Introduction to James Larkin Pearson: A Biography of North Carolina’s Longest-Serving Poet Laureate

Since its inception as a royal colony on March 24, 1663, North Carolina has seen its image ebb and flow.  For much of its history, however, the ebb has predominated.  Lacking major cities, ports, or economic development, and sandwiched between the more prosperous colonies of South Carolina and Virginia, colonial North Carolina was denigrated by its neighbors.  Outsiders and visitors alike found the population irreligious and without leadership, described the land as poor, pronounced the climate “indolent,” and generally regarded the region as a “natural asylum for outcasts.”  In 1711, for instance, Colonel John Barnwell visited from South Carolina and found drunken and violent politicians whom he described as “the most impertinent, imperious, cowardly Blockheads that ever God created.”  Reverend George Whitefield traveled from England in 1739 and found the colony so corrupt that missionaries had lost their faith.  Scot Janet Schaw, meanwhile, later described the land she visited as “dreary, savage, and desert,” while surveyor Hugh Friendly pronounced it “a poor…barren, gloomy country.”[1]

The most famous assessment of colonial North Carolina undoubtedly came from Virginian William Byrd II.  While surveying the border between Virginia and North Carolina in 1728, he had ample opportunity to witness colonial life and its inhabitants.  What he found confirmed the findings of others: “Surely there is no other place in the World where the Inhabitants live with less Labour than in N. Carolina.  It approaches nearer the Description of Lubberland than any other, by the great felicity of the Climate, the easiness of raising Provisions, and the Slothfulness of the People.”  Byrd thus did more than condemn the colony, he explained its failings.  From his perspective, the very facts about which he and others complained created a setting in which North Carolinians need not work to survive.  Without that need, there seemed no incentive to strive and the population simply wallowed in its mediocrity.  Indeed, North Carolina was known as “the best poor man’s country in the colonies.”[2]

Little changed with the Revolutionary War and the creation of the United States, as North Carolina continued to lag behind its neighbors.  The only major difference was the moniker.  With Lubberland becoming passé, the state’s critics appropriated a Washington Irving short story and dubbed North Carolina the “Rip Van Winkle of the South” – shiftless and lazy, bypassed by modernity, and uninterested in progress.

That outside belief in North Carolina’s indolence further manifested itself during the Civil War.  North Carolinians served bravely and in astonishing numbers during the conflict.  Of the approximately 129,000 adult men in the state as of 1860, 125,000, or 97%, served in the Confederate military.  19,673 of those soldiers never returned; a number that gives North Carolina the distinction of sacrificing the largest number of men for the Confederate cause.  Despite that service and sacrifice, North Carolina’s soldiers often were held in contempt by their commanders, many of whom came from Virginia and derided their charges as “Tar Heels.”  The term emerged from the fact that for much of its early history North Carolina’s economic base was the manufacture of naval stores – most notably tar, turpentine, and pitch – the production of which left workers filthy.  Virginia commanders thus regarded North Carolina soldiers as grubby, ill-disciplined, uneducated, and “little more than wild men who had wandered up to Virginia from the primeval forest.”[3]

Hoping finally to disprove the lingering stereotypes their neighbors laid upon them, during the war the state’s soldiers adopted the Tar Heel appellation as a source of pride.  In 1862, for instance, North Carolina soldiers taunted a Mississippi regiment that broke during the Battle of Fredericksburg by suggesting, “If yer hadder had some tar on yer own heels yestiddy, yer would er stuck to them thar works better, and we wouldn’t er had to put yer back thar.”  Similar sentiment was expressed in July 1863 when an unnamed soldier wrote to the Raleigh Daily Progress to describe the Battle of Gettysburg and signed the letter “Tar Heel.”  In March 1864, meanwhile, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance adopted the term to praise the state’s soldiers who “always stick.”  Ironically, legend has it that General Robert E. Lee of Virginia also helped turn this derogation into a positive when, after the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864, he said, “Thank God for the Tar Heel boys!”[4]

After the war the term caught on and spread amongst the civilian population who saw it as embodying their spirit of stick-to-itiveness and their cultural sensibility of refusing to yield or surrender despite the odds.  By 1926 the state’s flagship institution of higher learning, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, confirmed the broad diffusion of the term when it adopted Tar Heel as the moniker for its football team, and soon thereafter for all athletic programs.[5]  No longer were North Carolinians uncultured backwoodsmen; of their own accord they proudly adopted what was once a negative stereotype, turned it on its head, and used it to demonstrate their grit and determination regardless of the circumstances.

