- The "Elephant" and the "Chicks":How Rural Appalachia's First Writer-in-Residence Came and Went
In September of 1926, a thick-necked man in an open-topped Dodge blew onto Lincoln Memorial University's East Tennessee mountain campus. He was thirty eight years old and carried with him a typewriter and wind-up Victrola. He was one of several new professors that President Robert O. Matthews hailed as capable of not only teaching an art but putting it into practice. His list of publications was long enough to suggest he might be of service to a struggling Appalachian college known to assure prospective donors that one of its goals was to foster mountain "Shakespeares."
Never mind that Shakespeare was forced to leave school at the age of fourteen due to his father's financial distress, or that questions of whether such magic can be taught and, if so, by whom and how, have dogged creative writing classes since the University of Iowa's 1897 course in Verse Making. Just by naming him Chair of lmu's English Department, Matthews unwittingly had taken sides in a tense debate within the larger academy. He also gave him the title, Writer-in-Residence—only one year after Robert Frost became the first in the nation.
Harry Harrison Kroll came to lmu an outsider, not just because he was born beyond the region in Hartford City, Indiana, and spent most of his pre-lmu years in the deep South, but because, as D. G. Myers reminds us in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880 (University of Chicago Press, 2006), writers were viewed by the vast majority of pre-wwii faculty as no more qualified to teach the literary arts than an elephant was. On many campuses to this day, Myers notes, "The idea of hiring writers to teach writing has never won unquestioned acceptance." When Kroll arrived at lmu in the mid-1920s, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, America's most legendary creative writing program, was in its infancy and controversial. Traditional English faculty, including those at lmu who saw the advancement of the literary arts among southern mountaineers as the most effective means of cultural uplift, operated under the assumption that the discipline required a severity of form and intellectual sophistication [End Page 49] best taught by scholars versed in literary classics and aesthetics. Creativity could not be taught, nor could talent, the traditionalists argued. Their suspicion was that writers wanted access to college classrooms not because they could inspire nascent Shakespeares but to secure for themselves the benefits of patronage while pursuing their own art.
It wouldn't help that, through an admirable combination of moxie and hard work, the working-class Kroll had, as his biographer Richard L. Saunders puts it, "bulled his way" into Peabody College at the age of twenty-five with only one year of formal schooling (Never Been Rich: The Life and Work of a Southern Ruralist Writer, Harry Harrison Kroll, UT Press, forthcoming). Or that, while pursuing his undergraduate and M.A. degrees, he became the closest thing he could to a writing specialist by taking as many journalism and composition classes as possible but only three in literature. (According to his Peabody transcript, housed in the HH Kroll Papers at ut-Martin, a fourth, on Tennyson, he dropped.) And then there were the thorny issues of taste and class. As Saunders observes, lmu's new writer-in-residence was most "comfortable" with "thrilling and improbable tales" found in "yellow-back dime novels." During his Nashville sojourn, Kroll found profit and inspiration in the city's endless supply of popular or sectarian magazines, so if Matthews had hoped to tone up lmu's Department of English by hiring a writer, his choice was odd. Kroll was no Vanderbilt Fugitive (and proudly so), but the author of works appearing in Detective Story Magazine and Weird Tales. His 1925 M.A. thesis, "A Comparative Study of Upper and Lower Level Southern Folk Speech" is a list of idioms he not always deftly transformed into dialect in future novels.
And yet there was this: Harry Harrison Kroll believed that creativity could be encouraged...