Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

George Scarbrough (1915-2008)

By the time George Addison Scarbrough received his high school diploma in 1935, near age twenty, his family had moved more than a dozen times. His father, William Oscar Scarbrough, was an itinerant sharecropper forced on a regular basis to load his large clan in a wagon and find farm work on land always owned by someone else. This meager existence demanded great sacrifice from his wife, Louise Anabel McDowell Scarbrough, and their seven children: Lee, Edith, George, Charles (Pete), Bill, Blaine, and Kenneth (Kim). They lived in hand-me-down housing that Scarbrough describes in his unpublished journals as “more shacks than homes, more slatted cribs than shacks,” in which there was little or no privacy and certainly not places one could call home.

While these meanderings must have seemed constant for the family, they really covered very little ground. Scarbrough was born October 20, 1915, on the Harrison Place, a farm near Patty Station, six miles from the Polk County seat of Benton, Tennessee. The lower end of the Appalachian Mountain range, a permanent fixture that proved constant in the writer’s life and work, is visible in the distance. The rivers that would one day be so influential in Scarbrough’s poetry—the Hiwassee and Ocoee—are also nearby. This region of his early life, limited in scope to the counties of Polk and McMinn, would eventually become the land he tilled, not only as the son of a sharecropper but also as a poet.

Interest in the written word came at a very early age for Scarbrough, as did his ability to understand language. The cracks in the walls of his many homes were insulated with old newspapers. From these World War I-era headlines Scarbrough’s mother taught him to recognize letters and to read before he ever entered grammar school. Knowledge proved to be, however, a two-edged sword, severing him from his peers, and alienating him from much of his family, who never understood the little boy who would rather spend his spare time reading books and writing.

Writing his own poetry made Scarbrough even more interested in reading, and he consumed everything available to him. Of course, the Bible was required reading: he did not, however, read it for religious instruction but for the beauty of words, and he recognized for the first time poetry that did not rhyme. Scarbrough became responsible for his own education; the natural world was a great source of fascination during his early years and provided a cosmology for the mature poet.

Because of constant moves from one farm to another, and because schools closed down regularly whenever childhood diseases made their rounds through the community, Scarbrough finally finished high school later than most students and began talking of college. It was a subject that his father found repulsive. Nevertheless, the father’s attitude about higher learning did not deter Scarbrough from pursuing more education. After graduation from high school, Scarbrough borrowed money—ten dollars each from twelve local men—and went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in the fall of 1935. After only a year at UT, Scarbrough was forced by financial difficulties to leave the university and begin farming again.

With the assistance of several influential people who recognized the young man’s talent, Scarbrough secured the first ever literary fellowship to the University of the South, an experience that was both positive and negative for the young writer. Out of place among the more aristocratic students, Scarbrough was labeled a “covite,” one who came from the coves of Tennessee. Coupled with the ridicule was deep guilt; for the first time, Scarbrough was living in what seemed, at first, ideal conditions: books at his fingertips, learned professors, and no want of necessities such as food. Adding to this unease was the knowledge that Scarbrough’s accident-prone father was recuperating from a broken back that he suffered after falling out of the barn, and that his inability to work put an even greater strain on the family’s survival.

During his two years at the University of the South, the Sewanee Review published a selection of Scarbrough’s poetry. In a section titled “Tennessee Tomes,” editor William S. Knickerbocker chose an unusually large number of his poems—fifteen—as a feature in one of the 1941 issues.

Although Scarbrough had opportunity to learn from outstanding teachers such as Tudor Long and George Baker, and to work for a year as an office boy and proof-reader in the Sewanee Review office under Andrew Lytle, his departure from the school was not pleasant. After speaking bluntly with a professor, Scarbrough learned he would lose the fellowship and be forced to work in the cafeteria to cover the cost of tuition. He refused and returned home.

In 1947, Scarbrough earned his B.A. degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Seven years later, he earned the M.A. from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, with a creative thesis. He began pursuing a Ph.D. at UT, but never finished, the catalyst of a lifelong regret.

Scarbrough left the confusing years of his formal training with an even greater desire to write. That desire led him to the Writers’ Workshop at the State University of Iowa in 1957. Still trying to find quality in the educational system, Scarbrough was again disappointed and simply completed the program without any real investment. Disgusted, for the most part, with the time wasted trying to learn at centers of higher education, Scarbrough began an intensive personal effort to become a better writer. By the time he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Scarbrough was already an established poet with three books to his credit: Tellico Blue in 1949, The Course is Upward in 1951, and, in 1956, Summer So-Called, which was mentioned in the 1957 Encyclopaedia Brittanica Book of the Year; the notation by Harrison Hayford was the first in which Scarbrough was included with well-known poets of his day, including John Ashberry, Donald Hall, and Adrienne Rich.

