James William Applewhite was born August 8, 1935, in Stantonsburg, North Carolina, a small rural town that, along with his family, has played an important role in the images and voices of his poetry. His grandfather was a farmer; his father owned a gasoline station. Applewhite has frequently recorded the voices of the rural South from the men who worked for his father or who bought gasoline there and in the women like his mother, voices that shaped his understanding of the world. Growing up in a world at war also shaped the poet’s consciousness, as did the constant sense of the American Civil War, a painful event that seemed to the child to have occurred in the recent past.
Applewhite attended Duke University, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1958, a master of arts in 1960, and a doctorate in 1969, eventually making his career at Duke, teaching English until 2008. It was during graduate study, especially during study of the Romantic poets, Applewhite said, that he discovered the power of poetry to address his sense of alienation.