Tuesday, December 13, 2011
North Carolina Author: James Larkin Pearson (1879-1981)
James Larkin Pearson was my 1st cousin 3X removed. He was born on September 13, 1879, to William Thomas Pearson and Mary Louise McNeil. Mary Louise was the aunt of my great grandmother, America Ann McNeil, and the daughter of Larkin McNeil and Nellie Ferguson. Therefore, James and America were 1st cousins. His mother, Mary Louise, did not marry until late in life. For 20 years until her father passed away, she was his care-giver. Larkin McNeil was severely crippled with arthritis during his later years and needed constant care. Louise was not married, lived at home, and was the logical one to care for him. She and her future husband, William Thomas Pearson, who was 14 or 15 years her junior, lived in the same area of Wilkes County and may have known each other. He came to work on her family’s farm probably after Louise’s father died and worked alongside her in the fields. Eventually, they married. Their first child, Jimmy, was delivered by a “granny-woman” in a small cabin on Berry Mountain. They had another child, John Milton Pearson, who was younger than James.
James “Jimmy” Pearson grew up in extremely poor circumstances. His parents were tenant farmers who moved frequently to nearby farms in order to provide a better income for the family. James grew up with practically no education. According to his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, he probably had no more than 12 to 15 months of schooling which he received at the Whippoorwill Academy, a one-room, one-teacher, backwoods free school. The school became known as the Whippoorwill Academy after, according to Pearson, “One day some smart wag, in a spirit of fun, called it Whippoorwill Academy, and the name stuck.” At the very early age of four James demonstrated a talent for poetry when he composed his first verse. He learned the alphabet from the large letters on the circus posters that, along with newspapers, papered the walls of his family’s home. The first time he heard anyone read was when his mother read to him from a hymn book, which was likely the only book in the home. James Larkin Pearson was definitely a self-taught man.
At an early age he became fascinated with printing even though he had never seen a printing press. He knew, however, from his earliest days that he wanted to be a poet and a printer. When he was 10 years old, he made his first trip from his home to Wilkesboro which was about 12 miles from his home. This was, indeed, the longest distance from home that he had ever been at that time. While he was in Wilkesboro, he visited the office of The Chronicle in order to see how printing was done.
Until he was 21 years old, his life was spent working on the farm helping his family. In addition, he learned the trade of carpentry. He carried a small notebook and pencil with him, and, as he worked, his mind was busy working out a poem. When he reached the end of the row that he was plowing or when he took a break from his work, he jotted those thoughts in his notebook. All the while, whenever he had a chance, he was composing and printing on his home-made printing press in his small room in the family’s cabin.
He began his career in the printing and newspaper business when he took the position of editor and printer for the Republican Patriot in Jefferson, North Carolina. The Republican Patriot was owned by his lawyer cousin, Bob McNeill. Later, Pearson published a weekly newspaper, Plain Talk, which he renamed The Patriot. He wrote for and later worked at The Yellow Jacket, a successful newspaper in Moravian Falls, North Carolina, a small community a few miles southwest of Wilkesboro. He served as the Washington, D.C. correspondent for The Yellow Jacket. Later he worked at The Charlotte Chronicle and The Charlotte Daily Observer where he met and worked with John Charles McNeill (no relationship), one of North Carolina’s most famous poets. Afterwards, back in his home community, he wrote and published his own newspaper, The Fool-Killer, which grew in circulation to about 5,000 readers. Of course, he included much of his poetry in The Fool-Killer. After the death of his wife, Cora, he found he could no longer write The Fool-Killer. At that time he published The Lucky Dog.
James Larkin Pearson and his first wife, Cora Ann Elizabeth Wallace, had a still-born daughter, Blanche Rose. Later, at the Children’s Home in Greensboro, they found and adopted five-year-old Agnes whom they named Agnes Vivian Pearson. After the death of his beloved Cora, he married Eleanor Louise Fox. They lived in her family home in Greensboro, North Carolina. After Eleanor’s death, he moved to North Wilkesboro and built a library-office-printing shop on the back of the property of the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Agnes Vivian Pearson Eller and Albert Eller, on Sparta Road in North Wilkesboro. He lived on this property until Agnes was no longer able to care for him. At that time he moved to a nursing home in North Wilkesboro where he lived until he died in 1981. In 2003 his home-library and Agnes’ home were torn down in order to widen Highway 18. His adopted daughter, Agnes Vivian Misenheimer Pearson Eller Fox, had two sons, one of whom was Kenneth Eller, and one daughter, Catherine “Cathy” Eller Anderson. Agnes’ maiden name prior to her adoption must have been Misenheimer. At some point in time, she evidently married a second time to an individual named Fox. Agnes, who was a poet in her own right, passed away in 2004.
