John Gould Fletcher’s return to Arkansas from England in 1933 was, according to biographer Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University, a “return to a place far from centers of literary ambition” in an attempt “stabilize his bipolar condition.”
Soon after his return, the noted poet was working with folklorist Vance Randolph to collect and promote mountain folk songs and stories.
Hanging out in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas was a long way from hanging out with Ezra Pound in London and T.S. Eliot in Paris.
Randolph had been born in 1892 at Pittsburg, Kan., and was, according to Robert Cochran in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a person who was “born to the respectable center” but also was “attracted to the margins, to the rich ethnic and cultural diversity and radical politics of the region’s mining communities. He dropped out of high school and published his first writing for leftist periodicals.”
Randolph graduated in 1914 from what’s now Pittsburg State University and later completed a master’s degree at Clark University. He was attracted to the Ozarks and settled in Pineville, Mo., in 1920. He married a local woman and began to study the Ozark culture.
Cochran writes that Randolph’s works were “ignored by most academic reviewers and sometimes resented by Ozarkers themselves for their celebration of backward elements in the region’s culture. More recent students have recognized them as pioneering examples of what are now called folklife studies, and in the 1970s especially, scholars began praising Randolph for his prescience in this and other areas. Randolph collected folklore steadily through the 1930s and 1940s, even as he supported himself with everything from writing articles for sporting magazines to various works for juvenile readers.”
Randolph began collecting traditional music in the 1920s. He lived in Arkansas for most of the 1940s and 1950s, calling Eureka Springs and Fayetteville home. His first wife died in 1937, and he married a University of Arkansas English professor, Mary Celestia Parler, in 1962. Randolph continued to publish books until the 1970s. A collection of folk tales titled “Pissing in the Snow” was published in 1976 when Randolph was 84 and proved to be his most popular book. He died in November 1980 and is buried at National Cemetery in Fayetteville.
Randolph and the temperamental Fletcher were a strange pair as they made their way through the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Fletcher was among the first people to bring attention to folk singer Emma Dusenbury, who now has more than 100 songs archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Dusenbury was born in Georgia in 1862 and moved with her parents to Arkansas in 1872. They first lived in Crittenden County but later moved west to Baxter County. A serious illness in the 1890s left Dusenbury blind. She and her husband, an Illinois native, settled near Mena in 1907. Her husband worked for the railroad and in packing plants. He died in 1933.
“During the late 1920s and early 1930s, guided by F.M. Goodhue, a teacher at a nearby radical labor school, Commonwealth College, Dusenbury was recorded by some of the best-known folksong collectors in the region and nation,” Cochran writes. “John Lomax, Vance Randolph and Sidney Robertson all visited, as did poet John Gould Fletcher and Little Rock composer and symphony director Laurence Powell. All were greatly impressed. Lomax wrote in his autobiography that she sang continuously for two days and recorded more traditional Anglo-American ballads than any other singer.
“Dusenbury’s one brush with celebrity came in 1936 when she sang in Little Rock as part of the celebration of Arkansas’ statehood centennial. Her photograph appeared in the newspaper along with two feature articles about her (one written by Powell) that are even today the primary sources of information about her. Powell later based the final movement of his ‘Second Symphony’ on three of her traditional songs.”
Dusenbury died in May 1941 and is buried (as “Emmer Duesberry”) in the Polk County community of Rocky.
Fletcher also was part of that 1936 centennial celebration in Arkansas, hired by Arkansas Gazette publisher John Netherland Heiskell to write an epic poem titled “The Story of Arkansas.”
After moving back to Arkansas from England, Fletcher lived for a time in the Pike mansion at Little Rock with his sister, Adolphine Fletcher Terry. They had been raised in the huge home built by Albert Pike.
Three years older than her brother, Adolphine also became a well-known figure. She enrolled at Vassar College when she was just 15 and graduated in 1902.
Peggy Harris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that Adolphine and “another Vassar graduate from Arkansas, Blanche Martin, were asked to serve on a national committee to investigate the state’s education needs. They discovered a system of mostly one-room schoolhouses among 5,000 school districts, inadequate supervision and no consistent policies. The two made school consolidation their cause, writing articles for newspapers, making speeches and lobbying. In 1908, Fletcher was leading efforts consolidate school districts, appoint professional county superintendents and provide school transportation in rural Arkansas.
“As a young college graduate, she also co-founded a group to encourage women to become college educated. The group eventually became the Little Rock branch of the American Association of University Women. She also formed the first School Improvement Association in Arkansas, forerunner of the Parent Teacher Association; organized the first juvenile court in Arkansas in 1910; and chaired the Pulaski County Juvenile Court board for about 20 years.”
Adolphine’s lifelong interest in education led her and two friends, Vivion Brewer of Scott and Velma Powell of Little Rock, to form the Women’s Emergency Committee after a ballot measure to close Little Rock high schools as a way to avoid desegregation passed in 1958. The WEC led the successful effort to reopen the schools in 1959. Adolphine’s husband, David D. Terry, served in Congress from 1933 until giving up his seat in the House in 1942 to run for the U.S. Senate. He lost the Senate race to John L. McClellan.
Ben Johnson writes that even though John Gould Fletcher was living in the majestic Pike mansion with David and Adolphine Terry, “the prominence of the poet’s family did not keep many in his hometown from regarding him as remote.”
In January 1936, Fletcher married writer Charlie May Simon.
