Kentucky is Literary Capital of Mid-America

By Neil Chethik

Bluegrass, bourbon, basketball … and books? Most Kentuckians readily identify with the first three on this list. Now, a growing number are waking up to our state’s literary power as well.

Wendell Berry. Barbara Kingsolver. Sue Grafton. Bobbie Ann Mason. Frank X Walker. And the incoming state poet laureate, George Ella Lyon. These are just a few of the outstanding, nationally acclaimed writers with strong Kentucky ties.

They are also the latest in a 200-year legacy of Kentucky writers whose work supports the vision of Kentucky as the Literary Capital of Mid-America.

Proclaiming Kentucky a Literary Capital may be a boast, but it is not a stretch. Consider:

  • Kentucky is the birthplace of the first African-American novelist, William Wells Brown. After escaping slavery, Brown published “Clotel, The President’s Daughter,” in 1853. It claimed that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with a slave.
  • Kentucky is home to the first million-selling novelist, John Fox, Jr. The Bourbon County native produced a string of best-sellers between 1900 and 1910, including “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” the first book to top seven figures in sales.
  • The first poet laureate of the United States, Robert Penn Warren, was a Kentuckian. A native of Guthrie, Warren – author of “All the King’s Men” – is the only writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and poetry.

Kentucky also is fertile ground for new literary genres: Thomas Merton redefined spiritual autobiography in “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Harry Caudill created a unique biography of a place – Appalachia – in “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” And Hunter S. Thompson of Louisville broke ground with “gonzo journalism” – first-person, irreverent prose, including “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.”

What is it about Kentucky that produces so many outstanding writers? Some say the inspiration is the beauty – and abuse – of the land. Others say the inspiration comes from the legacy of conflict in Kentucky: north vs. south, Hatfields vs. McCoys, rural vs. urban. Without a deep understanding of struggle, what author could write a compelling book?

I think it’s both of these factors, plus another one: Kentucky takes care of its writers. I know that was true for me 18 years ago when I first came to the Carnegie Center in Lexington for help finding my writing voice and a publisher. I found both with the help of teachers and fellow writers.

The Carnegie Center continues to champion our state’s writers. We house the Carnegie Books-in-Progress Conference every June, and the Kentucky Women’s Writers Conference each September. We have created the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. And we continue to offer mentoring, classes and guidance for writers at every stage of development.

We invite you to check out the center’s activities and take advantage of your residence in the Literary Capital of Mid-America.

Neil Chethik, author of “FatherLoss” (Hyperion Books), “VoiceMale” (Simon & Schuster), is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning. Reach him at neil@carnegiecenterlex.org.

Please join the Kentucky Arts Council on Kentucky Writers’ Day, 10 a.m. April 24 in the Capitol Rotunda for the induction of George Ella Lyon as Kentucky Poet Laureate.

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