Mary N. Murfree Essay - Critical Essays

Murfree, Mary N.


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.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

In the Tennessee Mountains 1884

The Phantoms of the Foot-Bridge and Other Stories 1895

The Mystery of Witch-Face Mountain and Other Stories 1895

The Young Mountaineers 1897

The Bushwhackers and Other Stories 1899

The Frontiersmen 1904

The Raid of the Guerilla and Other Stories 1912

Other Major Works

Where the Battle Was Fought (novel) 1884

Down the Ravine (novel) 1885

The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (novel) 1885

In the Clouds (novel) 1886

The Story of Keedon Bluffs (novel) 1887

The Despot of Brooms edge Cove (novel) 1888

In the "Stranger People's" Country (novel) 1891

His Vanished Star (novel) 1894

The Juggler (novel) 1897

The Story of Old Fort Loudon (novel) 1899

The Champion (novel) 1902

A Spectre of Power (novel) 1904

The Storm Centre (novel) 1905

The Amulet (novel) 1906

The Windfall (novel) 1907

The Fair Mississippian (novel) 1908

The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance of Tennessee (novel) 1912

The Story of Duciehurst: A Tale of the Mississippi (novel) 1914


William Malone Baskervill (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Southern Writers: Biographical and Critical Studies, Vol. I, M. E. Church, 1897, pp. 357-404.

[In the following excerpt, Baskervill surveys Murfree 's work, noting influences on her writng, and commenting on her characterizations, descriptions, use of humor, and literary style in general]

[Murfree perceived the] elemental qualities of our common humanity, but also the sturdy independence, integrity, strength of character, and finer feelings always found in the English race, however disguised by rugged exterior or hindered by harsh environment. Their honesty, their patriotism, their respect for law, their gloomy Calvinistic religion, their hospitality were in spite of the most curious modifications the salient points of a striking individuality and unique character. The mountains seemed to impart to them something of their own dignity, solemnity and silence. . . .

No phase of [their] unique life escaped the keen eye and powerful imagination of the most robust of Southern writers in this most impressible period of her life.

The growth of Craddock's art can not now be traced with certainty, though it is known that she served an apprenticeship of nearly ten years before her stories began to make any stir in the world. The general belief, therefore, that her literary career began with the "Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," which appeared in the Atlantic for May, 1878, is incorrect. She used to contribute to the weekly edition of Appleton s Journal, which ceased publication in that form in 1876, and it is a little remarkable that her contributions were even then signed Charles E. Craddock. Two of her stories were left over, and one of them, published in Appleton s Summer Book, in 1880, "Taking the Blue Ribbon at the Fair," rather indicates that she had not yet discovered wherein her true power lay. Although it is a pleasing little story, it is not specially remarkable for any of the finer qualities of her later writings; and it appears out of place in a collection of stories published in 1895, as if it were a new production. The assumed name which her writings bore was finally determined upon by accident, though the matter had been much discussed in her family. It was adopted for the double purpose of cloaking failure and of securing the advantage which a man is supposed to have over a woman in literature. It veiled one of the best-concealed identities in literary history. More than one person divined George Eliot's secret, and the penetrating Dickens observed that she knew what was in the heart of woman. But neither internal nor external evidence offered any clue to Craddock's personality. The startlingly vigorous and robust style and the intimate knowledge of the mountain folk in their almost inaccessible homes, suggestive of the sturdy climber and bold adventurer, gave no hint of femininity, while certain portions of her writings, both in thought and treatment, were peculiarly masculine. . . .

