Byron Herbert Reece
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Byron Herbert Reece (September 14, 1917 – June 3, 1958) was an American author of poetry and novels. During his life, he published four volumes of poetry and two volumes of fiction. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction in 1952.[not verified in body]
Reece wrote the words of his legacy in four lines:
- From chips and shards, in idle times,
- I made these stories, shaped these rhymes;
- May they engage some friendly tongue
- When I am past the reach of song.
Born in Union County, Georgia on September 14, 1917, Reece began publishing poems locally while in high school, receiving his first widespread publication in 1943 with the publication of "Lest the Lonesome Bird" in the Prairie Schooner journal. Ballad of the Bones and Other Poems, collecting Reece's poetry, soon followed, in 1945. Reece was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Bow Down in Jericho, his 1950 follow-up to that first, critically acclaimed publication. That same year, Reece published Better a Dinner of Herbs, his first novel. In 1952, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction. 1952 also saw a third volume of poetry, A Song of Joy, while 1955 brought his second novel, The Hawk and the Sun and his final volume of poetry, The Season of Flesh. On June 3, 1958, Reece committed suicide at the age of forty, responding to illness and depression. During his final years, Reece also taught classes at Young Harris College to earn extra money. He was found in his office, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart playing on the record player and his final set of student papers graded and neatly stacked in the desk drawer.
Byron Herbert Reece, the man
In a career cut short by illness and suicide, Byron Herbert Reece produced an enduring body of poetry and fiction from the sounds and spirits of his North Georgia homeland. His five volumes of verse draw deeply from the lyrical wellsprings of Nature and the Bible, twin legacies of an upbringing in the agricultural uplands of Union County, around Blairsville. His two novels, in turn, are remarkable regional portraits - one a mountain family drama of overland journey to Old Testament rhythms, the other a morality play of a small-town lynching.
Reece was a bright and solitary schoolboy, a graduate of Blairsville High School who grew up in such rural isolation, the story goes, that he never saw a car until he was eight or twelve (depending on the version). He attended Young Harris College and taught school intermittently between 1935 and 1942, producing poem after poem for small journals and newspapers even while his parents’ tuberculoses led him to take increasing responsibility for the family farm. During these years, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart - themselves offspring of the rural Appalachians - early recognized Reece’s talent. He won American Poet magazine’s annual poetry award in 1943, and with Stuart’s sponsorship H.P. Dutton published Reece’s first volume of poetry, Ballad of the Bones, in 1945. By 1952, Reece had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry (for Bow Down in Jericho, 1950), profiled in a national magazine (Newsweek), and tendered a position as poet-in-residence at UCLA.
In the short decade of success Reece saw before illness, financial insecurity, and loss took their ultimate toll on him, he was much honored in his home state. Five times he received the Georgia Writers Association’s literary achievement award, and he served as poet-in-residence at both Young Harris College and Emory University. His books and honors never yielded much in money, however, and Reece’s labors never long allayed the financial worries that attended the harsh circumstances of the farm and family illness. He was teaching part-time at Young Harris to make ends meet, in fact, when depression and illness wore him down and Reece took his own life on June 3, 1958, three months shy of his forty-first birthday.
The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame inducted Reece in 2001, and in 2003 a group of writers formed the Byron Herbert Reece Society. In 2004, the Society began working on constructing a museum to the writer on the site of his family farm, which is owned by Union County, and the museum and grounds are now open to visitors. His life story is at the center of Georgia's state drama, The Reach of Song, which depicts life between World War I and World War II in the Appalachian Mountains.
Georgia’s Appalachian Poet & Novelist
The Byron Herbert Reece Society petitioned the Georgia General Assembly to name Reece “Georgia’s Appalachian Poet/Novelist" and to designate Highway 129 from Blairsville to Neels Gap "The Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Highway.” This was accomplished through the Georgia General Assembly's HR 295 which was passed in 2005.
Books of Poetry by Reece
- Ballad of the Bones, and Other Poems - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1945; Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1985
- Bow Down in Jericho - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1950; Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1985
- A Song of Joy - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1952; Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1985
- The Season of Flesh - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1955; Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1985
Novels by Reece
- Better a Dinner of Herbs - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1950; Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992
- The Hawk and the Sun - New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1955; Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994
Biographies with selected poetry
- Mountain Singer: The Life and the Legacy of Byron Herbert Reece by Raymond C. Cook / Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing Company, 1980
- The Bitter Berry: The Life of Byron Herbert Reece - by Bettie M. Sellers. / Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993
Other Pertinent Works
- Byron Herbert Reece: 1917-1958 and the Southern Poetry Tradition by Alan Jackson / Edwin Mellen Press, 2001
- Fable in the Blood. The Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece Edited by Jim Clark / Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2002
Byron Herbert Reece Society
The purpose of the Byron Herbert Reece Society is to preserve, perpetuate, and promote the literary and cultural legacy of the Georgia mountain poet/novelist, Byron Herbert Reece. In addition to enhancing both knowledge of and appreciation for his writings, efforts will be made to honor his way of life, with particular emphasis on his love of nature and his attachment to farming.
Reece Heritage Farm
Visitors to this southern Appalachian farmstead will find a welcome center with a gift shop and museum; a Poetry Trail Garden that highlights Reece poems representing the four seasons; Mulberry Hall, the poet's writing studio; five barn buildings housing 13 exhibits, which feature home and farm artifacts, implements, and enterprises that portray life in Appalachia during the first half of the 20th century; and the Reece Gallery & Theater, which displays photographs, books, copies of Reece's writings, and other Reece material, along with the award-winning video, "Voices … Finding Byron Herbert Reece."
Brochures guide visitors through the exhibits. An App is being developed. Docent-led tours are available by reservation to large groups, for a fee. A newly constructed pavilion is available for family reunions, weddings, and other events, for a fee. This is a great family experience.
- Byron Herbert Reece, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
- 2007 Georgia Literary Festival Union Sentinel. September 13, 2007. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
- "The Reach of Song" dramatizes the story of Georgia’s mountain history Blue Ridge Digest, 1998. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
- State Historical Drama: "The Reach of Song", Georgia Secretary of State. Retrieved on 2009-02-14.
- "The Bryon Herbert Reece Society". Retrieved 6 December 2013.