Literary fame is notoriously fleeting and one generation’s straddling giants rustle meekly in the footnotes of the next. None of her contemporaries, nor even she herself, would have placed Corra Harris in the front rank of American writers, but throughout the first quarter of this century she was among the most popular essayists and novelists in the United States. It would have seemed strange to those of her generation, Georgians particularly, that less than 60 years after her death, her name would be practically unknown among their great-grandchildren, her books out of print, and her reputation non-existent.
Corra Mae White was born in 1869 in the small town of Ruckersville in eastern Elbert County, GA. Her mother’s family, the Mathewses and Wootens, were staid and prosperous people: doctors, lawyers, preachers. On her father’s side, Corra’s grandfather William White and great-uncle Joseph Rucker (Georgia’s first millionaire) founded one of Georgia’s first banks, the Bank of Ruckersville, at their remote crossroads. The Ruckers were brilliant lawyers and orators, producing congressman, a mayor of Athens, and a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. They also produced spectacular drunkards and lunatics. Tinsley Rucker White, Corra’s father, fell somewhere between the two tendencies. Oblivious to the mortgage which had laid on his family’s plantation for generations, Tinsley White would nurse toddies in his study for hours, then erupt in a volcano of Shakespeare until he passed out. He reportedly carried Elbert County for local-option prohibition by sharing several barrels of corn liquor with his black tenants, then marching them all to Elberton to vote the dry ticket—all this, supposedly to placate Corra’s teetotalling mother.
Corra was a straight-A student, large, strong, uninterested in clothes or boyfriends. Graduating from the Elberton Female Academy at 15, she went to teach school at Banksboro in Banks County. There she met and fell in love with her uncle’s Emory College friend, Lundy Harris.
Lundy, 11 years older than Corra, was a learned schoolmaster with a passion for Greek literature. The men on both sides of his family had been Methodist preachers in north Georgia for a century, and Lundy felt a growing sense that he, too, was called to preach the gospel. Shortly before he and Corra were married, he accepted his calling. Married in her parents’ home by Bishop Atticus Haygood, Corra Harris’ honeymoon consisted of a train ride from Elberton to Royston. Lundy had been assigned to the Royston circuit, a group of small country churches in southwestern Hart County.
The genteel teenaged bride was ill-prepared for life as a rural pastor’s wife. The crudeness and gossip of the yeomen farmers and their wives amused and disgusted her by turns. Lundy toiled over scholarly sermons poorly suited to the concerns of his rustic flock, and he and Corra were often called out in the middle of the night to minister to the sick and dying as an epidemic swept Hart County in 1887. In that year, the Harris’ daughter Faith was born and they got the welcome news that they were being transferred to Decatur.
In 1888, Lundy was offered the professorship of Greek at Emory (still located in Oxford, GA), a post more congenial to him and Corra than pastoral work. The next few years were the happiest of her life, despite the death of an infant son. The couple had another son, named after his father, and they settled into the quiet little world of Old Emory. But Lundy grew restless. He began to doubt his religious calling, and his theology began to stray from stern but gentle Christ of Methodism into contemplation of a fierce and impersonal God. On June, 1898, Corra found a note from Lundy saying that he had gone to Texas to seek God. Ten days later, Lundy Harris was reported roaming in the barren hill country west of Austin. Ragged and hallucinating, he appeared at a former student’s doorstep before disappearing again into the desert. He would later report that he saw two devils who stood and laughed at him and an endless line of Christs, none of whom would meet his gaze. After another week Lundy Harris was back in Oxford. He admitted to Corra, to Emory president Warren Candler, and to several other people that for years he had been indulging his sexual appetites with black women in and around Oxford, and that he had committed adultery in Austin just before beginning his penitential pilgrimage. The consensus among Lundy’s religious brethren was relief that his sins involved only black women, not white.
Corra took her husband back, but Emory College did not. The Harrises found teaching jobs in Rockmart. In December their son, Lundy, died. Rumors of Lundy’s spiritual, mental and fleshly aberrations soon reached the town and parents grew reluctant to have their children taught by the fallen lunatic preacher. Then a lynching changed Corra Harris’ life.
On Apr. 12, a south Georgia farmer was murdered. Sam Horse, a black man, was charged with the crime and accused of rape of the victim’s widow. On Apr. 23, a mob broke into the jail, castrated Sam Horse and burned him alive. There was an outcry in the Northern and Western press against the lynching, which included three articles (one by a Southern preacher) in the Independent, a mildly liberal national magazine. Corra Harris read the articles and immediately wrote a letter defending the lynchers. “The Negro is the mongrel of civilization,” she began. “He has married its vices and is incapable of imitating its virtues.” The editors of the Independent were so pleased with this blunt statement of white Southern opinion that they requested some articles from her. She responded immediately with “Negro Womanhood,” a vicious slander on African-American women. Pleased with the controversy and support the article generated, the editors begged for more. Corra Harris obliged them with “The Negro Child.”
Thus began Harris’ career as the voice of “Southern Womanhood.” She wrote short stories, essays and book reviews embodying a fierce conservatism which rejected women’s rights, racial tolerance and social reform of any sort. She railed against the progressive writers of her day, Upton Sinclair and Jack London coming in for special denunciation. In the meantime, the Methodist Church had assigned Lundy briefly to Young Harris College, and then to the church publishing concern in Nashville. He began to drink and to take morphine and his religious self-torment flared again, but as his life unraveled, his wife’s spiraled upward. In January 1910, the first installment of “A Circuit Rider’s Wife” appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Based on her experience in rural Hart County, the novel would establish Corra Harris as one of the most successful American novelists of the early 20th century. Many considered the book disrespectful to the Methodist Church, one such critic being Atlanta’s Rev. J. W. Lee, soon to become the grandfather of William S. Burroughs. In 1910 Lundy Harris took a leave of absence from his church duties. While visiting friends in northwest Georgia he took an overdose of morphine and died, leaving only a brief note to his wife. Corra was not surprised. She made the funeral arrangements and went on with plans for her daughter’s wedding.
Corra Harris carried on for another quarter century, outliving her beloved daughter and her literary reputation. She published 11 novels, three autobiographical books and hundreds of magazine articles. After Lundy’s death she bought the farm where he had killed himself and built a house which would be her base of operations until her own death in 1935.
A Circuit Reader’s Wife was the basis of the 1951 movie I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, starring Susan Hayward and Rory Calhoun and filmed in the Georgia mountains. Corra Harris’ books are out of print today, found in junk stores and library special collections. Her only biographer has been the late John Talmadge of Athens whose Corra Harris, Lady of Purpose provided most of the information for this article. Her prose style is that of an amusing letter-writer in an attempt to write a novel. When she tires of narrative she throws in some rambling philosophical observations; when stuck developing a character she falls back on romance-novel stereotyping. But her readers found in her books a comforting affirmation of old beliefs and prejudices which they sorely wanted in their industrializing and unstable America.
She is buried at her home near Cartersville. Attempts to maintain her home as a shrine failed as her fame dwindled. Her name today is scarcely better known than that of Sam Horse, from whose tortured ashes her brief reputation rose.
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