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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Public reaction to a southern woman writer

Here, Arnow describes how both her family and the public reacted when she first began to publish her writing. Her first book, <cite>Mountain Path</cite> (1938), was published when she was 28 and she remembers that her mother was furious when a local newspaper published a story about a "waitress" writing a book. By this point, Arnow had moved to Cincinnati where she worked as a waitress in her early years as a writer. Concerned that waitressing was not as "respectable" an occupation as Arnow's earlier career as a teacher, Arnow's mother and sisters were also worried that people would think that her stories were reflections of her own personal experiences. Professionally, Arnow recalls being less annoyed with her family's concerns about her writing than she was with an editor whose first comment was not about her writing, but rather about her small size. Arnow's implication here is that at times she was taken less seriously professionally because she was a woman and that her gender affected the way her work was perceived.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

MIMI CONWAY:
When you began to publish, did it change your personal relationships? I mean, were you sort of lionized? I mean, you know, because you were, I think, twenty-six or so, and here you were published.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
I was twenty-eight. I began the book when was twenty-five, and it was three years before I had a book published, the quickest I've ever done a book. No, not a great deal, as I remember. The newspapers were interested, and they wrote stories about me. I remember one that my mother saw. My father was dead; he died when I was twenty-one. And she was furious. It had a headline "Waitress Writes Book." Now I had taught longer than I'd been a waitress, and I had been working in short hours in a bookstore.That was more exciting, "Waitress Writes Book", and Mama was furious. It was respectable to be a teacher, work yourself to death in Louisville. I only received one hundred a month. Of course, teachers with tenure received more. And I could make that much-that's twenty-five dollars a week-I could make more than that as a waitress, working short hours. But it's part of the pattern of life in a small town. Most of the townspeople were proud of me; I was surprised.
MIMI CONWAY:
In Burnside. But did your mother give you a hard time about writing?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
She didn't object so much to The Dollmaker, but she and some of my sisters didn't like the idea of Mountain Path at all. The story about a waitress was bad enough, but, she said, the town would think I'd fallen in love with a moonshiner and so on and so forth. They'd think everything in that book had happened to me. Well, that did worry me a bit at the time, but I've realized since, no matter what you write there are people who think it is autobiographical. Some are certain I was Millie in Hunter's Horn and poor Harold was Nunley D. Ballew. But Harold never had a fox hound.
MIMI CONWAY:
[laughter]
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Well, that's beside the point. An editor came to see me shortly-a Macmillan man-before the publication of The Dollmaker. He said, "Oh, I'm surprised to see such a small woman." I wanted to say, "Well, why in the hell shouldn't I be small?"