UTM professor publishes Kroll bio
Posted: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 12:16 pm
The Messenger 11.30.11
Only two people in history have received the honor of having their portrait commissioned by the University of Tennessee at Martin student body.
The first was Harry Harrison Kroll.
“Almost any student, any alum, that went to school before 1958 has a Mr. Kroll story,” said Richard Saunders, associate professor of library science and curator and archivist at UT Martin. “He taught virtually every student who came through here.”
Saunders recognized Kroll’s importance not only to the past at UT Martin, but also literature history. After extensive research, he took it upon himself to publish the first-ever biography on the former composition teacher at UT Martin, cementing the narrative of his life and work in American history.
Saunders’ book, “Never Been Rich,” was released in September.
The man had a dumpy build and a left shoulder damaged by polio as an infant. The motion of his arm was limited, a fact he often tried to conceal. Many photographs show him casually holding it in front of or behind him. Otherwise his appearance was average for a man in his 60s, white hair and glasses.
However, Kroll is Tennessee’s most published author, with over 900 published stories. He taught writing composition at UT Martin from 1934-58, during which time his eclectic and blunt personality gained him the status of one of the most popular professors on campus.
“He was an enormously colorful character, almost vulgar, I have to admit,” Saunders said. “When you have a teacher that has a commissioned portrait by the entire student body organization, that says something about their relevance, their importance, their place, I guess, on campus and how they’re regarded.”
In his book, Saunders dissects the minutest details of the author’s life, many pieced together from letters to family, colleagues and former students.
Kroll’s early life was that of the average rural child in poverty in Indiana and then in Tennessee when his family was in the process of moving to Alabama and their buggy broke down irreparably in Dyersburg. He claimed never to have been to school before the age of 19, although Saunders does question this assertion in “Never Been Rich.”
It was not until the age of 19 that Kroll ever fathomed getting an education, according to the book. It was while traveling the countryside as a tramp photographer that he fell for the small town schoolteacher, Nettie Heard.
“It was then he realized that there was absolutely no future in being a tramp photographer and took himself to school,” Saunders said.
The rest is history. Kroll attended George Peabody College for Teachers, married Miss Heard, went on to teach famous authors such as Jessie Stuart and Don West at Lincoln Memorial University, and had a successful career as a writer. His novel, “The Cabin in the Cotton,” was made into a motion picture starring famed actress Bette Davis. He spent his remaining days in Martin after retiring.
Saunders, originally from Oregon, became more familiar with Kroll after 2000 when he left his job as a production manager in the publishing industry to join the UT Martin faculty.
“I started collecting his books for the institutional loan,” Saunders said, explaining the effort expanded the UT Martin library’s collection of Kroll works. “Then we started finding out, well, he didn’t just write books, he wrote stories, hundreds of stories, hundreds and hundreds of stories.”
Nine hundred stories, in fact, and that only includes the ones that have been found thus far, making him the state of Tennessee’s most published author.
“Most professional writers might publish 50-60 stories; he’s published 900,” Saunders said.
Saunders is quick to point out that Kroll’s work was common writing for the day, not high literature, which is partly the reason the man is lesser known. Schools and universities require the study of Hemingway novels, not Kroll adventures and romances. Yet books like Kroll’s were more widely read than their sophisticated counterparts and are thus more reflective of American literary interests of the time.
“Kroll, by himself, is not tremendously important, but what he represents to American literature is the way that most Americans read prior to 1950. Most people did not read William Faulkner; most people did not read Ern-est Hemingway,” Saunders said.
The sidewalk to Kroll’s former Martin home near campus now leads to a vacant lot and the portrait commissioned by the student body has long been lost, but Kroll’s history at UT Martin remains firm in “Never Been Rich.”