On Teaching Harriette Simpson Arnow

Article excerpt

When I began doctoral study in English at Louisiana State University in 2003, I thought I knew a little something about Appalachian literature. I had read James Still, Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, and several other mountain writers, and I was vaguely familiar with a handful of other related sources, like Joyce Dyer's collection, Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers. Then I took a Southern literature seminar with John Lowe who, during one of our conversations about Appalachian literature, offhandedly remarked that he really loved Harriette Simpson Arnow's The Dollmaker. Before that day, I had never heard of Arnow or any of her works. Looking back on that conversation now, I wonder how this was possible.

After my class ended, I read The Dollmaker and was astounded. I remember being completely enthralled by the story in general, but more particularly I admired Gertie's perseverance, empathized with Reuben and Cassie's longing to return home, loathed Mrs. Whittle's treatment of Reuben, and wanted to think more deeply about how Arnow portrayed the identity conflicts that ensued after the family moved to Detroit. I decided to write about it in my dissertation, and later in my first book. I was similarly moved by Arnow's other novels, especially Hunter's Horn. As I learned more about her work, I became increasingly confused as to why she is now read so infrequently by academics, students, and mainstream readers. Upon further investigation, I learned that The Dollmaker won wide critical acclaim during its time and was nominated for the National Book Award in 1955, losing to William Faulkner's The Fable (Eckley 44). Twenty-three years later, in 1978, Tillie Olsen lamented that, as a woman's "book of great worth, [The Dollmaker suffers] the death of being unknown, or at best a peculiar eclipsing" (40). Considering that the novel tells a powerful story about Appalachian out-migration and the consequences of moving from an agrarian society to an industrial one, all while dealing with issues related to education, gender, and so much more, the "eclipsing" Olsen notes is peculiar, indeed.

When I talk about Arnow's work with fellow academics, I often hear similar explanations of why they have chosen not to teach her work in their courses. They usually tell me that while they applaud novels like The Dollmaker, teaching such a long work of fiction seems overwhelming at best and impossible at worst. But in this brief contribution to a longer reflection on Arnow, I want to contest that belief and argue for the inclusion of novels like The Dollmaker on course syllabi for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

Certainly The Dollmaker would make a great novel selection for a course on American or Appalachian literature, as it would for a class that explores issues of migration, industrialization, unionization, and labor struggles in general. …