Mountain Path, 1936
Between the Flowers, wr. in the late 1930’s, pb. 1999
Hunter’s Horn, 1949
The Dollmaker, 1954
The Weedkiller’s Daughter, 1970
The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution, 1974
Seedtime on the Cumberland, 1960
Flowering of the Cumberland, 1963
Old Burnside, 1977
Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow chronicled the people and land of rural Kentucky in both fiction and nonfiction. She spent her early years in Wayne County, Kentucky; by the time she was of school age, her family had moved to Burnside, Kentucky, living high on a hill above the Cumberland River. Her parents, Elias and Mollie Jane Denney Simpson, were both descendants of early Kentucky settlers, and Arnow was reared with a strong sense of roots and a deep appreciation for the region. Storytelling, too, was part of her early education. In a 1983 interview published in Appalachian Journal, Arnow talked about the stories she had heard as a child, adding that by the time she was five or six she was already changing the stories she did not like. An appreciation for this region and its storytelling later figured prominently in her writing.
The family love of stories did not extend to writing. Arnow’s plan, which also represented her parents’ wishes, was far more practical: to finish high school as quickly as possible and then to attend college for two years to prepare for a teaching career. She attended Berea College for two years, then took a position in a one-room school in a Kentucky hollow, where life was even more isolated, more rural, and more homespun than it had been in Burnside. She left this teaching post after only a year, but the people she met there inspired her to create the most compelling characters in later fiction such as Mountain Path, which was based in part on this early experience.
After this teaching experience Arnow continued her own education, this time at the University of Louisville, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930. Although she primarily studied math and science there, for the first time she found a group of students who were as interested in writing as she, and with them she began to practice the craft. In 1934 Arnow took a decisive step and left teaching to become a writer. She moved into a furnished room in downtown Cincinnati near the library, determined to read the great novels and to write. One year later she published two stories in small magazines, and during the winter of 1936 “The Washerwoman’s Day” appeared in The Southern Review. She published one story, “Two Hunters,” in Esquire under the pseudonym H. L. Simpson.
After she married Chicago newspaperman Harold Arnow in 1939, writing once again became relegated to stolen times. The couple moved to a farm in southern Kentucky and later, during the World War II years, to Detroit. Arnow did not publish another novel until 1949, when Hunter’s Horn appeared. That work became a best-seller and was widely acclaimed for its realism and powerful characterization. It tells the story of a Kentucky hill country farmer obsessed with an elusive red fox that is wreaking havoc on his farm.
Arnow’s third novel is generally considered her best. The Dollmaker depicts the hard struggle for economic, emotional, and artistic survival experienced by a poor white woman during war years. Gertie Nevels reluctantly leaves rural Kentucky to follow her husband to Detroit, but the move is a mistake, and Gertie yearns only to return to the rich earth and rural values she left behind. Gertie’s husband grasps at the new life, however, looking beyond the tawdry conditions of their wartime housing project to the promises of the new materialism. He buys on credit and runs the family into debt. A number of strikes and walkouts further reduce the family’s circumstances. Gertie had always enjoyed carving, but now her one joy in life becomes a duty. The dollmaker, no longer an artist, becomes a hawker of painted jumping-jack dolls.
Critically acclaimed when it was published in 1954, The Dollmaker regained national attention in 1984 when it was adapted to a television drama starring Jane Fonda. The novel warrants reappraisal not only for its realistic depiction of everyday life in an urban melting pot but also for its depiction of the massive social pressures upon the individual. The novel also reflects feminist themes, for the strong woman character battles for individual integrity, family unity, and aesthetic triumph against the materialistic values that her husband readily accepts. The novel is more than a good regionalist work; it drives to the heart of tensions and conflicting values of the modern world.
After The Dollmaker Arnow turned to writing social history about her native region. Seedtime on the Cumberland shows pioneer life as it was lived by ordinary men and women in the Cumberland Valley, which extends from Kentucky to Tennessee. This work received an Award of Merit from the Association for State and Local History. Flowering of the Cumberland, which is described as a companion piece, covers approximately the same years (1780 to 1803) and centers on the middle Tennessee area and its social development. About fourteen years later, Arnow published her last historical work, Old Burnside, in tribute to the Burnside that existed before the Army Corps of Engineers radically changed the landscape. These historical works show careful research and the same kind of attention to detail that characterize the novels.
Arnow wrote other novels in the 1970’s. The Weedkiller’s Daughter depicts a teenage girl growing up in an oppressive family in suburban Detroit. The Kentucky Trace returns to the American Revolution to portray the upheavals that ordinary people in Kentucky mountain country experienced during this most significant of American wars. Inspired by tales of the revolution handed down to her by grandparents and parents during childhood, The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution brings together Arnow’s Kentucky roots, her family’s love for tales, and the realism and social detail of a serious history.
Critical reassessment of Arnow’s work began in the 1980’s. She is considered a regionalist, but as important is the fact that she explores themes and values that are universal. Her sympathy for the individual who holds out for a genuine life of simple values suggests the power of the human being to endure, if not to triumph.