In a career cut short by illness and suicide, Byron Herbert Reece produced an enduring body of poetry and fiction from the sounds andspirits of his North Georgia homeland. His five volumes of verse draw deeply from the lyrical wellsprings of Nature and the Bible, twinlegacies of an upbringing in the agricultural uplands of Union County, around Blairsville. His two novels, in turn, are remarkable regional portraits – one a mountain family drama of overland journey to Old Testament rhythms, the other a morality play of a small-town lynching.
Reece was a bright and solitary schoolboy, a graduate of Blairsville High School who grew up in such rural isolation, the story goes, that he never saw a car until he was eight or twelve (depending on the version). He attended Young Harris College and taught school intermittently between 1935 and 1942, producing poem after poem for small journals and newspapers even while his parents’ tuberculoses led him to take increasing responsibility for the family farm. During these years, editor Ralph McGill and Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart – themselves offspring of the rural Appalachian – early recognized Reece’s talent. He won American Poet magazine’s annual poetry award in 1943, and with Stuart’s sponsorship HL.P. Dutton published Reece’s first volume of poetry, Ballad of the Bones, in 1945. By 1952, Reece had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry (for Bow Down in Jericho, 1950), profiled in a national magazine (Newsweek), and tendered a position as poet-in-residence at UCLA.
In the short decade of success Reece saw before illness, financial insecurity, and loss took their ultimate toll on him, he was much honored in his home state. Five times he received the Georgia Writers Association’s literary achievement award, and he served as poet-in-residence at both Young Harris College and Emory University. His books and honors never yielded much in money, however, and Reece’s labors never long allayed the financial worries that attended the harsh circumstances of the farm and family illness. He was teaching part-time at Young Harris to make ends meet, in fact, when depression and illness wore him down and Reece took his own life on June 3, 1958, three months shy of his forty-first birthday.
In recent years Byron Herbert Reece’s enduring contribution to Georgia’s life has been immortalized in the name of the state’s land and literature. A trail in Vogel State Park near the site of Reece’s home is named in his honor, and a play inspired by his writing, The Reach of Song, was named the state’s official drama in 1990.
For a bibliography of Reece’s works, other biographies about the poet and related information click here.