Earlier in the autumn, I had a chance to visit Wilson Park in Fayetteville, a really nice park which would make any city proud. The park is named for the family of Charles Morrow Wilson, a Fayetteville native who became a successful freelance writer during the lean years of the Great Depression. The park aside, Wilson had a rather rough time of it when he tried to move back to Fayetteville, despite his being at the height of his literary career.
Charles Morrow Wilson was born in Fayetteville on June 16, 1905, the youngest child of Joseph Dickson and Mattie Morrow Wilson. His parents were prominent in Fayetteville business and social circles. His grandfather, Alfred M. Wilson, was one of the founding fathers of Fayetteville, a member of the antebellum state legislature, a U.S. district attorney under President Franklin Pierce and mayor of Fayetteville for one term in the 1870s. Wilson's mother was one of the early female graduates of the University of Arkansas.
In addition to his immediate family, young Charles was surrounded by an extended family of considerable prominence. One uncle served as Fayetteville city attorney and mayor in addition to spending 22 years in the state senate. Charles' cousin, Allen M. Wilson, held the mayor's office for almost all of the 1920s and then served as Fayetteville postmaster until his death.
Wilson was educated in the Fayetteville public schools, followed by study at the University of Arkansas. He was a good student, and he also made time to write. He quickly gained recognition as a "young journalist of note" due to his work on the staffs of the Razorback yearbook and the Arkansas Traveler student newspaper. He also contributed to the student humor magazine, The White Mule.
During his junior year at the university, Wilson began visiting the home of Charles J. Finger, a prominent local writer. Finger was born in Great Britain, where he received a good education at King's College London. He began his world travels by age 20, eventually spending time in Patagonia, Argentina, where he prospected for gold, served as a guide and worked as a cook at one of the early sheep farming stations in Tierra del Fuego. While traveling and working in Texas, Finger drew upon his training in music, serving as director of a musical conservatory and teaching piano. In 1920 he settled in Fayetteville, where he established a home just west of the city.
Fayetteville historian and freelance writer Jerry Hogan has written about Finger's impact on a third-year college student: "From the gentleman farmer's compound he called Gayeta, Finger held literary court and put out a nationally known, well-respected journal entitled All's Well. Recognizing Charles Morrow Wilson's budding writing skills, the 'picturesque' Finger took the young college student under his wing."
After completing his degree in 1926, Wilson began regularly publishing in All's Well, and he soon became associate editor and, later, business manager. In June 1927, he published an article titled "In the Arkansas Backhills," the first of many forays into Ozarks topics. "This early interest in local hillbilly color," Jerry Hogan has noted, "would stand him in good stead as he tilled this fertile soil repeatedly in his subsequent work."
Later in 1927, Wilson collaborated with Finger to compile and edit a collection of Finger's regional stories -- which was published as Ozark Fantasia. Folklorist Vance Randolph, who was not especially keen on Finger, wrote that "perhaps the most interesting section of this book is the introduction by Charles Morrow Wilson."
Before long, Wilson's writing career took off. He wrote for various newspapers, and in 1928, Atlantic Monthly paid him a then-substantial fee of $100 for an article titled "Elizabethan American." His work appeared in magazines ranging from The New Republic to American Druggist.
The arrival of the Great Depression seemed to have little impact on Wilson's growing success as a freelancer. His first novel, Acres of Sky, was published by Putnam in 1930. Over the next 10 years, Wilson published nine books, many articles and several short stories.
In the mid-1930s, Wilson began a long association as a publicist for the United Fruit Co., a giant corporation with huge banana plantations throughout Central America and the West Indies. United Fruit could use all the public relations help it could get because the multinational company was known for its (generally successful) efforts to control the internal politics of several Central American countries.
Wilson would continue his work on the international stage on and off for years. He worked in Africa on behalf of Firestone Rubber Co., and in 1946 President William S. Tubman of Liberia appointed him as a "special consultant." All of these overseas assignments resulted in books and articles, including Trees and Test Tubes, The Story of Rubber. His book Ambassadors in White, about the heroes of tropical medicine, was published in 1942 to considerable critical and financial success.
Wilson developed an interest in food, resulting in a book on new food crops. In 1942 he published an article titled "Pot Luck in the Ozarks" in Gourmet magazine, which included a description of good corn whiskey -- known for "causing good people to sing without fighting and to dance joyfully without falling to the ground."
Wilson moved to Vermont early in his career, living on a farm near Putney with his first wife, photographer Iris Woolcock, from whom he was divorced in 1937. He married Martha Starr of Fayetteville in 1939, and together they had three sons.
Though Wilson lived in Vermont, his boyhood in the Ozarks was never far from his mind. In addition to writing about the area in such books as The Bodacious Ozarks ( 1959), Wilson kept in close touch with his family back in Fayetteville. In 1946 he sold about 17 acres of the Wilson acreage to Fayetteville, tripling the size of City Park -- which was soon renamed Wilson Park.
In 1951 Wilson relocated his family to Fayetteville, though he kept his place in New England. That turned out to be a wise decision because within a couple of years Wilson had worn out his welcome by feuding with local officials, complaining about not being accepted into Fayetteville society and being highly distressed when he did not receive a faculty position at the University -- which he believed had been offered to him verbally. He even had a verbal tussle with Walter Lemke, the much-loved founding chairman of the UA journalism department. Wilson came to refer to Fayetteville in his manuscripts as "Nastyville."
Charles Morrow Wilson died on March 1, 1977, aged 71 years. He was buried in Putney.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]
NAN Profiles on 12/01/2019
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