Mary Noailles Murfree Essay - Critical Essays

Murfree, Mary Noailles


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.

Principal Works

In the Tennessee Mountains (short stories) 1884

Where the Battle Was Fought (novel) 1884

Down the Ravine (juvenilia) 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 Broomsedge Cove (novel) 1888

In the “Stranger People's” Country (novel) 1891

His Vanished Star (novel) 1894

The Mystery of Witch-Face Mountain, and Other Stories (short stories) 1895

The Phantoms of the Foot-Bridge, and Other Stories (short stories) 1895

The Juggler (juvenilia) 1897

The Young Mountaineers (juvenilia) 1897

The Bushwhackers, and Other Stories (short stories) 1899

The Story of Old Fort Loudon (novel) 1899

The Champion (juvenilia) 1902

The Frontiersman (short stories) 1904

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 Raid of the Guerrilla, and Other Stories (short stories) 1912

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

The Erskine Honeymoon (novel) 1931


New York Times Book Review (review date 29 July 1899)

SOURCE: “Miss Murfree's New Book.” New York Times Book Review (29 July 1899): 499.

[In the following review of Murfree's The Bushwhackers, and Other Stories, the critic says that a less-known author might not have been able to publish such ordinary stories.]


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 present volume. Nevertheless these are a fairly good lot, as the auctioneers would put it. The title of the volume [The Bushwhackers, and Other Stories] is taken from a story in which it must be said that the “Bushwhackers” do not play a very conspicuous part. Perhaps the author has been going to the theatre and has learned that the name of a play is not always indissolubly associated with the subject matter. This acceptance of a side issue as a suggestion for a title is, however, more frequently met with in the profession which always has the billboard in mind than in that which has only the newspaper advertisement to consider.

“The Bushwhackers” is a dialect story. The author having made a reputation as a writer of tales of the Tennessee mountains, must perforce remain forever among those who say “we-uns” and “you-uns.” The hero of this little tale talks in a manner which will delight all those who find no comfort in plain English. He would probably prove to be a highly uninteresting youth in real life, but in this tale he is a character study, and therefore he is to be accepted as something out of the ordinary. He is full...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Richard Cary (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Cary, Richard. “Mystique of the Mountains.” In Mary N. Murfree, pp. 45-78. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.

[In the following essay, Cary examines Murfree's mountain fiction in detail.]

The first story to be printed under the name of Charles Egbert Craddock, “The Dancin' Party at Harrison's Cove,” was originally intended as the opening chapter of a novel that Miss Murfree and her sister had planned to write. After the customary family reading, it was decided that this segment had a unity of its own and should be sent to the Atlantic Monthly as it stood. Howells published the story in May, 1878, and in the next six years Miss Murfree sold seven...

(The entire section is 14202 words.)

Harry R. Warfel (essay date fall 1970)

SOURCE: Warfel, Harry R. “Local Color and Literary Artistry in Mary Noailles Murfree's In the Tennessee Mountains.Southern Literary Journal 3 (fall 1970): 154-63.

[In the following essay, Warfel says that Murfree is less a typical local color writer than a skillful manipulator of literary materials in the romantic mode.]

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 Wright analyzes in detail in her Introduction, but they also make clear the fact that Mary Noailles Murfree...

(The entire section is 3144 words.)

Dennis Loyd (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Loyd, Dennis. “Tennessee's Mystery Woman Novelist.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 29 (1970): 272-77.

[In the following essay, Loyd briefly describes Murfree's life and works, urging Tennesseans to rediscover her.]

Tennessee's list of literary personalities is a long one, but no name on that list has created quite the stir as that of Mary Noailles Murfree. Miss Murfree, or “Miss Mary” as she was known in her native Murfreesboro, was characterized by her quiet, graceful manners, her love of music, and her witty conversation. But none of her townspeople knew that she was also a writer.

The mystery arose when Miss Murfree submitted a...

(The entire section is 2379 words.)

Doris Lanier (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Lanier, Doris. “Mary Noailles Murfree: An Interview.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 31 (1972): 276-78.

[In the following essay, Lanier presents an edited version of an 1885 newspaper interview with Murfree.]

While working on her novel The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains,1 Mary Noailles Murfree spent about two months at Montvale Springs, a mountain resort in Blount County, in East Tennessee, studying the mountaineers of the surrounding area.2 On November 15, 1885, an article appeared in a Macon, Georgia, newspaper, which concerned an interview with Joseph A. Farrell,3 who spent three weeks at Montvale while Miss...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Allison Ensor (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Ensor, Allison. “The Geography of Mary Noailles Murfree's In the Tennessee Mountains.Mississippi Quarterly 31 (1978): 191-99.

[In the following essay, Ensor offers a detailed analysis of the actual geographical areas portrayed in Murfree's book of short stories, concluding that Murfree's descriptions were often vague and general because she had not really travelled much in Tennessee.]

Mary Noailles Murfree, who won such fame in the 1880's with her Tennessee mountain stories written under the name Charles Egbert Craddock, was hesitant about using actual place names in her fiction. In 1881 she wrote Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of the Atlantic...

(The entire section is 3417 words.)

Durwood Dunn (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Dunn, Durwood. “Mary Noailles Murfree: A Reappraisal.” Appalachian Journal 6 (1979): 197-205.

[In the following essay, Dunn reevaluates Murfree in light of previous criticism and concludes that Murfree's stereotypical portrayals of Tennessee life obscured a true understanding of the mountain people.]

Even at the height of her brief popularity in the 1880's, Mary Noailles Murfree's literary reputation rested largely on the momentary uniqueness or novelty of her materials—the mountains and mountaineers of the Cumberland Mountains in middle Tennessee and their counterparts in the more rugged Great Smoky Mountains in east Tennessee. Murfree herself realized...

(The entire section is 3844 words.)

Thomas Daniel Young (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Young, Thomas Daniel. “The South: Old and New.” In Tennessee Writers, pp. 11-16. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Young places Murfree in the literary context of her times.]

At the end of the Civil War there was intense concern for and interest in things southern. In 1873, Edward King, on assignment for Scribner's Monthly, toured the South with a photographer and gathered material for a series of articles and sketches published serially in Scribner's as The Great South. In New Orleans, King became acquainted with the work of George Washington Cable and sent two of his stories back to New York; one...

(The entire section is 1713 words.)

Ian Marshall (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Marshall, Ian. “Mary Noailles Murfree: Ecofeminist of the Great Smoky Mountains.” In Story Line: Exploring the Literature of the Appalachian Trail, pp. 51-69. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

[In the following essay, Marshall posits the theory that Murfree was an “ecofeminist”—a writer whose women characters had a special relationship with nature and whose male characters were often anti-nature.]

At Mollies Ridge Shelter just a few miles into the Great Smoky Mountains. I'm talking with a young man recently graduated from the University of North Carolina, who's hiking with his father. They've been out for about three weeks, heading...

(The entire section is 8842 words.)

Further Reading


Carleton, Reese M. “Mary Noailles Murfree: An Annotated Bibliography.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 7 (autumn 1974): 293-378.

Primarily a complete listing of secondary sources on Murfree from 1881 to 1973.

Eppard, Philip B. “Local Colorists: Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, and Mary N. Murfree.” In American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays, pp. 21-46. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

A narrative review of biographical information and relevant bibliographies and criticism on Murfree.

Gehrman, Jennifer A. “Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles...

(The entire section is 338 words.)