Miss Murfree's literary success really began with the publication of her collection of short stories, In the Tennessee Mountains, in May, 1884. 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. Only here and there was discernible the slightest trace of imitation in conception or manner, while the atmosphere was entirely her own; and to the rare qualities of sincerity, simplicity, and closeness of observation were added the more striking ones of vivid realization and picturing of scene and incident and character. Her magic wand revealed the poetry as well as the pathos in the hard, narrow, and monotonous life of the mountaineers, and touched crag and stream and wood and mountain range with an enduring splendor. All the admirable qualities of her art are present in this volume. The spontaneous, instinctive power of telling a story for its own sake proclaimed close kinship with Scott, while the exquisite word-painting and beautiful descriptions of mountain scenery, with all the shifting phases of spring and autumn, of sunset, mist, storm, and forest fire, could have been learned only in the school of Ruskin and of nature. In the profound and tragically serious view and contemplation of life she is the child of George Eliot and of the battle-scarred South. But her real power, as is true of every writer that has been either an enriching or an uplifting force in human lives, rests upon a sympathetic understanding of human life. Her insight into the ordinary, commonplace, seemingly unpoetic lives of the mountaineers, her tenderness for them, her perception of the beauty and the wonder of their narrow existence is one of the finest traits in her character and her art. Through this wonderful power of human sympathy the delicately nurtured and highly cultured lady entered into the life of the common folk and heard their heart-throbs underneath jeans and homespun. She realized anew for her fellow men that untutored souls are perplexed with the same questions and shaken by the same doubts that baffle the learned, and that it is inherent in humanity to rise to the heroic heights of self-forgetfulness and devotion to duty in any environment. Indeed, the key-note of her studies is found in the last sentence of this volume: "The grace of culture is, in its way, a fine thing, but the best that art can do—the polish of a gentleman—is hardly equal to the best that nature can do in her higher moods."

Each of these stories embodies a "higher mood" of some uncultivated, simple soul influenced by a noble motive, and the good lesson taught with equal art and modesty stirs the heart with refining pity and admiration. Cynthia Ware's long journeys on foot and heroic exertions are rewarded with the pardon of the unjustly imprisoned man whom she loves, only to find that he has never taken the trouble to ask who secured his release, that his love was but a little thing which he had left in the mountains, and that while she was waiting for him he was married to some one else. Through Craddock's skill we become witnesses of this heart tragedy and enter into the inner experience of a human soul which through suffering learns to adjust itself anew, "ceases to question and regret, and bravely does the work nearest her hand. . . ." Again it is the weak and slender Celia Shaw who painfully toils at night through the bleak, snow-covered woods to save the lives of the men whom her father and his friends had determined to...

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The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1899)

SOURCE: "Miss Murfree's New Book," in The New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1899, p. 499.

[The anonymous critic, evaluating The Bushwhackers and Other Stories, finds the volume stylistically weaker and less interesting oveall than Murfree's previous work.]

Charles Egbert Craddock is the pen name of a lady who writes many interesting stories, and it is only fair to say that most of them are more interesting than those which go to make up [The Bushwhackers and Other Stories]. Nevertheless these are a fairly good lot, as the auctioneers would put it. The title of the volume is taken from a story in which it must be said that the "Bushwhackers" do not play...

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E. F. Harkins and C. H. L. Johnston (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Little Pilgrimages among the Women Who Have Written Famous Books, L. C. Page & Company, 1902, pp. 75-90.

[In the following excerpt, the critics recount Murfree's association with the Atlantic Monthly magazine.]

It was in May, 1878, during the administration of Mr. Howells, that the readers of the Atlantic were treated to a most delightful, a most refreshing surprise, a story of the Tennessee Mountains, called "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," by a new author, Charles Egbert Craddock.

The quaint and unprecedented strain was noticeable in the first colloquial sentence:


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The New York Times Book Review (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: "With the Pioneers," in The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1904, p. 359.

[In the following essay, the reviewer provides a favorable evaluation of The Frontiersmen.]

With a large class of novel readers there is always a keen sympathy with the men and women who blazed the trail on the frontier; those who defended their homesteads and stockades against fierce American Indians. . . . These readers prefer reminiscences of homely and adventurous life to the conventional society novel. Among such, Charles Egbert Craddock has made the pioneers in the frontier region that is now Tennessee a field peculiarly her own. Her newest book [The Frontiersmen] deals...

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G. H. Baskette (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree," in Library of Southern Literature, Vol. VIII, Madison-Murfree, edited by Edwin Anderson Alderman and Joel Chandler Harris, The Martin and Hoyt Company, 1907, pp. 3721-745.

[In the following excerpt, Baskette judges Murfree's mountain stories fresh and unique, and believes they constitute her strongest claim to a lasting place in Southern literature.]

In general, it may be said that Miss Murfree's writings are marked by an originality of style and method that places her among the creative authors of America as distinguished from many other writers of fiction who have attained reputation and popularity. This is especially true in...

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Harry Aubrey Toulmin, Jr. (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "Charles Egbert Craddock," in Social Historians, The Gorham Press, 1911, pp. 59-97.

[In the following excerpt, Toulmin assesses Murfree's role as social historian. ]

Nowhere have more notable expositions been presented of the character and scenes in any particular locality, than those in the volumes of Charles Egbert Craddock dealing with the Tennessee Mountain folk. The inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains entered their forest homes with ideas and equipment modern a century ago. To-day, they maintain virtually the same aspect and the identical implements of their forefathers barely modified by the marvels of outside invention. It is scant wonder that the...

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Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: "The Era of Southern Themes and Writers," in A History of American Literature since 1870, 1915. Reprint by Cooper Square Publishers, 1968, pp. 294-321.

[Pattee was a widely respected educator, editor, and critic. He is considered one of the most influential figures in the decline of English literary colonialism and the subsequent declaration of American literary independence in the early years of the twentieth century. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1915, he offers a stylistic analysis of Murfree's work. ]

Criticism of the Craddock novels must begin always with the statement that their author was not a native of the region with which she...

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The Outlook (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: "The Romance of the Tennessee Mountains," in The Outlook, Vol. 131, No. 16, August 16, 1922, p. 626.

[In the following essay, the critic outlines Murfree's career. ]

A generation ago, when Mary N. Murfree wrote her romance of Tennessee, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, the emphasis in American short-story writing was being placed on local color. Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett gave us the local color of New England; George Cable, that of Louisiana; and so over almost every section of the country. But the Southern mountains and the life and character of their people were then practically an unknown subject in fiction. It was before the time...

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Fred Lewis Pattee (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "The Reign of Dialect," in The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923, pp. 268-90.

[In the following excerpt, Pattee discusses Murfree's place in what he calls "the reign of dialect" during the 1880s and her influence on the subsequent generation of writers. ]

The final avalanche of [writing in] dialect which came with the 'eighties was precipitated by a curious bit of uncontracted-for advertising. In 1878 a story had come in to The Atlantic from the Southwest over the unheardof name of "Charles Egbert Craddock." There was dialect in the very title, "The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove," and...

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Van Wyck Brooks (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: 'The South: Miss Murfree and Cable," in The Times of Melville and Whitman, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1947, pp. 378-94.

[Brooks was an American poet. In the following excerpt, he praises Murfree's writing for its realistic rendering of a previously "unknown human sphere, " but finds the use of dialect nearly "unreadable. "]

In [Mary Murfree's] many stories, long and short, the same characters reappeared that one met in her first book, In the Tennessee Mountains, but this and The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains revealed an unknown human sphere in a way that was singularly real, impressive and poetic. One of the recurring themes was that of...

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William B. Dillingham (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: An introduction to When Old Baldy Spoke, by Charles Egbert Craddock, in The Emory University Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1962, pp. 93-106.

[In the following excerpt, Dillingham links Murfree's short fiction with both the genteel tradition and the school of realism. ]

In 1885, the year when William Dean Howells published The Rise of Silas Lapham and the Statue of Liberty was being assembled on Bedloe's Island, a young woman walked calmly into the offices of the Atlantic Monthly and informed the editor, Thomas Baily Aldrich, that SHE was the Mr. Charles Egbert Craddock who had been writing stories for his magazine. Neither Silas...

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Richard Cary (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Mystique of the Mountains," in Mary N. Murfree, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967, pp. 45-78.

[In the excerpt below, Cary discusses the significance of the mountain milieu in Murfree's short fiction.]

The overwhelming central fact of life in Miss Murfree's tales of Tennessee are the mountains. Their presence is felt within the first page of all but one of these eight stories [in In the Tennessee Mountains], . . .

