Unpublished works of Byron Herbert Reece languish in archives

Without a designated owner, ‘orphan papers’ remain in limbo.

“Poems (old and new) … Mostly inferior. Publish none without my consent. BHR May 1956.” – a hand-scrawled note on a folder of poems by Byron Herbert Reece

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Poet Byron Herbert Reece was notoriously shy and hard on himself.

Sometimes dismissing his work as “junk,” he did not enjoy reading his verse aloud, even for the fawning, often tipsy “ladies societies” who sought him out. And he was known to burn reams of scribblings that did not measure up to his standards, which were as severe and vertiginous as the Appalachian Mountains that shaped him.

In light of this self-conscious perfectionism, it is surprising that he left any rough, unfinished work behind, but there it is, on fragile paper brown with age.

Inside the folder at the Zell and Shirley Miller Library at Young Harris College are dozens of pages of neatly typed poems with an old-fashioned fountain pen’s proof-reading marks, palimpsests, and notes and corrections in the margins. They are works in progress, jewels in the grip of the lathe. You can see how an evocative image emerges and gets refined, syllable by syllable.

As with all of Reece’s work, most tackle grand themes of God and nature — one is titled “I Am He That Feasts Upon the Sun.” As a new “discovery” about a poet who died decades ago, they are revelatory. If published, they would add some new poems to the oeuvre as well as reveal the writing process behind them.

The folder is part of Reece’s archive, consisting of 10 boxes containing notebooks, sermons, essays, his personal library of hardback books and letters from bowled-over editors and other assorted groupies. (Women loved the brooding Reece, and at least one lusty Parisienne sent him a photo of herself modeling a daring new fashion — a bikini.)

A family friend, James Mathis, helped pack up the house after Reece’s death, and in 2008 he gave the archive to the Byron Herbert Reece Society, which keeps them at Young Harris College, where Reece was teaching when he died. But its ownership remains a conundrum.

“I call them orphan papers because no one technically owns the rights,” says librarian Debra March. “He didn’t leave a will or have a literary executor, and they’re not considered public domain until 75 years after his death, and it hasn’t been that long yet.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

To publish or not

Reece, North Georgia’s unofficial poet laureate and a quintessentially tormented genius who died in 1958, two years after dashing off that prohibitive note, has always had a small but zealous band of champions who disagree about how best to handle his legacy. About 300 of them organized in 2002 as the Byron Herbert Reece Society to restore his family homeplace in Choestoe, just outside Blairsville, as an interpretive center for his work.

The Byron Herbert Reece Farm & Heritage Center not only celebrates his poetry, but also agrarian life in Appalachia during the first half of the 1900s. Of particular interest to Reece fans is Mulberry Hall, his writing studio. There are also restored barns and other structures including a smokehouse, chicken house and corn crib. Books and films about the poet, as well as local artisanal crafts, are available in the gift shop.

Now the society is wrestling with a moral dilemma: to publish or not to publish. Would a new collection of poems finally — after decades of dogged, loving promotion and preservation — get Byron Herbert Reece the higher profile in the literary canon and wider readership that he deserves? Or should we obey his note and let those poems rest in peaceful storage?

John Kay, a founder of the group, is cagey on the matter. “I’ve been through them, and I know there are enough there that are comparable in excellence to his published work, so part of me wonders if getting them out there would introduce him to new readers and give us additional information to appreciate Reece even more — call it ‘The Best of the Rest,’ or something like that,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t want to be cursed from the grave.”

At the last meeting of the society, members took a vote to gauge sentiment on the issue, and most were in favor of publishing, says Ken Akins, a local historian. “Since his death, Reece’s works have been ‘beyond the reach of song’ in his own words. However, we are still here. So many good poems have gone unpublished that very well could have been if he had lived a longer life.”

Jerri Gill, chairwoman of the group, opposes publishing the poems. “We are on a mission to get his work in front of more people, but, no, that’s not in our dominion to go against his wishes. It would probably sell, but it’s not about the money. We wouldn’t go there.”

The poet’s nephew, Bob Reece, is guardedly in favor of publishing some of the remaining poems, but “only if I could approve them,” he says, “and I’m not necessarily qualified to do so. But if it would get some new interest in his work, then it would probably be the right thing to do.”

Still, unless someone aggressively steps up to curate the work, it likely will remain in limbo until 2033 when it enters the public domain.

Credit: Charles Seabrook

Credit: Charles Seabrook

Wrestling angels

Known to his family as “Hub,” Reece grew up plowing fields in the shadow of Blood Mountain. He often said he was a farmer first and a poet second. Steeped early on in the Bible and “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” he took iambic pentameter to new levels of expressiveness, eventually publishing hundreds of poems, primarily ballads and lyric work that swing with Elizabethan cadences, and two novels.

His literary debut, “Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems,” arrived at the farm on Reece’s 28th birthday while he was mowing hay. He showed his parents the dedication to them, “To Juan and Emma,” and rushed back to the hayfield. He had just entered the national literary arena, but a celebration would have to wait until the chores were finished.

After the publication of his second book, “Bow Down in Jericho” (1950), Newsweek magazine ran an article about Reece’s dual life of letters and agriculture. Reece produced two more volumes of poetry: “The Season of Flesh” (1952) and “A Song of Joy and Other Poems” (1955). He also wrote two novels: “Better a Dinner of Herbs” (1950), a family drama, and “The Hawk and the Sun” (1955), a social narrative about the lynching of a disabled Black man.

His writings received reverent reviews across the country and, in the course of his career, earned two Guggenheim Awards as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination. A few critics, doubting that such elegant verse could have come from a hardscrabble farm boy, labeled Reece a “poseur” who affected his bucolic background as a gimmick. In response, the poet with callused hands noted that there were “acts less costly that would buy publicity.”

He was frequently asked why he stayed in his isolated home. Sometimes he answered simply, “Because I want to.” But once he wrote, “The north Georgia countryside is as good a place as any for a man to wrestle with the angel.” Moreover, someone needed to hoe the corn and potatoes.

Reece’s entire family struggled with both grinding poverty and tuberculosis that required round-the-clock caregiving. He never married, despite the many proposals he received from around the world.

Reece wound up teaching at Young Harris College, a job he did not especially enjoy by all accounts. It was here in his office where, battling tuberculosis and facing yet another grueling hospitalization, he put his phonograph on Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D and used his .32 caliber pistol to shoot himself in his diseased lung. He was 40. For a man so skilled with words, he left no suicide note, but he had neatly graded a stack of his students’ papers.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Raising awareness

Reece earned more notice as a poet than as a novelist, but an elevation of his reputation might lie with his fiction, which places the author ahead of his time in the segregated South. Atlanta filmmaker E.W. Gadrix has adapted “The Hawk and the Sun” as a screenplay and has just entered it in the Atlanta Film Festival.

“This story is comparable to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Till,’” Gadrix says. “I believe it will make a great movie and, in the process, raise awareness of all of Reece’s work.”

Ironically, the reclusive poet now has a recurring social media presence. Byron Herbert Reece Society chairwoman Jerri Gill writes a column called Remembering Reece for two local newspapers, always featuring at least one poem, and then she posts it on Facebook. “I want people to know the genius who walked among us,” she says.

Maybe they will find a new generation of readers, somehow.


IF YOU GO

The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April-November. Free. 8552 Gainesville Hwy. Blairsville. 706-745-2034, www.unioncountyga.gov/reecefarm

Byron Herbert Reece archive. Zell and Shirley Miller Library, Young Harris College, 1 College St., Young Harris. 706-379-4311, www.yhc.edu/library