In a career cut short by illness and suicide, Byron Herbert Reece produced an enduring body of poetry and fiction from the sounds and spirits of his North Georgia homeland. His five volumes of verse draw deeply from the lyrical wellsprings of Nature and the Bible, twin legacies of an upbringing in the agricultural uplands of Union County, around Blairsville. His two novels, in turn, are remarkable regional portraits - one a mountain family drama of overland journey to Old Testament rhythms, the other a morality play of a small-town lynching.
Reece was a bright and solitary schoolboy, a graduate of Blairsville High School who grew up in such rural isolation, the story goes, that he never saw a car until he was eight or twelve (depending on the version). He attended Young Harris College and taught school intermittently between 1935 and 1942, producing poem after poem for small journals and newspapers even while his parents' tuberculoses led him to take increasing responsibility for the family farm. During these years, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart - themselves offspring of the rural Appalachians - early recognized Reece's talent. He won American Poet magazine's annual poetry award in 1943, and with Stuart's sponsorship H.P. Dutton published Reece's first volume of poetry, Ballad of the Bones, in 1945. By 1952, Reece had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry (for Bow Down in Jericho, 1950), profiled in a national magazine (Newsweek), and tendered a position as poet-in-residence at UCLA.
In the short decade of success Reece saw before illness, financial insecurity, and loss took their ultimate toll on him, he was much honored in his home state. Five times he received the Georgia Writers Association's literary achievement award, and he served as poet-in-residence at both Young Harris College and Emory University. His books and honors never yielded much in money, however, and Reece's labors never long allayed the financial worries that attended the harsh circumstances of the farm and family illness. He was teaching part-time at Young Harris to make ends meet, in fact, when depression and illness wore him down and Reece took his own life on June 3, 1958, three months shy of his forty-first birthday.
In recent years Byron Herbert "Hub" Reece's enduring contribution to Georgia's life has been immortalized in the name of the state's land and literature. A trail in Vogel State Park near the site of Reece's home is named in his honor, and a play inspired by his writings, "The Reach of Song", was named the state's official drama in 1990.
Photo courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The following titles may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
Three Lyric Poets: Alice Moser, Tom H. McNeal, and Byron Herbert Reece, Selected, With An Introduction . Prairie City: The Press of J.A. Decker, 1942.
Not The Full Harvest . Los Angeles: Wagon & Star Publishers, 1944.
Ballad Of The Bones, And Other Poems By Byron Herbert Reece . New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1945.
Ballad Of The Bones, And Other Poems By Byron Herbert Reece. New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1946.
Remembrance Of Moab And Other Ballads. Cleveland: American Wave Press, 1949.
Better A Dinner Of Herbs. New York: Dutton, 1950.
Bow Down In Jericho. New York: Dutton, 1950.
A Song Of Joy. New York: Dutton, 1952.
The Hawk And The Sun . New York: Dutton, 1955.
The Season Of Flesh. New York: Dutton, 1955.
Mountain Singer: The Life And The Legacy Of Byron Herbert Reece. Atlanta: Cherokee Pub. Co., 1980.
Better A Dinner Of Herbs: A Novel. Athens: University of Gerogia Press, 1992.
The Hawk And The Sun: A Novel . Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Fable in the Blood: the Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece. Edited by Jim Clark. Athens, GA: UGA Press, 2002.
Faithfully yours: the letters of Byron Herbert Reece. Ed. by Raymond Cook and Alan Jackson. Marietta, GA: Cherokee Publ., 2007.
The Service of Song. [Sound Disc: CD Format.] Words by Byron Herbert Reece; music by Jim Clark. Wilson, NC: Eternal Delight Prod., 2010.
The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia holds Byron Herbert Reece's family papers, as well as separate collections containing Reece's correspondence, his lecture notes, manuscripts of his poems and prose, and scrapbooks of materials related to his life and career.