As Tennessee Williams he wrote an astonishing number of America’s most revered plays, including “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Three-time Pulitzer winner Robert Penn Warren came to Vanderbilt to study engineering, but fell under the spell of John Crowe Ransom, a founder of the Fugitive literary group, and became a leader of the Fugitive Agrarians and author of books of poetry and the seminal American novel “All the King’s Men.” The Fugitives, with ties to Vanderbilt, included some of the leading writers of the post-war age, including Cleanth Brooks, Donald Davidson, James Dickey, Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate and Andrew Nelson Lytle, who founded the Sewanee Review at the University of the South.
If you’re a fan of the Pulitzer-winner “Roots” and other Alex Haley work, visit his boyhood home and burial place at the Alex Haley Museum in Henning, the Savannah Cemetery where his grandparents are buried, and Cherry Mansion, where Queen worked. In Knoxville, where Haley lived late in life, enjoy Haley Heritage Square and the larger-than-life statue of him. Visit the Clifton home of T.S. Stribling, who changed the way people wrote and thought about race in the South and won a Pultizer for “The Store.”
Unfortunately, the homes and haunts of our writers are not always preserved, but we can follow their footsteps. In Knoxville, visit the shops, farmers market and eateries on Market Square, or stroll along the riverfront park, Volunteer Landing, places which figure prominently in the early work of Cormac McCarthy. Then head over the World’s Fair site area and take a drive through the historic Fort Sanders area, once home to James Agee and memorialized in his novel, “A Death in the Family.” Check out the Bijou Theatre, where poet Sidney Lanier once lived.
Visit Pickwick Dam State Park, near the birthplace of poet Charles Wright. Finally, check out the “Memphis Commercial Appeal,” where Peter Taylor once worked before becoming master of the short story form and writing his winning novel, “A Summons to Memphis.” Another Memphis writer, Shelby Foote, worked briefly as a reporter before launching a long career that includes numerous novels and books on the Civil War.
In Memphis, visit the Ida B. Wells marker commemorating the work of the outspoken publisher, abolitionist and co-founder of the NAACP. Carl Rowan, born in Ravenscroft, became well known as a political commentator and columnist after serving in the State Department. William “Parson” Brownlow, a fire-and-brimstone preacher and later governor, made a name through his dramatic writing in the “Knoxville Whig” and so inflamed readers that he once had to hide out in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains. Will Allen Dromgoole of Murfreesboro studied law but was unable to practice because she was a woman. Instead she became Clerk of the Senate and, eventually, literary editor of the “Nashville Banner.” Probably the first woman to serve in the U.S. Navy, she also wrote a best-selling novel, books of poetry and essays, plays and an operetta.
W.C. Handy, the “father of the blues,” is recognized at the W.C. Handy House Museum. Handy also wrote five books on blues and African American music and is honored at the W.C. Handy Performing Arts Park on Beale Street. Memphis was also the home of Richard Wright, Guggenheim recipient and author of “Uncle Tom’s Children” and “Native Son.”
Tennessee’s early adventurers were also handy with a quill. James Adair, pioneer and Indian trader known as a peacemaker among Native American tribes, wrote “History of the American Indians” in 1775. Brilliant explorer, naturalist and writer Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition died under mysterious circumstances along the Natchez Trace. Visit his gravesite on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Just outside Knoxville, visit the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, which commemorates the life of the man who invented the Cherokee alphabet. National icon Davy Crockett (he preferred to be called David) was not just “king of the wild frontier.” He was also a member of Congress and the author of speeches, an autobiography, and other non-fiction. You can visit his birthplace, a replica of his last home, the David Crockett Cherokee Museum in Lawrenceburg, and the Morristown tavern that was his boyhood home.
Among those who write for more contemporary media, several Tennesseans stand out. Morristown is the hometown of Peabody, Emmy, and Tony-winning writer and director Jane Wagner, author of “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and other comedic pieces for stage and screen. Oscar-winning director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, a Knoxville native, sometimes slips a reference to his hometown into his work, as fans of “Pulp Fiction” know from Christopher Walken’s "watch monolog." Lowell Cunningham, author of the “Men in Black” Comic books that spawned the movie franchise is a Knoxvillian.
Other contemporary writers with strong Tennessee ties include Chattanoogan Arthur Golden, who wrote the blockbuster “Memoirs of a Geisha;” Madison Smartt Bell, whose work includes “Zero db” and “The Washington Square Ensemble;” and Jim Wann, nominated for Tony and Drama Desk awards, who wrote or co-wrote “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” “Diamond Studs” and other plays.