Gurney Norman’s relationship with the College of Arts & Sciences spans 66 years, from 1955 when he enrolled at UK as a freshman to fall 2021 as he begins his 42nd year teaching creative writing in the Department of English.
Norman grew up in the southern Appalachian Mountains, raised alternately by paternal and maternal grandparents. From 9 to 18, he attended Stuart Robinson School, a Presbyterian boarding school in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. At Stuart Robinson, he developed an interest in writing. He enrolled at the University of Kentucky with an interest in journalism. In creative writing classes, he was mentored by professors Hollis Summers and Robert Hazel and formed lifelong friendships with Kentucky writers Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Bobbie Ann Mason. He also wrote for the Kentucky Kernel, published short stories in the English Department’s literary journal Stylus and helped edit The Kentuckian yearbook. He was in ROTC and later spent two years in the U.S. Army.
In 1960, Norman received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he studied with critic Malcolm Cowley and renowned Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor. He joined a writing class with Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Peter Beagle, James Baker Hall and other young writers. After military service, 1961– 1963, Norman returned to eastern Kentucky and worked as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, The Hazard Herald. In the summers of 1966 and 1967, he was a lookout for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. In 1972, his novel Divine Right’s Trip was published by the Dial Press. In 1977, his book of short stories, Kinfolks, was published by Gnomon Press. He returned to Kentucky to join the English faculty at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 1979.
In the 1980s, Norman wrote and narrated three documentaries on Kentucky and the Appalachian region for Kentucky Educational Television. Three stories from Kinfolks were made into short films by Andrew Garrison at Appalshop. He co-edited Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes (University of Kentucky Press, 1999) and An American Vein (Ohio University Press, 2005). In 2011, he published a novella, Ancient Creek: A Folktale (Old Cove Press). In 2020, his book of autobiographical stories, Allegiance, was published by Old Cove Press and distributed by Ohio University Press. Norman served as Kentucky Poet Laureate in 2009–2010. In 2011, he received an honorary doctorate from Berea College. In 2019, he was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.