heel’s life, and Taylor’s retelling of that life makes the book a compelling read. [End Page 704]