That sensibility continues to this day, as evidenced by the fact that North Carolina has overcome much of its past lethargy.  The Tar Heel state ranks tenth in population and ninth in gross domestic product, it is the sixth most popular vacation destination, and in 2013 Forbes.com ranked it the fourth most business-friendly state in the nation.  Home to American’s second largest banking center, the state also boasts the high-tech Research Triangle Park, the Piedmont Triad Research Park, and the Gateway Research Park.  Although some parts of the state have missed out on such economic achievement, every county, city, and small town has at least one story that demonstrates the Tar Heel spirit of overcoming adversity to achieve great success.[6]

Wilkes County, North Carolina, located in the western reaches of the state, is no different.  In fact, the very emergence of the county and its largest city North Wilkesboro bear out that spirit.  Wilkes County “lies mainly between the highest ridges of the Blue Ridge on the northwest and those of the Brushy Mountains on the southeast.”  The Yadkin River waters the resulting valley, and the surrounding floodplain offers some of the most fertile farmland in the state.  Majestic, powerful, and productive, the region eventually engendered a contented population that referred to their homeland as “Happy Valley.”[7]  Despite that gloriously vital image, for much of its history the county was rough and underdeveloped.

Initially populated by the Cherokee, the first white settler in the region was Charles Gist, who arrived in 1750.  The county itself was formed out of Surry County in 1777, and the first government was organized in 1778.  Not until 1801 was the town of Wilkesboro laid out, and it was not incorporated until 1847.  Historian J. Jay Anderson later described the region in the nineteenth century as “rural and somewhat out of the way,” lacking in good roads and industry, and “economically poor.”  Most of the 10,746 residents as of the 1850 census were simple farmers who eked out a living on the poor mountain soil.  A few wealthy farmers owned the valley lands and benefitted from the richer soil and the labor of the county’s 1,142 slaves.  The socio-economic divide that plagued the antebellum South at large thus found its equivalent in Wilkes County.  Indeed, while many residents supported secession and the Confederacy, most of the county’s poor farmers owned no slaves and had no desire to fight for the “peculiar institution.”  As a result, Wilkes County “voted overwhelmingly against secession” and saw a sizeable number of residents either support or fight for the Union.[8]

By the 1880s these divides and the wounds of the war largely had healed, but the economy remained stagnant and the county remained poor.  It consisted of a few scattered villages with no real city of which to speak, and the 1880 census counted but 19,181 inhabitants, with more whiskey distillers (fourteen) than doctors (nine) and dentists (one) combined.[9]  Travel outside the immediate neighborhood, let alone beyond the borders of the county or state, was rare, and industrial development was limited.

Progress finally began in 1890 when the railroad arrived.  With a depot in the newly incorporated town of North Wilkesboro, the railroad connected the county to the city of Winston, some fifty miles to the east.  The arrival of the railroad also encouraged the Winston Land and Improvement Company to lay out streets and develop an infrastructure for North Wilkesboro.  With rail access and the beginning of an urban center, industrial development finally began in 1891 with the formation of the North Wilkesboro Brick Company.  Four years later, in 1895, the C.C. Smoot and Sons tannery arrived and employed 200 people.  Other businesses soon followed, and by 1906 there were a dozen additional factories, several dozen stores, three hotels, two banks, and thriving lumber and agricultural export businesses.[10]  Although farming remained the pre-eminent occupation and the driving economic force in the county, by the early twentieth century modernization and industrial development had finally arrived.

