Mike Stallo, Reference Librarian and Local History Specialist at the Oak Ridge Public Library gives us this insightful story about a local poet, George Scarbrough.
“… It is tender earth,
The blind earth, green as wheat,
Ripe like plums, there is no choice among
It’s the people. All who are here
And are the children. He makes no compromises,
Treat impartially in indistinctions,
And is kind and open to interpretation
Various like the men who love her.
These words were written by George Scarbrough, a poet, a virtuoso of the English language, who lived the last 45 years of his life in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Scarborough had the ability to create vivid images of nature and the scenic landscape of its surroundings. His poems are both earthy and very sophisticated. He takes you with him as he escapes the mundane, shines a light and pushes you to accompany him on his journey. You might want to grab a dictionary though; George will stretch your vocabulary the right way.
Scarbrough was born in Polk County, Tenn. in 1915. His father, William Oscar Scarbrough, was an itinerant sharecropper. As you can imagine, raising seven children as a sharecropper meant an extremely difficult life. By the time George was 20, his family had moved more than a dozen times.
George was a precocious reader and was drawn to words and language from an early age. The cracks in the walls of the family home were filled with old newspapers to serve as insulation. Her mother, Louise McDowell Scarbrough, was an avid reader and used those old newspapers (often with WWI headlines) to teach her words. He could read before entering high school.
From a young age, George often disagreed with his father. He was not interested in farming for a living. Reading was a welcome escape for him. Reading and writing have become his love. George wanted to go to college and become a writer. His father was harsh in his judgments and opinions regarding his son’s concern for reading and writing, telling him he would go to the hospice if he didn’t learn more about farming instead. .
George’s love for books and words also created a barrier between him and his siblings and peers. While many of them played and pursued more ordinary childhood activities, George spent his free time more solitary, reading and writing.
Frequent moves by a tenant farmer family meant George was finishing high school a little later than he normally would. Despite this and his father’s negative attitude towards college, he was determined to continue his education.
Using borrowed money, George attended the University of Tennessee in 1935. However, he still struggled financially and had to give up after only a year. Aided by influential people who recognized his talent, he obtained a literary scholarship to attend Southern Sewane University. His stay there was not easy. Scarbrough felt out of place, as most of the other students came from more cultured and well-off backgrounds. He sold three of his poems to a magazine while he was still in Sewanee, but he left school towards the end of his second year.
In the end, due to financial hardship and several interruptions in attendance, her time in college spanned many years. Eventually he received his bachelor’s degree in 1947 from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Fourteen years after starting college, he received his master’s degree from the University of Tennessee in 1954. He began working on a doctorate, but never finished. Throughout his time in college, he continued to write and publish poetry.
Although Scarbrough feels at home in academia, socially he often feels like an outsider. Not only was he the son of a poor farmer, but he was also a gay man in a time when it was not safe to talk about him. This added to his difficulties as a student and teacher. Later in his career, he was much more comfortable with these two aspects of his identity.
In 1948, shortly after graduating, Scarbrough taught at Jefferson Junior High School in Oak Ridge, Tenn. In the mid-1960s, he taught at Clinton High School. He continued to teach at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn. from 1965 to 1967, and at Chattanooga College in 1968. He taught at several other schools during his long career.
In 1949, a year after graduating from high school, his first book was published. It was a collection of poems called “Tellico Blue”. Over more than 70 years, hundreds of his poems have been published in various poetry and literary magazines. He has also produced five collections of poems and a novel. He was highly respected by his literary peers. However, as with many creators of art and literature, Scarbrough’s work was not fully appreciated by the public until later in his life. Her deep appreciation for words and her creative use of language shines in her poetry.
Author James Dickey wrote: “The poems of George Scarbrough transported him to the very heart of the Southern lands. The medium is words, and on the superbly imaginative use of these it has come to the deepest roots, beyond what could be imagined by anyone other than a real one. poet. Anyone who fully indulges in Scarbrough’s poems will see their life renewed.
In addition to James Dickey, writers Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor and Andrew Lytle were part of Scarbrough’s circle of literary friends.
Scarbrough was a resident of Oak Ridge for almost half a century. He moved to Oak Ridge in 1963 with his mother and lived at 100 Darwin Road for the next 45 years. Although he was a private person, he could often be seen in town and had no shortage of friends and admirers. I met him in 1987, when I was working at the Watson Department Store in Jackson Square Mall. He came to the store often and I found him very down to earth and friendly.
If you want to learn more about Scarbrough or read some of his poems, the Oak Ridge Public Library has copies of the following books. “Tellico Blue” (1949), “New Selected Poems” (1977), “A Summer Ago” (1986), “Invitation to Kim” (1989) and “Under the Lemon Tree” (2011). We also have additional titles to view in the Oak Ridge Room.
Thanks, Mike, for telling us the story of George Scarbrough, a local poet. Mike is a resource I use frequently at the Oak Ridge Public Library. I find it able to quickly search for information for many of my “Historically Speaking” columns. His knowledge of who lived where in Oak Ridge is incredible. His constant use of telephone directories and old newspaper articles, as well as other reference material in the Library’s Oak Ridge Room, an astonishing collection of historical material, makes him a most valuable contributor to the history of our city.