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  • Harriette Simpson Arnow:A Biographical Sketch
  • Sandra L. Ballard (bio)

Harriette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986) was born at home in Kentucky, in Wayne County, and she grew up in Burnside, in Pulaski County. She graduated from Burnside High School (1924) and attended Berea College (1924-26), earning a teaching certificate there. By the time she was 18, she was a teacher in a one-room school in Pulaski County. She then left rural Kentucky to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Louisville (BS, education, 1931). She moved to Cincinnati in 1934 and held a variety of "short hour" jobs as a waitress, typist, and clerk to support herself as a writer. She had success as a writer of short stories and published her first novel, Mountain Path (1936). Her novel Between the Flowers, written in 1938, was published posthumously (1999). While working for the WPA as a writer and researcher in Cincinnati, she met Harold B. Arnow (1908-1985), a journalist who courted her with stories of his Alaskan adventures and life in Chicago. They were married in 1939. The couple bought a farm at the edge of the Cumberland National Forest in a community called Keno, not far from Burnside, and lived there for five years (1939-1945). They became parents of four children, two of whom lived to adulthood: Marcella Jane Arnow (September 22, 1941- February 14, 2010) and Thomas Louis Arnow (December 15, 1946).

During World War II, they were among the people who left the Southern Appalachian mountains in record numbers for Northern industrial centers, moving in 1945 to public housing in Detroit and then buying 40 acres on Nixon Road in Ann Arbor in 1950. In Detroit, Harold worked as a reporter for the Detroit Times, and Harriette completed her remarkable novel, Hunter's Horn (1949), a best seller and one of the ten best American novels of 1949. The Dollmaker (1954) received recognition as runner-up (to Faulkner's A Fable) for the National Book Award. Known for the historical authenticity of her fiction and the compelling storytelling in her histories, Arnow published two award-winning history books: Seedtime on the Cumberland (1960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963), which reconstruct the transitional years of early exploration and settlement along the Cumberland River, from 1780-1803. In 1963, Harold was hired by [End Page 24] the Michigan Heart Association, and worked there until his retirement ten years later. Old Burnside (1976), Harriette Arnow's only autobiographical book, is a valuable account of her childhood in Kentucky. In The Weedkiller's Daughter (1970), her only novel set entirely outside of Kentucky, Arnow examines themes of American history of the 1950s and 1960s. Her final published novel, The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution (1974), is historical fiction about frontier identities. At the end of her life, she was revising a Civil War novel, Belle. Through her writing, Harriette Arnow was drawn to explore the effects of big historical events on ordinary families, to record daily events and common struggles in unflinching and insightful ways that revealed them as realistic and extraordinary.

The Arnows never sold their land in Kentucky, and when Harold Arnow died on February 20, 1985, he was buried in the Cassada family cemetery in Keno, Kentucky. Harriette died at home on March 22, 1986, and was buried next to her husband.

The principal collection of Arnow's manuscripts and personal correspondence is in the Special Collections at the University of Kentucky's Margaret I. King Library in Lexington, Kentucky. Smaller collections of letters and other materials are located at Berea College and the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Arnow's correspondence with editor Granville Hicks is in the George Arents Research Library for Special Collections at Syracuse University. Letters to and from Detroit political activist Josephine Gomon are in the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which also has correspondence from Arnow in the Hopwood Awards Collection. Eastern Kentucky University Library has letters between Arnow and Kentucky author John Wilson Townsend. Arnow's novels have been reissued by the University Press of Kentucky and Michigan State University Press, which will soon release new editions...


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