Pearson’s poetry reflected a traditional style with regular meter and verse forms. The themes for his works were based on his everyday life on the farm and his personal experiences. He was profoundly influenced in his early years by the works of Longfellow. The reaction of the local residents to his poetry was, according to Pearson, “a good deal of a joke.” Isn’t this reminiscent of Jesus’ statement in Luke 4:24, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is accepted in his own country”?
While he was writing for The Yellow Jacket, his style was that of slap-stick journalism which included droll, humorous prose pieces. He quickly realized that this style of writing, likely not his personal preference, was a way of making money. Therefore, he stated in his autobiography that “My writing was making oodles of money for R. Don Laws [at The Yellow Jacket] and I couldn’t see why it couldn’t be making money for me.” After coming to that conclusion, he left The Yellow Jacket and started his own paper, The Fool-Killer. The slogan of The Fool-Killer was “Make a man laugh right big and cram the truth down him while his mouth is open.” Soon the publication had a circulation of 50,000 copies a month with money “rolling in from every state in the Union”! During this period of financial success, Pearson built a nice home at Moravian Falls and employed at times 10 people in his printing shop. However, with the coming of the Great War in 1914 and a drop in subscriptions, his business began to fail. He sold his property at Moravian Falls and purchased land back near the old home place at Boomer, North Carolina. Out in the back woods miles from the nearest town, he was able to rejuvenate The Fool-Killer.
About 1924 Upton Sinclair discovered Pearson’s poem, “Homer in a Garden” and published an article about Pearson in The New York Times. He also included this poem in the New York Times’ article. Sinclair called him “the cornfield Keats of America.” His friendship with Sinclair continued throughout their lives. Sinclair wrote about Pearson and included some of his poems in his books, Money Writes and The New Pamela. In the latter novel, Sinclair described Pearson as “a fictitious poet” and identified him in the novel as Piers Plowman meaning Pearson the Plowman. In 1929, while Pearson was devoting most of his time and energy to caring for his invalid wife, Cora, Sinclair wrote in The New York Times that “ill health and poverty interfere with James Larkin Pearson’s work.”
In addition to Sinclair, Pearson maintained contact with a number of other famous writers and individuals of his generation. Some of these were Benjamin Sledd, Henry Jerome Stockard, William Thornton Whitsett, Josephus Daniels, Hight C. Moore, Clarence Poe, Joseph Pearson Caldwell, William Rose Benet, Hamlin Garland, Allan Nevins, Brand Whitlock, Clement Wood, Walter H. Page, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Louis Untermeyer, William Lewis Poteat, Paul Green, Archibald Henderson, Armistead Gordon, Charles W. Hubner, and John A. Joyce. He was personally acquainted with John Charles McNeill.
During his life, Pearson published numerous poems. He considered his best to be “Homer in a Garden,” “Fifty Acres,” “My Love Lies Still Lies Silent,” and “Troubadour.” He published six or seven books which included Castle Gates, Pearson’s Poems, Fifty Acres, Plowed Ground: Humorous and Dialect Poems, Early Harvest, and My Fingers and My Toes. A book, Selected Poems of James Larkin Pearson, was published by two college professors. He was not happy with the selections they included and indicated that he “had nothing to do with it.” In 1965 he published his autobiography, Poet’s Progress, which he had started at the age of 15. In 2005 the book was edited with the inclusion of additional notes by the editors and republished by Wilkes Community College as Poet’s Progress, Autobiography of James Larkin Pearson or The Life and Times of James Larkin Pearson, 1879-1982.
In 1933 he was included in Who’s Who in America. In 1953, the governor of North Carolina appointed James Larkin Pearson as the first Poet Laureate of North Carolina, a position in which he served until his death in 1981. On September 12, 1976, he was awarded an honorary degree, the Associate in Fine Arts, which was the first honorary degree to be awarded by Wilkes Community College. On September 20, 1981, just seven days after Pearson’s death, the James Larkin Pearson Library opened on the campus of Wilkes Community College. The college was about five miles from where he was born on the top of Berry Mountain. His collection of memorabilia, books, and his printing press were housed in this facility. In 2004 this building was demolished and replaced with the new facility which currently houses his materials and printing press. The James Larkin Pearson Library, which is a combination library and museum housing his materials and printing press, is located on the first floor of the Lowes Hall Building on the campus. Since my previous visits to Wilkesboro have been to research in the Wilkes County Court House and the Wilkes County Library and to visit the areas where my ancestors lived and were buried, I have not yet visited this library. I certainly plan to do so in the spring.
James Larkin Pearson considered himself to be an independent thinker who adhered to no creed. He purposely declined speaking engagements because, according to him, he had an impediment of speech. He declared the most important thing in life for him was “to be a good, honest, true and faithful human being—true to myself and all other people—and to my best understanding of a loving and merciful God.”
Pearson, James Larkin. Poet’s Progress. Wilkesboro, North Carolina: Wilkes Community College, 2005.