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Harriette Arnow Papers to Open With Exhibit, Symposium

By Whitney Hale


the dollmaker bookThe University of Kentucky Special Collections Library invites the public to an exhibition and symposium celebrating the opening of the papers of Appalachian author Harriette Simpson Arnow. The event will take place at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, in the Great Hall, of the Margaret I. King Building. The exhibition of work will run through February 2012.

Harriette Arnow’s papers at UK Libraries provide a broad look at a writer’s life and work.  Included are materials that document her writing process, from first-draft manuscripts on dime store tablets, through various iterations and drafts, to printer page proofs. Also included are correspondence with family, editors, publishers and literary agents. Researchers will find mail from readers, photographs, speeches and materials documenting Arnow’s political interests such as McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, the Vietnam War and the ACLU.  Book reviews, scholarly articles, and dissertations written about Arnow’s work are also featured in the papers.

Arnow was born in Wayne County, Ky., in 1908, and grew up in the rugged foothills of the Appalachians, where the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River emerges from the east Kentucky coalfield. She went on to publish several short stories, five novels and three works of nonfiction from the 1930s to 1977. Arnow died in Michigan in 1986. 

Kentucky is a central element in much of Arnow's most popular work. Her acclaimed and best-selling novels, "Hunter’s Horn" (1949) and "The Dollmaker" (1954), are part of a Kentucky trilogy that includes "Mountain Path" (1936). In these works of fiction, Arnow explores how the the social and economic fabric of rural Kentucky hill communities in the first half of the 20th century was changed by the coming of roads, electricity and the World Wars. The writer also completed two social histories, "Seedtime on the Cumberland" (1960) and "Flowering of the Cumberland" (1963), which examined the settlement of the Cumberland River valley at the end of the 18 century as well as a memoir, "Old Burnside" (1977), that focused on her childhood in Pulaski County, Ky. Two final novels, "Weedkiller’s Daughter" and "The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution" were published in the early 1970s. A collection of short stories and a novel, "Between the Flowers," were released posthumously.

 The Arnow symposium at UK will feature Kentucky Poet Laureate and writer Gurney Norman and scholar Sandy Ballard, who will speak about Arnow’s life and work and the importance of her papers for scholars and other writers. Norman, director of UK's Creative Writing Program, will present the talk, "Remembering Harriette," personal notes about the writer's acquaintance with Arnow and a discussion of her contributions to the modern Kentucky/Appalachian literary renaissance. Ballard, who is the editor of Appalachian Journal and a member of the faculty of Appalachian State University, is currently writing a biography of Arnow.

Ballard believes the university's Arnow collection is a treasure. "Harriette Simpson Arnow was a remarkable writer whose work certainly deserves a wider audience. The archival collection at the University of Kentucky is the mother lode for anyone who wants to explore the imaginative range of this impressive author," Ballard says.

The symposium program will also include music by UK School of Music faculty members Dennis Bender, associate professor of voice, and Ron Pen, professor of musicology and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, on banjo and fiddle. A reception will follow. 

The processing and description of the Harriette Arnow papers has proven a formidable project for Kate Black, curator of the Appalachian Collection and manuscripts archivist at UK Libraries.

"Processing these papers and preparing them for researchers has been challenging, to say the least," Black says. "Ms. Arnow’s handwriting is big, sprawling and difficult to read, and her habit was to write a draft of one manuscript on the back of a draft of another manuscript. She often wrote on highly acidic paper, which requires significant preservation work. And then filing wasn’t her strong point. Drafts of all the manuscripts had to be located and meticulously pieced together. It was like a puzzle."

Black credits talented graduate students in enabling the processing of the Arnow papers. Her most recent assistant, Amber Surface, helped bring the project to conclusion. Surface, a native of South Charleston, W. Va., who will graduate this December from the UK School of Library and Information Science, liked working on Harriette Arnow’s papers so much that she is curating the exhibit for the November event with Black and creating a virtual exhibit—all for class credit.

"Working with the Arnow papers has been an incredible introduction to working in the archives," Surface says. "Helping the collection take form, from processing to exhibiting, is fascinating. Most graduate students only have a chance to work on the processing side, so I’ve truly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to curate the exhibit with the completed papers."

In conjunction with the opening of the Harriette Arnow papers, the UK Appalachian Center and the UK Graduate Appalachian Research Community will host a screening of "The Dollmaker" two days before the symposium. The movie screening will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the William T. Young Library Auditorium. Based on Arnow’s novel, this feature film starred Jane Fonda as the book’s main character, Gertie Nevels, and was first released in 1983. Surface will give introductory remarks. 

The UK Appalachian Center works in partnership with its constituents to bring the expertise of UK to the issues, challenges and opportunities of importance in Appalachia.

The Appalachian Research Community is dedicated to fostering dialogue and connecting UK graduate students from all disciplines working on Appalachia with other students, faculty and resources in an effort to further promote and improve Appalachian research.

UK's Special Collections is home to UK Libraries' collection of rare books, Kentuckiana, the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press and the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. The mission of Special Collections is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 

For more information about these free public events and the Harriette Arnow papers, visit or contact Kate Black at or (859) 257-4207.