Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

John Fox, Jr.: Appraisal and Self-Appraisal

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

John Fox, Jr.: Appraisal and Self-Appraisal

Article excerpt

Once he became established, magazine editors bought everything John William Fox, Jr. (1862 or 1863-1919), offered them. Library patrons wore out successive editions of his books. White House doors swung wide in welcome to him and any friend he brought with him. Playwrights in New York transformed The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, his best-seller novels, into successful plays with fine casts including young Frederick March, and movie versions set theater organs all over the country throbbing of "the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, / On the trail of the lonesome pine"--a sore distress to him and his family. For he wrote of the Cumberland Mountains, where they lived, and the song reminded them that neither stage nor film version had respected the scrupulous exactness with which he recorded life in that region. It was a quality which his perceptive contemporaries recognized and valued in his work. Yet he has fallen into such neglect from scholars and critics that some teachers of American literature would be hard put to explain why, when he died, an editorial writer for the New York Times called him "the delightful historian of an absolutely unique phase of our national life--a phase, by the way, that is rapidly disappearing before the onslaught of railroad and telephone." (1)

Though he wrote also of the gracious life in his native bluegrass Kentucky, the area for which he was historian was the Tri-State region where Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia meet. It has a character and speech of its own distinct from tidewater, piedmont, bluegrass, and Mississippi River cultures, leading its residents sometimes to refer to it with wistful irony as the State of Franklin. John Fox made it his home through all his adult years, building roads, opening coal mines, speculating in timber and mineral options, buying and selling land, and recording the life of that region in a shelf-full of novels, short stories, and sketches, some eleven of his fourteen volumes in all. (2)" But that region is more likely to be represented in an anthology of local color writers by Mary Noailles Murfree, (3) and in consequence Fox has continued to suffer a neglect which has been compounded by changing literary fashions and the reluctance of his sisters to release family papers or to talk with anyone seeking information for either biographical or critical work about him.

I was more fortunate than most, for though Miss Minnie C. Fox (d. 1962) a quarter of a century ago had written me with courteous finality that her brother's papers were not available, her surviving sister Elizabeth, Mrs. William Cabell Moore, reminisced for me in the family home at Big Stone Gap, Virginia, on more than one occasion in 1967 and thereafter wrote me at intervals until a few months before her death June 21, 1970, just before publication of my John Fox and Tom Page As They Were. (4) (Since her death, a group of local residents have acquired the house and most of its furnishings, to be preserved as the Fox museum.) I found her gracious and helpful, but I could not persuade her to consent to including in it the autobiographical account published here, (5) and, though she had apparently relinquished rights to it in presenting mimeographed copies to the Margaret I. King Library of the University of Kentucky and the June Tolliver House of Big Stone Gap, I was not then willing to go counter to her expressed wishes. She did not know nor have I been able to ascertain why he wrote it; the date suggests that in some way it was associated with publication of The Trail o[ the Lonesome Pine.

This "Personal Sketch" is both pleasantly readable and basic to any work done on Fox, not only because it is what the writer said of himself but also because biographical material has been both sketchy and distorted. One example of distortion will serve here: The D.A.B. account calls Fox's war dispatches querulous--but representatives of peace societies thanked him for having taken the glory out of war, thus placing Fox properly with Stephen Crane as a deglamorizer of war a generation before Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Remarque; though he does not mention it in the "Sketch," what took him to Cuba was neither patriotism nor hunger for excitement, but a craftsman's desire to write truly of war in Crittenden. …

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