Mary Noailles Murfree Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mary Noailles Murfree 1850-1922

(Wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Egbert Craddock and R. Emmet Dembry) American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Murfree's works from 1899 through 1998.

Murfree reached the peak of her popularity in the 1880s, when her regional stories chronicling life in Tennessee and other Southern states found a ready audience. Although her local color and historical fiction lost popularity in the ensuing decades, she remains a unique voice of the mountain people in the period following the Civil War.

Biographical Information

Murfree was born on January 24, 1850, at Grantland, a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee—a city which bore her family's name. After Murfree's family moved to Nashville, she was educated at the Nashville Female Academy, and later at Chegary Institute in Philadelphia. Encouraged by her parents, Murfree began to write, publishing her first piece at the age of twenty-four in Lippincott's Magazine, under the pseudonym R. Emmet Dembry. In the 1870s and 1880s she produced many stories under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock in such periodicals as the Atlantic, Harper's, and Youth's Companion. The Murfree family moved to St. Louis in 1881, where Mary's brother William had a law practice. In 1885, after the publication of her collection of stories, In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), her true literary identity was revealed. She continued to publish prolifically after she moved back to Murfreesboro in 1902 with her sister Fanny. There they remained for the rest of their lives. Murfree became state regent of the Tennessee Daughters of the American Revolution, beginning extensive touring and lecturing for that organization in 1912. In the years following, her health declined, eventually causing blindness and confining her to home. Shortly before her death on July 31, 1922, she was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of the South.

Major Works

Although much of Murfree's work was formulaic and driven by the serial magazine market, she did bring to light parts of American geography and character which had received little attention prior to her time. About half of Murfree's novels and short stories focus on the mountain people of Tennessee. Her very successful book, In the Tennessee Mountains, is composed of eight stories which are considered her best work. Some other works in this vein include Where the Battle Was Fought (1884), set in Civil War Tennessee; The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (1885); In the Clouds (1886); In the “Stranger People's” Country (1891); and The Ordeal: A Mountain Romance of Tennessee (1912). Murfree, however, was veering away from local color writing by the mid-1890s and beginning to experiment with historical romance. The Story of Old Fort Loudon (1899) describes the interaction of Cherokee Indians, the British, and the French in mid-eighteenth-century Tennessee. Two more historical novels, A Spectre of Power (1904) and The Amulet (1906), followed. Murfree continued to publish short stories and in 1905 wrote another Civil War novel, The Storm Centre. Her last two published novels, The Fair Mississippian (1908) and The Story of Duciehurst (1914) were set in the Mississippi Delta. By this time in her career, however, her work was fast losing popularity. A final novel, The Erskine Honeymoon, was serialized in a newspaper in 1931.

Critical Reception

Murfree's first successes were in the magazine market, followed closely by the publication of In the Tennessee Mountains, the book on which her reputation primarily rests today. The public was hungry for local color writing, and critics as respected as William Dean Howells praised Murfree's powers of description and her understanding of her mountain characters, comparing her favorably with such writers as Bret Harte and George Washington Cable. A number of regional critics, almost to the present day, have stressed Murfree's importance to the Tennessee tradition. As Murfree's reputation waned, however, reviewers began to criticize her sentimentality, wooden characterization, and awkward juxtapositions of long descriptions with plot development. Many also felt that as a middle-class southern woman, she was too far removed from the people she sought to portray. Only two full-length biographies of Murfree have appeared, the latter one more than thirty years ago. A few critics in the 1980s and 1990s, however, have begun to re-evaluate Murfree's work as a product of its times and as a valuable resource for regional studies or women's literary studies.