The effect of the mountains is unquestionably pervasive, for Miss Murfree has marvelous evocative powers. Yet, even in this collection, the press of too many recurrences and too many adjectives becomes onerous. She fails...

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Harry R. Warfel (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Local Color and Literary Artistry: Mary Noailles Murfree's In the Tennessee Mountains," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 154-63.

[Warfel was an American educator, editor, and critic with a special interest in tracing the development of American intellectual and literary life. In the following essay, he explores Murfree's role as a local colorisi and praises the organization of her stories. ]

It is good to have a new reprinting of In the Tennessee Mountains, originally published in 1884. Not only do the eight stories demonstrate the geographical and human substance of local-color fiction, which Professor Nathalia...

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Richard Cary (essay date 1971-72)

SOURCE: A review of In the Tennessee Mountains, in The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter, 1971-72, pp. 94-7.

[In the essay below, Cary offers a favorable assessment of In the Tennessee Mountains.]

As a purveyor of attractive fictions, Mary Murfree's heart was indubitably in the highlands. Of the eighteen novels and seven volumes of collected short stories she published in almost half a century of unrelenting "literary" effort, ten and six, respectively, dealt specifically with the folk and folkways of the Tennessee mountains. On the wave of local-color writing engendered by the expansion of national self-consciousness following the Civil War, she...

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Mary Nilles (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Craddock's Girls: A Look at Some Unliberated Women," in The Markham Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, October, 1972, pp. 74-7.

[In the essay below, Nilles examines Murfree's stereotypical heroines. ]

". . . gals air cur'ous critters, ye know yerself; thar's no sort o' countin' on 'em . . ."

—"Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove"

Even a cursory look at the heroines in the fiction of Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary Noailles Murfree, 1850-1922) reveals that they were the antithesis of "modern" or "liberated" women. These female characters were often shallow and shadowy repetitions of each other,...

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Reese M. Carleton (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922): An Annotated Bibliography," in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 293-378.

[In the following excerpt, Carleton evaluates Murfree's place in American literature and discusses her ultimate inability to fulfill the promise of her early short fiction. ]

Mary Noailles Murfree submitted her first short story for publication in 1878, and during the next twenty years, under the pseudonym "Charles Egbert Craddock," she produced many stories and novels dealing with the mountaineers of Tennessee. In the 1880s and early 1890s, when a regional focus was popular in American literature, Murfree achieved...

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Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Visitants from Yesterday': An Atypical, Previously Unpublished Story from the Pen of 'Charles Egbert Craddock'," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. 26, 1981, pp. 89-100.

[Fisher is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Murfree's "The Visitants from Yesterday."]

The name "Charles Egbert Craddock," Mary Noailles Murfree's familiar pseudonym, inevitably suggests the Tennessee mountains and mountaineers. Indeed she may be called the laureate of the Great Smokies. Less commonly known are her writings that delineate Mississippi and, in fewer cases, other environs; and, perhaps more...

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Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Mary Noailles Murfree's 'Special' Sense of Humor," in Studies in American Humor, n.s., Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1985, pp. 30-8.

[In the excerpt below, Fisher surveys the comic elements in Murfree's short fiction. ]

Placing Mary Murfree as a humorist is analogous to the similar positioning of one of her American literary precedessors, Edgar Allan Poe. His comedy was readily noted by contemporaries; then, for better than a century, it was largely ignored or lamented as an excrescence. Mid-twentieth-century critics, like Clark Griffith and Richard P. Benton, however, initiated revaluations that have spurred wide recognition and admiration for Poe's...

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Further Reading


Cary, Richard. Mary N. Murfree. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1967, 192 p.

Comprehensive biography.

Parks, Edd Winfield. Charles Egbert Craddock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1941, 258 p.

Biographical and critical work on Murfree.


Carleton, Reese M. "Mary Noailles Murfree: An Annotated Bibliography." American Literary Realism 1870-1910, 7, No. 4 (Autumn 1974): 293-378.

Annotated bibliography with short critical introduction.


Becker, May Lamberton....

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