In the 1930s and 1940s Vereen Bell made a distinguished career writing outdoor fiction often set in his native south Georgia, then achieved a popular success with his first novel, Swamp Water, a coming-of-age story that takes place in the Okefenokee Swamp region. After he had published a number of short stories in national magazines as well as two novels, Bell’s career was cut tragically short when, serving as a World War II naval officer, he was fatally wounded during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The son of Jennie Vereen and Reason Chesnutt Bell, a prominent Georgia Supreme Court judge, Vereen McNeill Bell graduated from Davidson College (N.C.) in 1932, and shortly afterward began working with writer Frederic Litten in Lake Charles, Louisiana, learning to write for "Sunday school" and juvenile magazines. In 1934, Bell married Florence Eleanor Daniel of Thomasville, Georgia, and they first settled near Bell's family home in Cairo and then later lived in Thomasville, raising two sons, Vereen McNeill Jr. and Frederic Daniel.
Early success as a free-lance writer led Bell to a job as an editor at the Detroit, Michigan-based American Boy. However, as he later explained for a profile in the Saturday Evening Post, “I liked the work, but hunting season in Michigan is open only ten days, so, after two years, I came back to Georgia where hunting season is open three and a half months.” Thereafter Bell preferred to write as a freelancer from his south Georgia home in Cairo. In the late 1930s his outdoor stories and wildlife photography routinely sold to the Post and Colliers magazine, and his novels Swamp Water and Two of a Kind first appeared there serially.
In south Georgia, Bell’s writings are often credited with bringing national recognition to the Okefenokee Swamp region. Swamp Water (1940) follows a defiant young man, Ben Ragan, into the wild swampland where his friendship with a fugitive, Tom Keefer, ignites a struggle within Ben’s backwoods community. Bells’ evocative depiction of the Okefenokee and its inhabitants was praised by reviewers, and the novel’s success led to Bell’s being asked to collaborate with a LIFE magazine photographer on a feature that appeared in May 1941, “LIFE Visits Okefenokee Swamp: Novelist Vereen Bell Guides Trip into Georgia’s Watery Wilderness.” That same year Swamp Water was reissued as one of the select Armed Service Editions for soldiers serving overseas, and the story was successfully adapted as a motion picture film of the same title. A 1952 remake under a different title, Lure of The Wilderness, was filmed, like the first movie, on location outside Waycross.
Bell’s second novel Two of a Kind (1943) tells the story of a young man facing conflicting loyalties against a Southern backdrop of sporting dog competitions, known as “field trials,” in the 1930s. Bell’s stories about hunting dogs are considered some of the finest in the genre. A collection of Bell’s short fiction was published in a posthumous Armed Services edition, Brag Dog and Other Stories (1945). Brag Dog was republished in 2000 in an expanded edition that included several stories previously only published in magazines, as well as the entire novel Two of a Kind.
In World War II Bell volunteered for naval service and attended the U.S. Navy’s air combat intelligence school at Quonset Point, Rhode Island. As a lieutenant serving in the Pacific, Bell was aboard the escort aircraft carrier USS Gambier Bay when the ship was sunk October 25, 1944 -- the only American aircraft carrier to be sunk by enemy gunfire during World War II. Fatally injured, Bell died the next day and was buried at sea off Samar Island in the Phillipines. His last published story, “Sis,” appeared in Colliers in November 1944.
In 1946 the Georgia legislature honored Bell’s career by naming a roadway that leads into the Okefenokee Swamp the Vereen Bell Highway. The following year the Vereen Bell Award for creative writing was established at his alma mater, Davidson College.
The following titles by Vereen Bell are held by the Hargrett Library:
Swamp Water. Boston: Little, Brown, 1941.
Swamp Water. London: Collins, 1941.
Swamp Water. New York: Council on Books in Wartime, 1943.
Trial by Marriage (Two of a Kind). New York: Dell, 1943.
Two of a Kind. London: Collins, 1943.
Brag Dog, and Other Stories.New York: Editions for the Armed Services, 1943.
Two of a Kind. Boston: Little, Brown, 1943.
Swamp Water. New York: Bantam Books, 1947.
El Pantano de la Muerte [Swamp Water]. Barcelona: Editorial Molino, 1948.
Swamp Water. London: May Fair Books, 1961.
Swamp Water. Athens : University of Georgia Press, 1981.
Brag Dog, and Other Stories : The Best of Vereen Bell. Belgrade, MT. : Wilderness Adventures, 2000.