Though many do not know much about Mary Noailles Murfree, several scholars find it hard to discuss Southern literature without her; she is in fact labeled “Tennessee’s foremost woman writer of fiction” on a historical landmark in Murfreesboro. She is one of the top local color fiction writers of the Smokey Mountain region, and though her works have mixed reviews and her reputation is somewhat low, she still holds a place in the state’s literary history.
Murfree’s family name is one easily recognized by many Tennesseans; her great-grandfather Colonel Hardy Murfree is the one for whom Murfreesboro was named. Both her father and mother encouraged intellectual growth in their daughter, and after a fever left her partially paralyzed when she was four, she found that she enjoyed staying home and reading—more than she did playing with other children. Though born in Murfreesboro, the family moved to Nashville when Murfree was seven, and she began attending the Nashville Female Academy. The family owned a resort in Beersheba (near McMinnville), and every summer for about fifteen years they went there to relax and soak in the hot mineral springs. In 1867, Murfree enrolled in the Chegary Insitute, a women’s “finishing school” in Philadelphia, where she realized her love for poetry and music.
Soon the family settled in St. Louis, and Murfree began writing. Her satirical essays “Flirts and Their Ways” and “My Daughter’s Admirers” were published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1874. She was afraid that being a woman would interfere with her literary success, so she made these essays under the male pseudonym R. Emmett Dembry. Her first two stories were accepted by Appleton’s Weekly in 1876, but the magazine cancelled publication entirely before the stories appeared. Then in 1878, the Atlantic Monthly published her story, “The Dancin’ Party at Harrison’s Cove,” which was under the pen name that stuck: Charles Egbert Craddock. Murfree’s first book, a collection of stories called In the Tennessee Mountains, was published in 1884, and later that year, she published her first novels, Where the Battle Was Fought and The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains. All of these works were under the name of Craddock.
However, Murfree’s secret was soon revealed. She was asked to meet with her publishers in Boston, who only knew her as M. N. Murfree. In 1885, her sister, father, and she surprised the editor of Atlantic Monthly when he saw that Mr. Craddock was actually a Miss Murfree. As her work began to grow, so did her reputation. It’s even said that there was a time when President Theodore Roosevelt visited Murfreesboro and shouted from a train platform, “Where’s Craddock? She’s the person I want to see!”
The time was right for Murfree’s writing; America’s horizons were expanding, and people were curious about unfamiliar areas—like the mountains of Tennessee. Local color fiction (that is, literature that focuses on the culture of a certain region) was becoming a popular genre, and Murfree was fitting right into the fad. She knew a lot about life in the Appalachians because of her many summers spent in Beersheba; she was able to contribute a lot of valuable material to interested readers. She wrote 25 novels in all, most of which focused on mountain life, Tennessee history, and Cherokee culture. Murfree well-represented the mountaineer lifestyle through her rich description and her use of dialect, and many reviewers enjoyed the genuine nature of her depiction of the exotic yet ordinary mountain people. Reviewers compared her to her contemporary local color fiction writers such as Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.
Murfree also had her critics. Many people see her narration as too far detached from her dialogue; it is unusual to read passages like “domestic difficulties might have proved efficacious but for the shakiness induced by the thrill of fraternal settlement” (“The Star in the Valley”) in conjuction with dialogue that reads “‘Yer wheat looks likely; an’ yer gyarden truck air thrivin’ powerful’” (“The ‘Harnt’ that Walks Chilhowee”). Some critics think that Murfree’s writing reads too much like an over enthused tourist rather than an inhabitant of the mountains. Even Mark Twain referenced Murfree in an appendix to one of his novels as an example of overblown writing.
Because of her negative reviews and because she is one among many in the local color fiction movement, Murfree often gets overlooked. Many of her works aren’t readily available; she is rarely anthologized, scholars don’t usually research her, and several of her books for classroom settings are overpriced. Even sometimes when historians rather than literarians study Murfree’s work, they scrutinize it. It’s been speculated that feminists would help Murfree’s reputation grow, but because Murfree doesn’t have many strong female characters, she is often overlooked by that crowd as well.
By the end of the century, when the fad of local color fiction was dying, Murfree appealed to the next literary craze: historical fiction. Though she turned out two novels and two short stories between 1908 and 1914, it is the consensus that Murfree’s best work was her earliest.
Though she struggled with lameness her entire life due to the fever that struck her at four years old, it impaired her more as she grew older. Eventually, her condition became chronic, and she was blind. When she died in 1922, her reputation was so defeated that her obituary was nothing more than four lines on the bottom of the seventeenth page in the New York Times.
Perhaps Murfree’s reputation will be revived through studies of American, Southern, and Feminist literature. Whether this happens or not, the life and works of Mary Noailles Murfree have made history in Tennessee for her contribution of Appalachian lifestyle to the local color fiction movement. She left the legacy of not only the name of Murfree in a quickly growing town south of the state’s capital, but she also shed light on the mysterious Appalachian mountain region and paved the way for Southern women writers.
In the Tennessee Mountains (short stories), 1884
Where the Battle Was Fought (novel), 1884
The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains (novel), 1885
The Story of Keedon Bluffs (novel), 1887
Abner Holden’s Bound Boy (novel), 1890
His Vanished Star (novel), 1894
The Juggler (novel), 1897
The Champion (novel), 1902
The Frontiersmen (novel), 1904
The Windfall (novel), 1907
Mary Noailles Murfree at The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture:
Profile of Mary Noailles Murfree on Washington State University’s website:
The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains and In the Tennessee Mountains available at UNC.edu:
Selected works of Mary Noailles Murfree at Project Gutenberg: