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Madox Roberts letters needed for book

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By Brandon Mattingly

Washington Countians are being called on to help breathe life into the work of the area’s most celebrated author, and all they have to do is take a look around the attic.
Bill Slavick, a retired English professor who spent most of his career at the University of Southern Maine, has put in a call for letters to complete his book, “Roberts’ Letters from the Little Country.”

The book will be a collection of letters that Elizabeth Madox Roberts wrote to family, friends and acquaintances during her lifetime, but so far, Slavick is having a tough time finding any original documents in the county. Until local resident Wendell Grayson uncovered two letters recently, Slavick has had to look elsewhere for sources.

“I had not seen a single original letter from Washington County,” he said. “There was a book by Harry Modine Campbell and Will Foster, and Foster was from Springfield and taught at West Virginia University. There’s a biographical section, which quotes eight or 10 letters, some in full, and that’s one of the sources.”

Woodridge Spears, who wrote a dissertation on Roberts’ early life at Georgetown College, copied about a dozen of her letters by hand and provided another avenue for Slavick to attain letters.

Slavick said he hopes that Washington County residents will go through any old family documents they have, and contact him with anything they find at all.

“I’m trying to make a last pitch for getting letters,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is publish an edition of letters, then have 20 letters turn up the day it comes off the press. I’m really hoping that people will search their attics and family papers and see if they have anything.”

Slavick, who grew up in Tennessee and attended college at the University of Notre Dame, discovered Roberts’ work while at Notre Dame in 1949, eight years after her death.

His exposure to Roberts is something Slavick held onto throughout his career, and in fact, he found himself in Springfield in 1982, when he was instrumental in organizing a conference to honor her 100th birthday.

“I put on a conference on southern writers at the University of Southern Maine in about 1978, and I said then that I was going to do a conference on her 100th birthday,” he said. “I got in contact with St. Catharine College, and we got it together.”

The idea to collect Roberts’ letters came after Slavick was charged with editing her letters for the conference, and with the opportunity to take up the project full-time, the former professor has made strides over the last year. He recalled originally wondering why letters were so scarce and revealed hopes for the completion of the book.

“Elizabeth Madox Roberts had friends, but there are no letters, and you wonder, did she never write?” he remembered asking. “I think by the end of this year, we’re going to have a manuscript to submit.”

Slavick said he’s already spoken to the historical society in Washington County and is hopeful that they’ll have a successful recovery effort, but he said the help of the community will be instrumental in the project. According to the author, any residents who aren’t aware of Roberts and her work should consider looking into her, particularly with her work coming back to print, as was reported in The Sun in October.

“She is Washington County’s literary artistic voice,” Slavick said. “Very few counties in the United States have a comparable voice. They should read her and get to know her.”

Possibly the most intriguing of Roberts’ connections are those to her classmates at the University of Chicago, because of the way she described the local community to those who’d never have the chance to visit. Slavick also referred to Roberts as the patroness of late college students, as she enrolled at Chicago at the age of 36.

“To be honest with you, except for two or three letters to Louise McIlroy, the great letters are to her Chicago classmates,” he said. “She is trying to share her experiences with them, as she did in Chicago, from hundreds of miles away. They’re beautiful letters trying to describe Springfield — the birds, the countryside, the curving roads, the cows and the people.”

Those capturing descriptions are a big part of why Slavick is on a mission to find as many letters as possible. Roberts’ theme of Central Kentucky being the “little country” holds true not only in her novels, but in her personal letters.

“What I want to emphasize in the introduction (of the book) is that a lot of these letters are love songs to the little country,” Slavick said. “They’re to her friends, but the way she writes them, many of them are love songs about the little country.”

The letters often also show when Roberts felt disconnected with the local community, though she never lost the passion she had for Washington County.

“One day, she’s saying she doesn’t feel at home here, and another time she’s talking about how gentle the people are, but always, at the bottom, she says it’s her home and she loves it,” Slavick said.

If you find any of Roberts’ letters, you can contact the Washington County Historical Society, or email Slavick at billslavick@myfairpoint.net.