NOTE: This is the latest in an occasional series about notable figures from my home region. These are, for the most part, personal reminiscences and opinions; where available, I’ll include links so interested readers can find out more.
While Memphis has its own vibrant literary history, rural west Tennessee suffers from a dearth of serious writers. The swamps, fields and people of Jackson, Bolivar, Adamsville, and so forth are definitely under-represented in literature.
John Talbott is trying to change that by recovering and re-publishing the work of a forgotten author. Jack Happel Boone (1903-1966) was born, and is buried, in my old stomping grounds of Gibson County, Tennessee. But he spent most of his life, and wrote about, Henderson and Chester County. His lone published novel, Dossie Bell is Dead, came out in 1939. But as his new bio page puts it, “An unruly lifestyle that served as his inspiration hindered what could have been a successful literary and academic career.”
That might’ve been that, had it not been for John Talbott. His press, BrayBree, has reprinted Dossie Bell is Dead in new hardcover and paperback editions. More importantly, though, he’s been curating Boone’s unpublished work (including the sequel, Woods Girls) with plans to publish them as well. His goal: to bring Boone’s work to the audience that missed it the first time around.
Talbott himself gives a lot of the background on his efforts on this podcast, so rather than paraphrase it, I’ll let you listen. He was also kind enough to answer some of my additional questions about Boone’s work and its connection to its locale.
What are Jack Boone’s greatest strengths as a writer?
I think Boone’s greatest strengths as a writer lie in his ability as an observer of life around him at the time he was writing. The period in which he was writing was the late 1920’s through the late 1940’s primarily, and Boone was largely documenting a people in a remote area of West Tennessee known as The Hurst Nation, which he renamed, for literary purposes, The Tolby Nation. These were largely primitive people who were suspicious and retained many old Appalachian ways, old archaic ways, little known today. He was able to document many local and regional customs and habits, no longer seen or known, thus proving himself a historian and folklorist in many ways. To me, his ability to do document these people and to provide such a thorough picture that you can almost hear, see and sense them as you read is a testament to his ability as a writer.
What is it about Boone’s writing that speaks so strongly to you?
I would have to say that his understanding of his subjects is the attribute of his writing that truly reaches me. Boone spent significant time traveling around the Nation and other backwoods regions during the 1920’s and 1930’s and that time was very productive for him. He was able to gain an understanding of these people, their ways, their customs, their virtues, their vices and they limitations. His ability in turn to document all of this in literary form and report it to us in his writings is a feat. And it was almost lost. Yet even when saved, it was buried back and forgotten largely. Boone’s efforts and dedication in the face of contemporary frustration and rejection after the publication of Dossie Bell is Dead speaks to me. He never really gave up.
How does Dossie Bell is Dead compare to the unpublished material you’re working through?
Dossie Bell is Dead is, to me, a really good book. It documents vernacular and customs seldom heard or seen anymore, if at all. But it was just a good first effort and was well received, but he had better work still to come. Unfortunately, the times and circumstances prevented a further glimpse of his works. Now as I plow through thousands of pages of unpublished material including 5 novels and 40 or more short stories, I’m finding material that bests Dossie Bell. His works can be categorized in at least two headings: the serious, and the more sensational to be sold for quick money, i.e. pulp material. His serious works become more refined and better developed. I think the works after Dossie Bell are better works because we see his style developing and growing. His observations are more keen. His characters become more reflective and multi-dimensional as humans really are.
In the later works, mostly written from 1945 to 1954, Boone’s narrators, protagonists and primary characters do attain a depth such characters did not possess earlier in Boone’s career. For example, in Woods Girls, the sequel to Dossie Bell is Dead, Luster Holder is portrayed as a thinking, contemplative and savvy fellow, a far different portrayal than in Dossie Bell.
Inner struggles become more prevalent and more easily identifiable. The characters and the works themselves give us explicit examples of what now seem strange, quirky cultural phenomena and many of the short stories deal with a singular cultural event, as if Boone is reporting to us his findings….which in large measure is exactly what he is doing.
One thing that struck me about Dossie Bell is Dead is the complete absence of any civil authority. No one appeals to, or seems to expect any response from, law enforcement or local government. How accurate do you think that is, or did Boone exaggerate for effect, as Faulkner did with his Mississippian decadence?
During the time that Jack was writing, from the late 1920’s through the early 1950’s, there was even a lack of civil authority and law enforcement in and around Chester County, Tennessee and the Hurst Nation areas about which areas he was writing. What little law enforcement that existed was often absent from view due to corruption and bribery. Henderson, Chester County, the Hurst Nation area and McNairy County were all relatively “wide open.” Payoffs were prevalent and law enforcement had no desire to mix it up with the tougher elements of those who inhabited the backwoods areas of these counties. Therefore, Boone’s lack of depiction of the authorities is not surprising. In fact, in later stories and novels, Boone will actually depict law enforcement as corrupt good old boys components of machine politics, which it often was.
In my own writing, I’ve fully leaned in to the presence of music in the lives of my East Tennessee characters. In Dossie Bell, though, it’s virtually absent: no mention of musicians, or the radio, or church music (except for one description of Birdie looking for boys at a church event). Is that an accurate description of the times, or again, is it something Boone chooses for effect?
Interestingly, Boone seldom, if ever, depicted the musical element of local culture. In all of the thousands of pages of material I’ve sifted through to date, I’ve only encountered one peripheral reference to music in his works. That was in his unpublished novel, The Tumult and the Shouting. In that novel, his main character, David Forrest Brandon, finds himself on the outside fringes of a local Saturday night dance with an orchestra. His works are peculiar in their almost total lack of reference to music and this is peculiar because music in this region was integral to many families. I tend to think his failure to include musical references and situations was intentional.
So when can we expect more Boone releases?
I plan to have Woods Girls available by May or early June. I’m currently working on a collection of Neeley County stories and the publication date for that isn’t set. After that, there’ll still be a collection of pulp style stories and four more novels.