In an effort to continue that economic expansion, in 1911 the North Wilkesboro Board of Trade published “That Busy Town,” in which it described the region as

one of those favored spots which, it seems, got a little more than its share of the natural advantages in the general distribution of things at the time of creation.  In the first place, it happened to be located where there is just enough change of seasons to have the spice of variety.  The winters are not too cold, just enough for the freezing to pulverize the top soil and make it productive, and the summers are just hot enough to make big corn, big sweet red-meated melons, fine potatoes, big red apples, golden wheat, etc., with nights cool enough to make cover feel good.

The local paper The Wilkes Patriot did its part to foster growth when it lauded the population: “Our people are above average in intelligence, they are hospitable and generous; loath and unwilling to cause distress but eager and anxious to relieve it – frank to deal with, pleasant to live among, but dangerous to monkey with.”[11]  Such advertisements worked, and as the twentieth century rolled on the population continued to expand and the economy continued to grow and diversify.  The people of Wilkes County thus demonstrated their Tar Heel spirit by overcoming their early backwater standing to create a thriving economic center in western North Carolina.

Their spirit manifested itself culturally as well.  Despite limited access to larger cultural centers, the residents of Wilkes County produced their fair share of art.  While music and folk art predominated, the two cultural realms in which the county truly excelled were journalism and poetry.  The county’s first newspaper, The Wilkesboro Witness, appeared in 1876 and dozens of small papers soon followed.  Moravian Falls was the epicenter of the newspaper craze and, despite having a population of fewer than 250 people, eighteen different papers called the village home in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Ten were professional papers, in that they ran advertisements to make money, while the other eight were amateur papers that simply expressed the thoughts and ideas of the creators.  Among those amateur publications was The Yellow Jacket, a paper produced by R. Don Laws which eventually numbered some 200,000 subscribers.  Although The Yellow Jacket was the exception rather than the rule, the simple fact that so many papers appeared in the county demonstrates an impressive level of cultural productivity.[12]

Journalist and critic H.L. Mencken undoubtedly would have taken issue with the idea that newspapers are cultural touchstones.  Indeed, in his 1917 essay “Sahara of the Bozart” he offered a scathing and hyperbolic indictment of the lack of Southern culture when he asserted that “the South has…lost its old capacity for producing ideas” and has “taken on the worst intolerance of ignorance and stupidity.”  He lamented that “all who dissent from its orthodox doctrines are scoundrels” and argued that “it is impossible for intelligence to flourish in such an atmosphere.  Free inquiry is blocked by the idiotic certainties of ignorant men.”  As such, he found that “down there a poet is now almost as rare as an oboe-player, a dry-etcher or a metaphysician.  It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity.”  Wilkes County, however, offered evidence that in terms of poetry, at least, Mencken was mistaken.  R. Don Laws published a number of his own poems in The Yellow Jacket, while Thomas C. Land gained fame with his poem “Tom Dooley,” which described Tom Dula (Dooley) and his infamous 1866 murder of Laura Foster.[13]

Even more notable a poet was James Larkin Pearson.  He penned nearly 1,000 poems; self-published seven books of collected poetry; and served as North Carolina’s poet laureate from 1953 until his death in 1981.  Pearson’s artistic milieu also included prose and journalism.  He wrote and published dozens of short stories and created eight amateur newspapers, including The Fool-Killer which attracted nearly 40,000 subscribers.

A deeper examination of Pearson’s life reveals that he did more than create great art and demonstrate the error of Mencken’s thinking.  He was a prime example of the Tar Heel spirit.  He was poorly educated; buried two younger brothers, a daughter, and two wives; endured near constant poverty in the hills of western Carolina; and saw his cultural output ignored by contemporaries.  Such suffering often led him to despair for his future, to lament his lot in life, and to endure numerous and often serious crises of self-confidence.  Like the Tar Heel soldiers of yore and his ancestors who helped build Wilkes County, however, he overcame those moments, stuck to it, and used the various tragedies and traumas as inspiration for ever greater artistic achievement.  As a result, by the end of his life he was personally fulfilled, economically stable, professionally famous, and beloved by his community.  He was the epitome of the Tar Heel ethos.

