There is a very special house in our neighborhood– a house that belonged to a literary scholar who endowed the home and surrounding property to the University of Alabama.
This man was known to most as Professor Hudson Strode. Prone to the extreme sensitivities of the artistic temperament, intensely creative and prone to bouts of nervous depression, Strode has been described to me by those who knew him as a “brilliant” man and one who did not count humility among the virtues.
Yesterday, I dragged Patrick and the little ones on a stroll to Strode’s home. The home has a caretaker who lives in a little cottage, and occasionally houses visiting professors or other University homeless. I was hoping the house would be empty so that we might explore the grounds and tell ourselves neat stories (what Max and I call “conjecturing”) about the area and its former inhabitants.
Unfortunately, the house did not seem unoccupied. Patrick and Max decided to inquire about visiting the house at the caretaker’s cottage. A car and bicycle suggested that the caretaker was present. However, the unanswered knocks and yells convinced Patrick that the physical evidence would have been disregarded by Inspector Clouseau under the circumstances.
So we left the Strode home without visiting the grounds. Until next time I hear the Strode home’s siren….
But I haven’t shared much about this exceptional man; I’ve only taken you on the detour of his residence.
Back to the basics. According to This Goodly Land, an extraordinary website about Alabama’s literary history:
Hudson Strode was born in Cairo, Ill. The family soon moved to Denver, Colo., and, after his father’s death, to Kentucky, where Strode’s mother taught at Clinton College. Strode’s mother remarried, and the family moved to Demopolis, Ala. As a boy, Strode was interested in drama, acting in school plays and attending professional performances. He graduated from high school at age sixteen and enrolled at the University of Alabama, where his interest in drama continued. Strode earned his AB in English literature in 1913 and went to New York City, where he received an MA from Columbia University in 1914. Strode spent two years as an English instructor at Syracuse University. During this period, he sold his first short story to McClure’s Magazine. In 1916, Strode returned to the University of Alabama to teach English literature and public speaking. Ineligible for the draft because he was underweight, Strode spent World War I arranging troop entertainments. After the war, he returned to the University of Alabama. In addition to his teaching duties, Strode was also directing plays, giving lectures and dramatic readings, and writing. His health began to suffer, and he had a nervous breakdown in the summer of 1926. After recuperating at a friend’s home for several months, Strode returned to work. He spent the summers of 1927 and 1928 at the MacDowell Colony, writing poems, book reviews, and a one-act play.
Strode suffered another breakdown in 1929, and he and his wife went to live in Bermuda so that he could recover his health. When they returned to Alabama in 1932, Strode published The Story of Bermuda, the first of a series of travel books he published in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, a request from one of his students, Harriet Hassell, prompted Strode to offer a fiction-writing class at the University of Alabama, which he continued to teach for twenty-five years. Many of his students won national writing competitions and, with Strode’s assistance, found publishers for their short stories and novels. In the 1950s, Strode began working on a three-volume biography of Jefferson Davis. This work was published over a nine-year period and was generally well-received, although some reviewers questioned his sympathetic tone toward his subject. In 1961, Strode was made a Knight of the Royal Order of the North Star by King Gustav Adolf of Sweden in appreciation of his writings about Scandinavia. Strode retired from teaching in 1963. He continued to write and published another travel book in 1970 and a memoir in 1975.
What was so amazing about this man and his courses that burgeoning writers begged to study with him? To begin with, Prof. Strode believed the best books were never published. At a time when writing reflected the increasing commercialization of society, Strode stood above the fray in his insistence that “we do not write to sell”. He believed in talent, and he believed in the talented voices and rich history of the South. In a Time magazine article published while Strode was still alive and teaching, his magnetism is apparent:
Professor Strode does not believe that everybody can be taught how to write. He restricts his four-session-a-week “clinic” to those who he thinks have genuine latent talent; twelve to 14 is the usual number. They read no textbooks, hear no lectures, spend their entire time writing, revising, polishing, criticizing each other’s products, absorbing pungent Strode comments.
On occasion, students visit Strode’s country retreat for discussion, with hunting & fishing trips on the side. They also go to his home, just outside Tuscaloosa, for conferences with him and his wife, who assists him in appraising manuscripts.
Alabaman Strode has an almost fanatical faith in the cultural present and future of the South. He takes great pride in the fact that all but four of his 14 students who have sold novels come from within 100 miles of Tuscaloosa.
Who were these students and what did they create? I’ve started a running list and would appreciate any additions that you might have:
- Thomas Hal Phillips studied under Strode. His novel about cottom, The Bitterweed Path, is available for browsing online.
- Borden Deal studied under Strode. His wife, Babs Deal, was also part of the Strode circuit.
- Harriett Hassell studied under Strode. Her novel, Rachel’s Children, was set on a farm in Tuscaloosa.
- Robert Faucett Gibbons, whose short stories and novels brought him to national prominence, spent a fair share of time learning from Mr. Strode.
- Douglas Fields Bailey studied under Strode. He is known for his novel, Devil Make A Third.
- Catherine Rodgers McLain, best known for The Towers Inheritance, studied under Strode. Her bio notes that Strode believed each student “had at least one novel in them”. Their job during his course was to get that novel out. Strode assisted many students in getting that novel published as well.
- Lonnie Coleman worked on Beulah while studying under Strode.
- Elise Sanguinetti was considered to be a protege of Strode’s.
- Helen Norris was mentored by Hudson Strode. She is the author of numerous fictional works.
- Alabama poet John Finlay (and sometime Nashville Agrarian) was mentored by Hudson Strode and his wife. Strode helped Finlay secure funding for his graduate work.
- Winston Groom (and his mother) both studied under Professor Strode.
A few more butterflies to chase: