YES, WE HAVE AUTHORS: RECLAIMING OUR
MULTICULTURAL LITERARY HISTORY; A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SELECTED GENRES AND AUTHORS, REVISED

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     Considered a self-educated genius, Myers never attended public or private school due to a "physical disability" (Turner 114). His work, now rare, was quite popular in his day and was often found in local presses and magazines.

     Roy Lee Harmon, then of Wayne County, was appointed by Governor Homer A. Holt in 1937 and served until 1943.  He would be the laureate of choice for two other governors.   According to the biographical information on the dust jacket of his last book Roses in December, he was a journalist as well as a member of the West Virginia Legislature for twelve years, attended Morris Harvey College, and founded the West Virginia Poetry Society.

     James Lowell McPherson, appointed in 1943 at the age of 22 by Governor Matthew M. Neely, holds the record as the youngest poet laureate.  According to Jim Comstock, McPherson's parents, unbeknownst to him, submitted a poem entitled "West Virginia" (written while an undergraduate at West Virginia University) to a contest conducted to select the state's laureate. (note 5) He received the letter notifying him of his laureateship while serving as a PFC in "the 95th Infantry Division in the California Desert" (Comstock 3055).  McPherson had attended Marshall, but received his B.A. degree from West Virginia University in 1942.  He later did graduate work at Columbia University. Knopf published his novel, Goodbye Rosie, in 1965. 

     In 1960 Governor Cecil H. Underwood appointed Vera Andrew Harvey.  She was then also poet laureate of the West Virginia Federation of Woman's Clubs and a playwright.  Harvey held an A.B. degree from the College for Women, Western Reserve University and an M.A. from Columbia University, and taught in the Marshall University English department for six years (Montgomery 2203-4).  Banner Press of Emory University published Touching the Stars in 1954, the only book of poetry credited to her.     

     In 1979 Governor John D. Rockefeller IV appointed Louise McNeill Pease and hailed her a "true daughter of the mountains" ("Mrs. Pease" 2A).  Her appointment continued till her death in 1993 and is the longest uninterrupted appointment.  Born in Pocahontas County "on a farm that her family had lived on for nine generations," (Anderson, Hill Daughter xiv) she spent the majority of her life in the state.

     Gauley Mountain, published in 1939, told of the settlement of a fictional region of western Virginia named "Gauley," demonstrating Pease's ability to write poetry in addition to providing an outlet for her extensive knowledge of West Virginia history.  Pease held a Ph.D. in History from West Virginia University and taught at many in-state colleges before retiring from Fairmont State College.  Some of the honors bestowed upon her include The Atlantic Monthly Poetry Prize, 1938; Teacher of the Year at Concord College, 1968; Distinguished American Educator, 1972; West Virginia Library Association's Annual Book award; West Virginian of the Year, 1985; and the Appalachian Gold Medallion, 1989.

     In 1991, Pease participated in West Virginia Public Radio's dramatization of Gauley Mountain, which featured in-state poets, authors, actors, and the music of Larry Groce.  Author Pinckney Benedict served as narrator for the evening, never to be forgotten by Pease fans and poetry lovers.  The tapes are available for teachers from the West Virginia Library Commission through interlibrary loan and can be purchased from Internet websites.

     Current Poet Laureate Irene McKinney took office in 1993 by appointment of Governor Gaston Caperton.  She grew up in Barbour County on the family's 146-year-old home place.  She holds a BA from West Virginia Wesleyan College, an MA from West Virginia University, and PhD from the University of Utah.  In 1986 McKinney received a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.  Active in humanities programming in the state, McKinney performed a major role in the radio production of Gauley Mountain

     The November 1986 issue of Wonderful West Virginia: A Special Issue Dedicated to West Virginia Poetry honored many poets including Pease.  The late Michael Joseph Pauley of the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, and founding member of West Virginia Writers, Inc., served as the issue's poetry consultant.  His essay provides an excellent history of the development of the state's poetry.  Pauley acknowledges the poetic quality of the speeches of Native American Chief Logan and uses samples of the work of early poets, such as Joseph Doddridge and Margaret Blennerhassett.

     The mistress of Blennerhassett Island is remembered for her collection, The Widow of the Rock and Other Poems: By a Lady.  The most anthologized piece, "Deserted Isle," mourns the loss of her western Virginia island home.  Even though no copy of Blennerhassett's book has been catalogued in the West Virginia Library Commission's state-wide database, Comstock reprinted her island poem frequently in West Virginia Hillbilly.

     More recently, Barbara Smith and Kirk Judd, two of the poets selected for the Wonderful West Virginia issue, and editors of Wild Sweet Notes: Fifty Years  of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, acknowledged Blennerhassett in the anthology, and the cover of the book is a photograph of the island.

     The anthology's title phrase "wild sweet notes" is from the title poem in Appalachia by  the late Muriel Miller Dressler.  According to Pauley, "Her book Appalachia (1977) is a landmark statement in literature of our region and times" (32).  Dressler was a past recipient of the Appalachian Gold Medallion Award for her contributions to West Virginia and to its literature.

     Wild Sweet Notes showcases the poetry of 186 multicultural poets of the state as shown by this short list of additional poets from the volume.  The list begins with Farmington's P. J. Laska.  A son of Polish/Russian immigrants, Laska who "grew up in the ethnic brew of the coal camps," (Personal communication 31 May 1994) has the distinction of seeing his first book of poetry, D.C. Images and Other Poems, named a finalist for the 1976 National Book Award for Poetry.  Laska holds a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester and has taught at several colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada before settling in Ohio.

     Russell Marano gave voice to Italian immigrants in his book Poems from a Mountain Ghetto. Marano, born in 1931, grew up in Glen Elk, primarily an Italian section of Clarksburg. According to Norman Julian, "the poems give details of the cultural clash which immigrants here encountered on their way to being assimilated into the mainstream. . . " ("Pockets" 74).  Marano attended Fairmont State College, obtained a degree in philosophy from Northwestern University, published two books of poetry, and lectured on poetry at Cambridge University in England. 
Elaine
  Elaine Hilson Blue

     Marshall University graduate and Huntington resident, Elaine Hilson Blue is an accomplished artist, poet and playwright.  Her first book, Moods and Works of Blue opens with this introduction, "My upbringing and the color of my skin kept me conscious of who I was . . ." (Blue vii).  Blue's art is the year 2001 opening exhibit at the Clarksburg-Harrison Library.

      Billy Edd Wheeler, born in Whitesville, West Virginia, is a "writer of songs, plays, poetry and humor with a novel in progress" (Wheeler, Billy Edd Wheeler: Performer, Playwright, Songwriter 1).  His first book of poetry, Song of a Woods Colt, is mountain poetry.  Wheeler is the past recipient of the Appalachian Gold Medallion for best Appalachian poetry presented by  Morris Harvey College in Charleston. 

      Maggie Anderson, though born in New York City, has spent much of her life in West Virginia and Ohio.  Anderson a teaching poet and editor with five books of poetry to her credit, writes in many genres and is a graduate of West Virginia University. 

      In addition to the listed poets, others have readily available work.  Writer Kate Long compiled a list of nationally published West Virginia authors from 1970-1992. Her article, appearing in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, 10 May 1992, and is still an extremely valuable resource.  In it the reader finds recent "super stars" such as Breece D'J Pancake.

      The state writers' organization, West Virginia Writers, Inc., provides an important service to writers.  Over the years the organization published four anthologies containing both the poetry and prose of its selected contest winners: Catching the Crow, And Now the Magpie, Beyond the Magpie, and The Best of West Virginia Writers.

       West Virginia literature does exist.  Genres and age groups are well-represented and the themes are universal.  The state does not lack for literature, and its promotion is now a more central activity for many key organizations.  Thanks to the efforts of the West Virginia Library Commission, West Virginia is now the nation's forty-first Center for the Book.  The November announcement, by Executive Director David Price, appointed Jennifer A. Soule, Adult and Senior Services Coordinator, as the Center's director.  Once firmly established, the West Virginia Center for the Book hopes to pursue funding for a West Virginia literary map.  An idea, it seems, whose time has come.

      In 1999 the West Virginia Humanities Council, the West Virginia Library Commission, and the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State College joined forces and organized a committee to plan a literary map.  The results are on file with the Council and can serve as a resource for the Center for the Book.  Eventually, teachers, students, and the public will have a means of identifying authors and literary sites associated with the state.

      The implications for the state seem clear.  If we identify and promote our authors, this could result in a positive change in the image of West Virginia.  It would boost the self-esteem of residents, especially students, and increase support for authors.

      A case in point would be that of Meredith Sue Willis, novelist, short story writer, and children's book author, who currently teaches in both New York and New Jersey.  An avid reader and library lover as a child, Willis grew up in Shinnston, West Virginia. However, she was unaware she could have read the works of Newbery, O. Henry, and National Book Award winners from her home county, Harrison. She believed "real" writers lived in New York.  Willis spoke at the 1994 West Virginia Writers Golden Rod XII Conference in Morgantown saying "it might have made a difference" in her decision to leave West Virginia had she known authors actually lived here and wrote here.

       Our writers represent the real West Virginia and its multicultural heritage.  They write it like it is, and like it was.  Aspiring teachers need to be taught, and then to teach, the literature of the state; students need to learn the most "Appalachian" of states, West Virginia, (the only state wholly contained in Appalachia) has much in common with the world-at-large.  We need to value and celebrate our state's unique qualities, but also point out its similarities to other places.  West Virginia is the world in microcosm.  What better way to show the connection of culture, socioeconomic issues, literature, and history than through the voices of our native authors in the state's schools?  Who could possibly say it better?

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2001 MountainLit