Saturday, March 9, 2013

Lulah Ragsdale -- Mississippi's First Famous Female Writer

Portrait by R.I. Howell, published in The Magazine of Poetry & Literary Review, Vol. 5, July 1893, available online via Google Books (Photo is believed to be from a playbill.)
Below are excerpts from an 1893 "write up" of Brookhaven's own Lulah Ragsdale from the above-mentioned literary magazine, which featured her poems alongside those of Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, George Eliot and Charles Dickens.
"Just after the closing of the late war, a solemn eyed baby in the ancient family mansion ... attracted much attention from a wide circle of relative and friends because of its peculiarly sorrowful advent, and because it had semed to enter the world with a premonition of the bitterness of life.   
That baby, who never smiled, but whose constant, unusual sighs awoke pity and strange sympathy in all hearts, was (James) Lulah Ragsdale, only child of the gallant Confederate officer, James L. (Lafayette) Ragsdale, who had lately fallen in the battle field, leaving a brilliant and beautiful young wife, widowed and desolate, to whom the little one was born in the midst of bereavement.
 Lulah Ragsdale’s rearing, and later her training and education thus became the mother’s only solace, and no doubt, that mother, whose own heart had been deeply lashed by sorrow, unconsciously did much towards developing and accentuating the fine, sensitive, imaginative characteristics of her daughter’s mind. 
 At an early age, Lulah Ragsdale became an unsatisfyable reader, always seeking the weird, the unreal, the mystic; or else, the vivid, the passionate, the glowing in prose and poetry. 
The characters in her favorite books became her best friends, and in the constant company of such unreal creatures as she most fancied, her thoughts, her manners and her conversation became very odd and unchildlike.” -- Dallas T. James.
As best I can tell there are errors and omissions in the above description, if compared to the information on file at the Lincoln, Lawrence, Franklin Library which houses the Lulah Ragsdale Collection.  Please click on that link for further reading about the life of this most unusual woman.
According to the Library account, Lulah was born in a mansion called Cedar Hill (then Lawrence County, now Lincoln) on Feb. 5, 1862.  At some point, young Lulah and her mother moved in with extended family into the Italianate mansion on Brookhaven's Natchez Avenue built by Capt. Jack C. Hardy in the late 1860s or 1870s, depending on which source you choose to believe.

At 16, she was graduated from Whitworth College, an all-female college in the heart of town, and followed the call of the footlights to New York City, where she studied acting under Fannie Hunt and worked briefly as a stage actress.  She soon returned home and her writing life took off.

If Dallas James' account is accurate, Lulah had been writing in secret for many years when her first published poem, "My Love," appeared in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, creating a "furore in the South."  It was widely copied and her subsequent poems, "Galatea" and "Upton Rey" were reproduced throughout the United States.  James concludes:
“She lives in her magnolia-shadowed Southern home” at Brookhaven, MS, “where she devotes nearly all of her time to her fancies and her writing."
In addition, she taught writing and drama at Whitworth and other colleges in the state, and her prominence in the literary world helped attract students.

Her third novel, "Miss Dulcie from Dixie" was made into a movie in 1919.  For a synopsis of the plot, please see this link.

Her next novel, "Next Besters," came out in 1920 and sounded a similar theme to Miss Dulcie.  Although the movie rights were purchased, the movie never materialized.

Sadly, in 1921, according to at least one biography, Lulah suffered a nervous breakdown and was never quite the same. Vision problems with advancing age impeded her ability to write, but continue she did, publishing "If I See Green," a collection of poems in 1929.

Hailed by some as a very early feminist, she died a spinster at age 91, at home, in the Hardy House, in 1953.  She is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Brookhaven.

For more on the Hardy House, which is sitting empty and is for sale under foreclosure, please see this previous posting from Sippiana.  For additional information on the sale of the old home, which is in steep decline and on the National Register of Historic Places, please see this link.

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