Countless other North Carolinians, of course, have demonstrated their Tar Heel spirit by overcoming tragedy and hardship.  What separates Pearson from such figures is that he fought his struggle and achieved his success virtually alone.  From childhood Pearson followed his own path, developed his own very personal worldview, and refused to concede to public pressures or expectations.  He was, for instance, deeply religious but rejected the organized church as being parochial, hypocritical, and led by incompetents.  Instead, he embarked upon his own journey for personal salvation.  Similarly, he expressed frustration with politicians who refused to break from party orthodoxy.  Pearson thus developed his own unique political perspective and refused to be forced into a single political party.  He also rebelled against the constraints of his community.  As a writer and thinker in a neighborhood that often disdained education, Pearson nurtured his passion for learning and stood out from his neighbors as an autodidact and bibliophile who believed knowledge was the pathway to a happy and fulfilled life.

The most notable aspect of his individualism, however, is found in his art.  North Carolina scholar and critic Richard Walser once argued that “the poet frees himself of all except that which is truth to him.  Even at those times when he cannot attain unrestricted truth, he is an intense center about which life revolves and which he records.  Our best poets acquaint us with our keenest sensibilities.”  Pearson the artist did just that.  As a poet he provided his readers with insights on the truth of life in rural America.  As a prose writer he described similar realities.  As a journalist he went even deeper and sought to understand why those truths so often proved painful.  Pearson had nothing but disdain for most modern artists whom he believed were lazy and refused to do the hard work of unearthing and expressing that painful truth.  As a result, and despite being poet laureate for nearly three decades, Pearson often felt isolated from the larger artistic community.  He refused to compromise his art regardless of that isolation, and he produced an impressive catalog that demonstrates his struggles and exemplifies his willingness and ability to overcome.[14]

Sadly, few outside of Wilkes County, where he remains a folk hero, are aware of Pearson’s life and work.  To the rest of the state, and certainly to the nation at large, he is virtually unknown.  Pearson long lamented his relative lack of fame and sought to remedy that fact by writing his autobiography.  An inveterate saver, he had mountains of material, from correspondence to his own musings, and by the 1960s he had organized enough to pen an extended series of articles for a local newspaper that addressed the key moments in his life.  Determined to do more, he tried to expand the series into a formal work with the hope that it would prove entertaining and educational.  Despite living another fifteen years after the newspaper series, he never completed the task.

One reason for that failure was his love of genealogy and his determination to tell the story of his family from as far back as possible.  Indeed, in the opening article of his newspaper autobiography he announced, “I am a direct descendant of two people who lived at least six thousand years ago.  There is an old family tradition which says their names were Adam and Eve.”  After skipping ahead a few generations, he offered a detailed description of his more immediate ancestors dating back to their arrival in America in the seventeenth century.  Pearson himself did not appear until the ninth of the newspaper articles, and when the series concluded thirty weeks later he had reached but the age of twenty-one.  Such attention to detail and context can be overwhelming, and may well have prevented him from completing his life story.[15]

A second factor holding back the completion of Pearson’s autobiography was his life-long struggle with self-doubt.  Not only did he struggle with an intense insecurity from his earliest days, frequently he was sidelined from writing for months on end by debilitating fits of misery and self-loathing.  Those fits often were the result of family tragedies, economic crises, or professional shortcomings and, combined with a growing infirmity as he aged, the psychological struggles undoubtedly slowed his productivity.

A final explanation may come from the very essence of the project.  While elucidating his goals for the never completed autobiography, which he dubbed “Poet’s Progress,” Pearson wrote,

I should like this book to be a sort of extended essay touching in a general way upon all the things that have happened to me in the course of my eighty-odd years here in this curiously interesting old world.  I shall not try to tell everything, because that would require the writing of several volumes.  Indeed, many of the things that I could think of would not be worth telling.

Also, I had considered leaving out many things that might be of interest, but perhaps too intimately personal to tell.  Then I re-considered and decided that these intimately personal matters might be the very heart of my story.  If I am to give a true account of my life and the things I have tried to do, I must include the events and influences that have shaped my thinking and given direction to my most intimate personal feelings.  That, after all, is the world in which I have lived, and anything less than the full story of my mental and spiritual reactions to life would be a false and misleading picture.

