Byron Herbert Reece: Biography
The all-too-short life of poet Byron Herbert Reece, one of America's most over-looked literary talents to date.
No one expects too much, driving along the mountains of North Georgia. Beauty--beauty is always expected, regardless of the day or night, or the time of year. A calmness, peace, a certain joy that you cannot find in the big cities of the world--these things are all found by visitors to the region, but are not unexpected. Why would one visit the Southern Appalachia if not for the beauty of it all?
At the very tip top of Georgia rests Union County. Riding along the highway, walking along the trails, taking in the beauty of the creeks and lakes of the area, one finds just what he would expect to find. But, if one looks more closely, he will find something more--he will find the birthplace and final resting place of one of the most overlooked poets in American literature. One will find the unexpected: Byron Herbert Reece.
“Hub” Reece was born September 14, 1917 in the Choestoe district of Union County. Pronounced “Cho-ee-sto-ee,” this word is said to mean ‘Place of the Dancing Rabbits’ in Cherokee. The cabin in which Hub was born is long gone--the meadow in which it sat was at the base of Blood Mountain, now Lake Trahlyta, a man-made lake that was built with the coming of the Tennessee Valley Authority--and electricity-- in the early 1940’s. By the time he turned six, he had read both the King James Bible and the Pilgrim’s
Progress. Entering elementary school, Hub was so far beyond the other children, his teacher allowed him to skip the second grade. Distance from home was always a factor--the eight-mile round trip to the elementary school paled in comparison to the ten mile trip to Blairsville for high school. But, Hub persisted and, despite his scorning of mathematics, graduated second in a class of 19 in 1935, and headed off to Young Harris College, some 20 miles away from his Blood Mountain home.
College was never a given, tho’, and when his father, Juan (pronounced jew-ann) became ill, Hub had no choice but to return and care for his father, mother Emma, and the family farm. From that point until he finished taking classes in 1940 (Hub never graduated--he refused to take the necessary French and mathematics), Hub’s college life was intermingled with time spent on the family farm, careful saving, and work on the college farm, to supplement a small scholarship he had received. When he finished at Young Harris, it was back to the farm to care for it and his ailing parents, working on his poetry when the long day of farming was complete, as well as teaching for 2 years at Zion Elementary. Teaching lasted until 1942, when most of his students’ families were forced to move--the TVA was going to flood some of the area’s best farm lands, so they had no choice but to relocate, and Hub’s teaching position went along with them.
World War II had a profound effect on the area, bringing new industries to the South, and a new awareness of the outside world to the younger generation, especially the young men, who left in droves to defend their country--and not all of whom came back. But, Hub was not among those who defended his country abroad--after waiting in line for about 15 hours, the Army rejected Hub. Not only was he underweight, with a history of TB in his family, but the nervous ‘tic’ that occasionally made an appearance on the left side of his face made a showing. Discouraged, back home he went to Choestoe, the farm, his ailing parents, and his poetry.
In 1943, Jesse Stuart, a nationally-known poet from Kentucky, discovered Hub’s work, and was so impressed he asked his own publisher, E.P. Dutton, to publish him. They agreed, and Hub’s first book-length work, ‘Ballad of the Bones,’ a piece based on the 37th chapter of Ezekiel, was published, and received “Best Poem of the Year” from the literary magazine ‘American Poet.’
Up until this time, Reece had been published in the local paper, and had become a familiar name in various literary journals and magazines. But most of these volumes paid only in copies, or the amount of the payment was so small, it didn’t cover even the paper the poems were written upon. He hoped that ‘Ballad of the Bones’ would help ease some of the financial burden he was under, caring for his family and the farm. But, unfortunately, money was not something Hub Reece would ever see a lot of during his lifetime.
During the next several years, Hub’s national popularity grew. He was offered many guest-of-honor invitations, and accepted as many as he could afford to take. Dutton accepted his second book, ‘Better a Dinner of Herbs,’ in 1950, and signed him to an advance on a third, plus a collection of poetry, ‘Bow Down in Jericho,’ was scheduled to be released during the summer of that year. He accepted a position as Poet-in-Residence at UCLA, but the trip made him weary. He was unable to write, feeling unconnected with his surroundings, and wrote only one poem, ‘I Know A Valley Green With Corn’ during his three months in California. And, by the time he had paid his expenses and debts incurred by the trip, very little of the $1200 stipend remained.
In 1950, Hub was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, which ultimately went to T.S. Eliot. In 1952, ‘A Song of Joy’ was published by Dutton, and this time Hub received a Guggenheim for his efforts. He was offered positions of Poet-in-Resident at Emory, Young Harris College, and the University of Georgia; he accepted the position at Young Harris, and commuted from home. Over the course of his career, Hub received a total of 5 Georgia Writers’ Association Achievement Awards.
In the winter of 1953-54, Hub was diagnosed with the family disease: tuberculosis. He entered Batty Hospital in Atlanta for treatment, but left before he was officially released. His mother died of the disease the following summer. Just before her death, he wrote a haunting poem for her, titled ‘Lullabye.’
By the time Hub finished his novel, ‘The Hawk and the Sun,’ the story of the lynching of an innocent black man, and ‘Seasons of the Flesh’ was released, Hub’s life and energies seemed to be winding down. Life in North Georgia had become increasingly modern since the war, and the life Hub had loved seemed to be disappearing. The rhythms of the mountains and their harmonies no longer made sense; he was lost.
Because he needed the money, Hub would teach at Young Harris College and live on the campus, making trips back to the farm to check on his ever-ailing father. Finally, on June 03, 1958, Byron Herbert Reece made a final decision: with his students’ final papers graded and Mozart playing on the phonograph, Hub shot himself through his diseased lung with a .32 caliber pistol. He was just shy of 41.
Hub Reece’s work lives on still today, and his memory is celebrated in Young Harris, Georgia, every summer with ‘The Reach of Song,’ a musical which draws from the life of Hub Reece and the Southern Appalachia during the years just before and just after WWII. Although still not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, such as T.S. Eliot, Reece’s poetry is astounding in its simplicity. There is no attempt by the author to confuse the reader, or to appear complex; the words are there, simply, to convey the author’s great love for the mountains he called home, and to attempt to share just a little bit of the wonder all around him with the reader.