Mary N. Murfree Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

Murfree, Mary N. 1850-1922

(Full name Mary Noailles Murfree; wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Egbert Craddock and R. Emmet Dembry) American short story writer and novelist.

Murfree was one of America's foremost "local color" writers of the nineteenth century. Although she wrote about many themes, including the Civil War, Southern society, and colonial history, her reputation rests primarily on her unique stories of life in the mountains of Tennessee. In such works as the acclaimed collection of stories In the Tennessee Mountains and the novel The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, Murfree used elaborately detailed descriptions and distinctive dialect in the speech of her characters to vividly evoke the singularity of her remote settings and their inhabitants. In her day Murfree was hailed as a highly original writer who brought to life a little known but characteristically American milieu.

Biographical Information

Murfree was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, into the prominent family after which the town was named. Both her father, lawyer William Law Murfree, and her mother, Fanny Priscilla Dickinson Murfree, were devoted patrons of the arts, and Murfree grew up in a cultured atmosphere that nurtured her literary interests. Throughout her childhood Murfree and her family spent the summer months at a resort in the Cumberland Mountains; there she encountered the rural life that would figure prominently in her later writings. In 1857 Murfree's family moved to Nashville, where Murfree attended the Nashville Female Academy. At seventeen she was admitted to the Chegary Institute in Philadelphia, a finishing school for girls. During her two-year attendance there she developed a passion for music and began to write poetry. She returned to Nashville in 1869, and three years later moved back into the family home in Murfreesboro which had been rebuilt after being destroyed during the Civil War. Murfree began writing in earnest in 1872 and published her first story two years later in Lippincott's magazine. Her first volume of stories, In the Tennessee Mountains, was published in 1884. Between that year and 1914, Murfree produced twenty-five books: eighteen novels and seven story collections. In 1922, the year in which she received an honorary degree from the University of the South, Murfree fell ill and was confined to a wheelchair. She died in July of that year.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In the Tennessee Mountains is widely regarded as Murfree's finest volume of short stories. Featuring eight stories, including "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove" and "The 'Harnt' That Walks Chilhowee," this collection was her greatest popular and critical success. Her first book, In the Tennessee Mountains established the themes, character types, moods, settings, and style that Murfree would employ in many of her novels and later stories. The pieces in the collection typically present a portrait of mountain life, providing closely observed descriptions of the circumscribed lives of the rustic men and women who inhabit the remote hill country of Tennessee. Confined to a narrow sphere of experience, Murfree's characters are governed principally by their relations to the natural world and the traditional modes of behavior they have inherited. As a result of their circumscribed situations, Murfree's figures are often simple stereotypes rather than fully realized individuals; nevertheless the author does infuse some of them with a certain dignity. This quality is evident, for instance, in Murfree's crediting the "sympathetic heart of the multitude, so quick to respond to a noble impulse" for Rufus Chadd's electoral victory in "Electioneerin' on Big Injun Mounting." Also characteristic of the short stories in In the Tennessee Mountains is Murfree's intense focus on describing the mountain scenery. Her elaborate, often poetic descriptions of the mountains; the sun, moon, and stars; and other natural phenomena in effect render nature one of the major characters in the stories. Moreover, Murfree often used nature imagery and juxtapositions with natural elements as devices to characterize her human figures. As William Malone Baskervill has pointed out, "the scenery of the mountains is essential to the comprehension of the gloom of the religion, the sternness of life, the uncouthness of the dialect, and the harshness of the characters presented in her stories."

Critical Reception

In the Tennessee Mountains was the basis for Murfree's reputation as an important local colorisi. Baskervill has stated that when the book was released, "it was at once recognized that another Southern writer of uncommon art, originality, and power had entered into a field altogether new and perfectly fresh." Many reviewers admired the apparent authenticity of Murfree's sympathetic depictions of the ordinary lives of mountaineers with their exotic yet uniquely American dialect and traditions. However, as Murfree repeatedly returned in her novels and short stories to the limited world she had created, reviewers became disaffected and her popularity declined. Today her works are regarded as of historical interest only, important merely as a part of the local color movement at its height.