It seems, therefore, that this work, by the time it gets finished, will be mostly a book of Confessions.  Not fashioned after any famous “Confessions” of the past, but just cut out by a new pattern to fit my case.

Poet’s Progress is not to be just a formal autobiography – just a mere recording of events.  Rather it must be a faithful picturing of my own thoughts and feelings – the story of my mind, my hopes and fears and dreams.  And running through it must be that undercurrent of wonder and mystery and fear.  There must be a build-up necessary to maintain that feeling all through the book.  A sort of folk mystery.[16]

Such insight and intimacy can be difficult to achieve, especially when it involves revisiting the most heartbreaking moments in one’s life, and that factor may yet again explain why he was unable to complete the task.

Although Pearson failed to organize his autobiography, the real surprise may be that no one since has written his biography.  Apart from a few scattered short works on his life and an incomplete collection of his unfinished autobiographical efforts, the academic record on Pearson is astonishingly blank.  This study seeks to fill that void and to tell Pearson’s story with the sort of confessional thoroughness and personal insight he desired.  As such, the work describes the many and varied obstacles he faced; examines his relationships with his parents, friends, wives, and daughter; investigates his thoughts on sex, religion, politics, journalism, and poetry; and studies his many artistic accomplishments.  Pearson wrote extensively about all of these issues and maintained a lively and long-lasting correspondence with hundreds of individuals throughout his life.  He saved much of that material, and as part of the effort to make this work as intimate and personal as possible I have quoted him extensively throughout.  The result is a wide-ranging and detailed biographical account, much of it in the first person, describing Pearson’s thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears.  Although these accounts often address private and delicate subject matter, I have taken Pearson at his word and included them in an effort to provide the intimacy he sought for his autobiography.  To provide further depth and context to the study, I have incorporated additional material, including return correspondence from those with whom he was close, assessments of his works and ideas from both contemporary and modern critics, and the scattered efforts of journalists, historians, and literary scholars who have been drawn to his life story.

The result is an intimate biography of a man who lived a life that was both fascinating and instructive.  James Larkin Pearson was a poet, an amateur journalist, an individualist, and a proud Tar Heel who overcame a lifetime of struggle, lived a life worth remembering, and produced art worth preserving.  His was a truly human endeavor, and it is to that endeavor that we now turn.

  1. Byrd, Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, 110; Masterson, “William Byrd in Lubberland,” 154, 155, 163, 166.
  2. Byrd, Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, 92; Ready, The Tar Heel State, 54. The term “Lubberland” comes from an anonymous 1685 poem.
  3. Ready, The Tar Heel State, 217; Taylor, Tar Heels: How North Carolina Got its Name, 3, 10.
  4. Taylor, Tar Heels: How North Carolina Got its Name, 12, 15-16.
  5. Ibid., 17.
  6. www.forbes.com/places/nc. Accessed July 2, 2014.

[7].  Crouch, Historical Sketches of Wilkes County, 2.

  1. Anderson, Wilkes County Sketches: Wilkes County Bicentennial Edition, 7, 9, 111; Van Noppen and Van Noppen, Western North Carolina Since the Civil War; Hayes, The Land of Wilkes, 153.
  2. United States Census, 1880.
  3. Hayes, The Land of Wilkes, 185, 186-87.
  4. Anderson, Wilkes County Sketches: Wilkes County Bicentennial Edition, 7-8; Hayes, The Land of Wilkes, 287-88.
  5. Hayes, The Land of Wilkes, 272-85.

[13]. Mencken, “Sahara of the Bozart,” 157, 158.

  1. Walser, Poets of North Carolina, ix.
  2. Wilkes Record, July 14, 1964.
  3. James Larkin Pearson Collection [Hereafter JLP Collection], Cabinet 12, James Larkin Pearson, “Miscellaneous Remembrances.” The “famous ‘Confessions’” to which he refers are those of St. Augustine. “Poet’s Progress” was the planned name for his autobiography, and is the name of a collection of autobiographical documents put together by the library staff at Wilkes Community College upon his death.

 

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