When not attending a university on a regular basis, Scarbrough was still in the classroom as a teacher. His first job was in 1937; he earned $55 per month at an area high school. Scarbrough felt most comfortable in the college setting. He taught at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, from 1965 to 1967, and at Chattanooga College during the 1968 academic year. By the end of his career, eighteen years in all, Scarbrough’s mother had become ill and needed his attention. He gave up teaching to be with his mother, and became a constant companion and nurse for the final fifteen years of her life.

A trio of books in less than a decade by a nationally-known publisher, E.P. Dutton, was quite an accomplishment, but it was twenty-one years before Scarbrough’s fourth book, New and Selected Poems, was published. That long break between volumes was not idle time. Scarbrough published widely in literary magazines and wrote reviews which reveal the essayist exploring his own ideas about poetry by examining the work of others.

Not only was Scarbrough’s poetry becoming more diverse in relation to subject matter and ideas, the next book also marked a change in style. While the first three books were somewhat dependent on established, traditional forms, the new poems in New and Selected are predominantly free verse. The recurrent attention to place and family is present, but the poems in his fourth collection are more deeply personal.

Following publication of New and Selected, Scarbrough’s next venture was the release of his only novel, A Summer Ago. His final volume of poetry was 1989’s Invitation to Kim, which garnered Scarbrough a nomination for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, a flirt with national recognition that left the poet with mixed emotions. After the announcement that he had not won (in fact, he was not a finalist), Scarbrough again felt that familiar rejection that long plagued his self-prescribed tentative position in the world of letters. Despite feeling overlooked, the Pulitzer nomination actually capped a career marked by recognition: two Carnegie Fund Grants, in 1956 and 1975; the 1961 Borestone Mountain Award; the Mary Rugeley Ferguson Poetry Award from the Sewanee Review in 1964; a P.E.N. American Branch Grant in 1975; an Authors’ League Fund Grant in 1976; the Sheena Albanese Memorial Prize by Spirit magazine, and the Governor’s Outstanding Tennessean Award in Literature, both in 1978.

Even in his young adulthood and middle-age years, Scarbrough did not venture far from the Eastanalle corner of Tennessee. After his father’s death, he and his mother resided for a short time in nearby Anderson County, and they eventually settled, in 1963, on Darwin Lane in Oak Ridge, where he resided until his death.

Scarbrough’s final years were marked by a renewed scholarly interest in his work and important recognition. The accolades came in various forms, including regular appearances of his work in top journals, such as Poetry, The Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly. The annual Literary Festival, held on campus at Emory and Henry College, Emory, Virginia, October 21-22, 1999, was in his honor, and the resulting Spring 2000 Iron Mountain Review was dedicated to Scarbrough’s work. Asheville Poetry Review editor Keith Flynn chose Scarbrough for inclusion in the special millennial Spring/Summer 2000 issue, which focused on “Ten Great Neglected Poets of the Twentieth Century.” The section devoted to Scarbrough contained a sampling of his work, an interview, and selected criticism. Of the ten poets chosen for this honor, Scarbrough was the only one still alive. In April of 2001, Scarbrough was recognized by The Fellowship of Southern Writers at the biennial Arts and Education Council Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga and received the prestigious James Still Award for Writing of the Appalachian South, earned previously by Charles Frazier in 1999 and originally by James Still in 1997. Also in 2001, Scarbrough received the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine for three poems in the July, 2000 issue. More recent honors included the Knoxville Writers’ Guild Career Achievement Award in 2003, and Scarbrough’s induction into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame in October 2008, less than two months before his death.

But perhaps two recognitions later in life meant most to Scarbrough. Poetry magazine assembled The Poetry Anthology: 1912-2002, and chose one of Scarbrough’s poems for inclusion in the book designed to celebrate the best selections appearing in the ninety years of the magazine’s existence. “Han Shan Fashions a Myth” shares pages with the work of the greatest poetic names of the Twentieth Century, including T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, and Wallace Stevens. In an interview with the Oak Ridger newspaper, Scarbrough said, “I am where I always wanted to be—considered among the major American poets.” And that doctorate that eluded Scarbrough in his youth was finally realized; Lincoln Memorial University—the school where the poet earned his undergraduate degree—conferred upon Scarbrough in 2005 an honorary Doctor of Letters.

Following more than eight decades of a literary career marked by five books of poetry and a novel, Scarbrough left behind a future legacy. Two more collections of poetry, tentatively titled Under the Lemon Tree—his deeply personal and profound poems told with the help of alter-ego Han Shan—and On a Blue Theme, await posthumous publication.

Selected Bibliography

Tellico Blue (poetry), 1949
The Course is Upward (poetry), 1951
Summer So-Called (poetry), 1956
New & Selected Poems, 1977
A Summer Ago (novel), 1986
Invitation to Kim (poetry), 1989

Selected Links

George Scarbrough’s portfolio at Iris Press:

Bio and Poems by Scarbrough at The Poetry Foundation:

“George Scarbrough: Death of an Obscure Giant” by Robert Cumming:

The Middlesboro Daily News’s article on Scarbrough’s honorary doctorate at LMU:…

Scarbrough’s poetry in Harper’s magazine: