Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ridley Wills, Haywood County Fugitive

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William Ridley Wills
1898 - 1957

In the early 1920s, a group of fifteen or so writers, poets and literary scholars who were students and faculty at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, came together and, without meaning to, created what became a literary movement.

Eventually, the goal of the Fugitives, as they called themselves, was to shift the world’s perception of southern writers away from mint juleps, slaves in cotton fields and poverty. They wanted to show that writers in the South could produce "intellectual work," particularly poetry, equal to or better than that being written elsewhere in the world. 

Video: In the early 20th century, a coterie of poets
gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, determined
to redefine the way the world viewed the south.

I happened to notice one of those men, Ridley Wills, was born in Haywood County, Tennessee so I did a little poking around to see what I could find out about him.

Wills was born March 4, 1897 to lawyer Asa Mann Wills and his wife, Della Belle Womack Wills, in Brownsville, Tennessee. He was named after his father’s brother, Nashville businessman Ridley Wills, who was the founder of National Life and Accident Insurance Company. 

Of course, I’m always curious if there is a connection to my own family tree.

Ridley Wills’ paternal grandmother, and the inspiration for his father’s middle name (Mann), was Elizabeth Cousins Mann. Through this ancestor, Ridley Wills and I have a minor family connection. Velma Irene Castellaw, a sister of my paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Castellaw Williams, married Abner Bertheer “Bear” Mann who was also a descendant of that same Mann family line. 

I remember well my grandmother talking about Bear Mann and the half-bear, half-man image it conjured up in the mind of a young boy.

Checking the census of 1900, you find Ridley Wills was three years old and living in the seventh district of Brownsville with his older sister, Trousdale, and his parents. The Wills family lived with or next door to the families of Thomas Mann and his son, Vernon Mann so these were likely relatives of Ridley Wills’ mother.

Ten years later, the census of 1910 shows the family was still living in Brownsville and 13-year-old Ridley then had two younger sisters, Harriet and Elizabeth.

On July 25, 1917, when he was nineteen, Ridley Wills left Vanderbilt University, where he was attending college, and enlisted in the Army. According to several sources, Wills was glad to be leaving college and the faculty was glad to see him go.
“In his student days Wills had been an irrepressible journalist and prankster...involved in all sorts of skirmishes and practical jokes. Just before the end of school in 1917, Wills, as one of the editors of The Hustler, had written a column defending a few freshmen who were about to be expelled from school for throwing water on a faculty member from an upstairs window. In his editorial Wills emphasized the difference between such boyish pranks and really serious matters, such as cheating. 
Apparently the authorities did not approve of his defense, and when he left school to join the army, it was with some relief on both sides. When he returned, he was as bright and flippant as ever. 
By virtue of having published a novel he felt a certain authority in literary affairs and accepted as his duty the task of enlivening the intellectual life on the campus." 
Cowen, Louise. The Fugitive Group. Baltimore, MD: J.H. Furst Company, 1959.
In the Army, Wills served as a Second Lieutenant in France and Germany during World War I and was honorably discharged on August 16, 1919.

He then returned to Vanderbilt University where, along with his younger cousin, Jesse Wills, he was invited to become a member of the Fugitives, which had begun a few years earlier.

Wills connected with Allen Tate, one of the leaders of the group and the two quickly became friends. According to an article in The Sewanee Review:
“The two young men at that time of their lives were like twins: charming, witty, arrogant, and not only beyond the class of 1923 but also, they felt, a little beyond the too-serious older Fugitives.”  
Buffington, Robert. High Jinks in Nashville, 1923The Sewanee Review. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, Spring, 1979.
Many years later, Tate would recall that Wills was “small, graceful, ebullient, and arrogant, and one of the wittiest and most amusing companions I ever had.”

Just for fun, Tate and Wills produced a book of poems that was a parody of both the Fugitives and of T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land

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The Golden Mean and Other Poemsby Ridley Wills and Allen Tate

They are said to have written The Golden Mean in one night and it was published locally in Nashville in 1923 to positive reviews. A much sought-after book for collectors today, you can have a copy of your own for just $3,500.

Tate, who was a poet, essayist and social commentator, later became Poet in Residence and founded the creative writing program at Princeton University and was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1943 to 1944.

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by Ridley Wills

Wills published two novels of his own. Hoax (1922) was about a young man from the age of eighteen to twenty-seven and is set in West Tennessee. It was written in New York where he lived after being discharged from the army. His second novel, Harvey Landrum (1924), was written after he graduated from Vanderbilt and is a psychological study of a young man who "tries to hide a sense of inferiority behind a false sense of bravery." The setting of his second novel is Jackson, Tennessee.

When I discovered what books he had written, I immediately wanted them in my collection of novels by West Tennessee authors and I did find them online. Not quite as collectible as The Golden Mean, you can purchase Hoax for $489.95 and Harvey Landrum for a mere $275.00.

A little steep for my book-buying budget but, since I am blessed to live so close to the Library of Congress, I hoped to be able to at least read them there. 

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Harvey Landrum at The Library of Congress
by Ridley Wills

While the Library of Congress did have a copy of Harvey Landrum in their offsite storage facility, the closest copy of Hoax is at the University of Virginia. Guess I’ll save that one for the next college visit with my daughter.

After graduation, marriage to Louella Wilson and a move back to New York, Wills wrote for the New York Herald then launched his own newspaper, The Rye, New York Courier. He wrote a friend back in Nashville, “Our aim is to make an international local sheet of it with literary qualities.” Cowen, Louise. The Fugitive Group. Baltimore, MD: J.H. Furst Company, 1959.

During his career Ridley Wills also wrote for several Tennessee newspapers including the Memphis Press Scimitar and the Memphis Evening Appeal, eventually becoming an associate editor of the Commercial Appeal.

He later wrote for and served as the continental editor of the Cincinnati Star Times

According to Wikipedia, Wills was the father of five children: Andrew, William, David, Tookie, and Thaddeus.

Ridley Wills' father, Mann Wills, and his uncle and namesake, Ridley Wills, established the much-needed Haywood County Memorial Hospital in 1930. 

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Tennessee Governor's Mansion

In 1949, the State of Tennessee purchased the family home of the senior Ridley Wills and it has since served as the Governor's mansion. "Far Hills" sits on 10 acres and features beautiful views from many of the 16 rooms of the three-story home.

Brownsville's Ridley Wills spent the last four years of his life as a patient at the Bay Pines Veterans Hospital in Florida where he also served as the editor of the hospital newspaper. He died on September 8, 1957 and was buried at Bay Pines National Cemetery in Pinellas County, Florida.

Wills' cousin and fellow Fugitive went on to work in the insurance business like his father. In 1969 he established the Jesse W. Wills Fugitive and Agrarian Collection at the Vanderbilt Heard Library. 

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The Fugitive

The Fugitives published 19 issues of The Fugitive magazine from 1922 to 1925 and there were never more than 200 subscribers. Copies of the magazine are extremely rare and each issue is now worth more than $20,000. In addition to copies of the magazine, The Wills Collection at the Heard Library includes more than 1,600 books and monographs by and about the Fugitives and Agrarians, as well as a large collection of the writers’ letters, papers and published magazine articles.

If you happen to be interested in this topic, one article I came across, Pride and Prejudice: The thorny legacy of Vanderbilt's Fugitives and Agrarians, does a great job of exploring this fascinating aspect Southern history and literature.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

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