The prolific Simon wrote almost 30 books and dozens of short stories. Since 1971, the Charlie May Simon Book Award has been presented in Arkansas to honor her work in the area of children’s literature.
Simon was born in Drew County in 1897 as Charlie May Hogue. Her family moved to Memphis when she was three. Her father was a teacher and writer.
“Hogue’s first marriage was to Walter Lowenstein, a wealthy heir of a Memphis mercantile business, but she was widowed while still in her 20s,” Toran Isom writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She wanted to enhance and expand her perspectives in the world of art so she used the financial settlement from her first marriage and moved to Chicago and later to Paris. In Paris, she met and married Howard Simon, an artist who would become the illustrator of her books. The two married in 1926, and she became Charlie Mae Simon, the professional name she used for the rest of her life.
“Simon returned to Arkansas with her husband. This was during the time of the Great Depression, and money was scarce. The two resided in a mountainside log cabin that they built in Perry County with help from neighbors. Simon planned the cabin, drawing the outline for the walls with a stick in the dirt. In the 1930s, she returned to writing, in part because they needed the money and because she wanted to tell of the Ozark way of life and the strong people who lived it.
“Simon enjoyed the hard work on the homestead, but her husband did not. She and Howard divorced, and though he returned to Paris, he still served as illustrator for her books. Simon’s first major work for children was ‘Robin on the Mountain.’ It was published in 1934 and is considered by many to be a classic in the field of children’s literature.”
Fletcher became aware of Simon’s work, and Simon was aware of Fletcher’s writing.
“Fletcher and Simon spent their childhoods geographically somewhat close to each other, but they had very different experiences,” Isom writes. “Fletcher knew a more privileged way of life that had allowed him time and space to reflect on subjects such as flowers, lakes and trees. Simon wrote about the humble folk she knew as a child. … Though the two had great respect for each other’s writing, their styles remained distinct, Fletcher in the spare style of the poet; Simon in her painstaking, conscientious prose.”
In 1939, reporters at the Arkansas Gazette learned that Fletcher had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his “Selected Poems,” which had been published in 1938. Heiskell dispatched two reporters to Fletcher’s home near Pinnacle Mountain to give him the news.
“He was the first Southern poet to receive the prize, although this volume was more heavily weighted toward his early free-verse experiments rather than his more decidedly Southern work,” Johnson writes. “Despite receipt of the prestigious award and induction into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he did not gain a new readership. ‘The Burning Mountain,’ his last collection in 1946, was not widely recognized for containing vital, well-crafted poems. ‘Arkansas,’ his impressionistic history in 1947, served for many years as the most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”
In 1941, Fletcher and Simon moved to a wood-and-stone home at 10314 Cantrell Road on the far western edge of Little Rock known as Johnswood.
Isom writes: “The hearth and the books were Johnswood’s most important features. Fletcher and Simon believed that writing was something of an individual pursuit. After breakfasting together, each would retire to his or her respective study, where they created their individual works. Afternoons were spent enjoying and keeping up the grounds. A raccoon appeared regularly, accepting its daily bread from Simon’s hand.”
Johnson describes Fletcher and Simon as a “restless couple” who traveled frequently in the years prior to the Johnswood purchase for extended stays in places such as New York, Santa Fe and the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. They traveled less after building Johnswood. It was during a stay at the MacDowell Colony that Fletcher wrote his autobiography, “Life Is My Song,” which appeared in 1937.
The Poetry Foundation notes that the years that followed the move to Johnswood “were apparently calmer. Fletcher was settled and older, and he had received a certain amount of recognition. But inwardly he still hated the materialistic, mechanized world he saw being built up about him.”
Johnson says that, by the late 1940s, “the knowledge that he was falling into obscurity, coupled with worsening arthritis, ignited more bouts with depression.”
On May 10, 1950, Fletcher walked to a shallow pond near Johnswood, neatly folded his jacket on the bank and drowned himself. He’s buried at Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.
The Central Arkansas Library System later would name one of its branches after him.
In the late 1980s, the University of Arkansas Press started reprinting some of his works as part of its John Gould Fletcher series.
“Simon continued to reside at Johnswood after initially doubting whether she could, though she did travel the globe,” Isom writes. “Her writing in her later years moved significantly toward the biographical. She focused on the truly great difference-making people of her day, people often associated with bringing peace and a sense of humanity to the world. Simon spent some time in Japan and taught English at the Women’s University in Tokyo. She continued to work hard on her writing craft and was known for her in-depth research. She traveled to Africa and spent time with Albert Schweitzer.”
Simon died in March 1977 and also is buried at Mount Holly.
The Poetry Foundation sums up John Gould Fletcher this way: “Fletcher’s work is most generally recognized for its idiosyncratic innovations, and the connections between his aesthetic choices and those of the prevailing literary trends of the first half of the 20th century. After a clumsy but promising beginning, Fletcher’s experiments gave rise to highly unusual and interesting results — poetic symphonies and paintings, and an emphasis on undidactic directness in the evocation of emotion.
“While he was always prey to criticisms about his coldness and verbosity, he was seen as part of a new wave in poetics, bringing in a fresh vigor and musicality. His later poems, which deal more openly with questions of salvation and social directions, are regarded by most as documents attesting to a particular trend, a reaction against full-scale industrialization. He enjoyed a rare connectedness with the brightest lights in poetry and brought that cosmopolitan sensibility back to Arkansas.”