Decades ago, I remember speaking on the phone with a woman who was the oldest person still working at E. P. Dutton publishing company in New York City. She enthusiastically spoke of four men who she considered the most outstanding Appalachian poets - Byron Herbert Reece, Jesse Stuart, James Still and George Scarborough. All were at the height of their powers in the 1940s. All four had deep roots in traditional mountain small farms. Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958) was born in the Chestoe Valley of Union County, Georgia, The valley's name comes from the Cherokee word for "place of dancing rabbits." It lies in the shadow of Blood Mountain and Slaughter Mountain. Reece was named after an insurance salesman and a butcher, not famous poets. The small farm where he was raised was served only by a path. There were no roads to it. It is now covered by Lake Trahlyta in Vogel State Park. He attended the Little Wild Boar Schoolhouse, the same one-room school that both his parents attended, then Chestoe Elementary School. By 1930, a road had been constructed past the Reece farm, and the next year, "Hub," as young Byron Herbert Reece was called, entered Union County High School in Blairsville, nine miles away. At the age of fourteen, Hub Reece showed his mother his first poem. She read it and said, "that's something," and walked to Blairsville where she talked the editor of the county paper into publishing it. In 1935, he entered Young Harris College, 18 miles from his home, but he soon dropped out to help his parents farm since they were both afflicted with tuberculosis. He returned to Young Harris from 1938-1940, but never graduated. After Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist in the Armed Forces but was judged too thin and unfit for military service. In 1943, Jesse Stuart read, "Lest the Lonesome Bird," a poem published in The Prairie Schooner, and wrote to Reece asking for more which he sent to E. P. Dutton in New York, and they promptly brought out Reece's first poetry book. Of course he didn't make much money from his books, but he did leave the farm to do a few readings and was a writer-in-residence briefly at Emory University and UCLA. He missed the intellectual stimulation when he was working on the farm, and missed the farm when he was away. He was treated for tuberculosis at Battey State Hospital in Rome, Georgia, but hated it. On the night of June 3, 1958, he shot himself to death through his diseased lung while listening to Mozart's Piano Sonata in D. Byron Herbert Reece's work, so deeply rooted in the Bible and Southern Mountain traditions, is quite simply the quintessential folk poetry of Appalachia. This book contains three poems that do not appear in any of Reece's four previous poetry collections.The editor of this book, Jim Clark, just retired from his professor job in 2019. He comes from a family deeply rooted in Pickett County - a relatively remove mountain county on the Kentucky line, the third least populous of Tennessee's 95 counties.
Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002. 185 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.