Image from Samuel M. Wilson Photographic Collection, ca. 1899-1947
From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
James Lane Allen, whose books achieved both popular success and critical acclaim, was Kentucky's first important novelist. Born December 21, 1849, near Lexington, Kentucky, the seventh and last child of Richard and Helen (Foster) Allen, "Laney" (as he was known in childhood) grew to manhood near Lexington and did not leave Kentucky until he was twenty-two years old.
Though of sound heritage, the Allens never had the financial standing of the upper class, and Laney worked hard as a youth. His mother -- to whom Laney dedicated six of his first eight books -- nevertheless brought him up in an idealistic, romantic world filled with stories of honor and chivalry, where gallant and noble gentlemen courted women of spotless virtue. Yet, in adulthood, Allen saw around him a new industrial America where, it seemed to him, ethics were replaced by greed, honor by corruption, purity by vulgarity. Allen was over six feet tall, slim and handsome, an immaculately dressed, reserved Victorian gentleman. He gave many the impression of being cold, repressed, and formal. His sensitivity to anything he perceived as a slight caused him to strike out at even his few friends. Nor did he have any close female attachments, except within his family. He cared for his mother until her death, when Allen was nearly forty, as well as for his reclusive sister Anne.
Educated in local schools, Allen received a degree from what is now Transylvania University in 1872 and as the salutatorian delivered his address in Latin. In 1877 he earned a master's degree from the same institution. For a dozen years after earning his first degree, Allen taught in Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky before turning to full-time writing. The subject for fourteen of his ensuing nineteen books was Kentucky. Allen's Victorian Age readers were hungry for local color, and he immersed them in the atmosphere of the old commonwealth, a vanishing world of romantic ideals and genteel traditions. After publication of numerous short stories in the 1880s in the leading magazines of the day, Allen collected some of them, including the well-known " King Solomon Of Kentucky," for his first book, Flute And Violin And Other Kentucky Tales And Romances (1891). Other works followed quickly: The Blue-grass Region Of Kentucky (an 1892 collection of articles that form a kind of travelog); John Gray (1893); his popular and well-written Kentucky Cardinal (1894); and its thin sequel Aftermath (1895). The next year, Allen's Summers In Arcady, with its realism and focus on lower-class subjects, aroused some controversy because of passages dealing with sexual matters. No such outcry greeted Allen's enormously popular The Choir Invisible (1897), which sold almost a quarter-million hardback copies within three years and was translated into several languages. An accurate historical novel set in frontier Lexington, it deals with the conflict of honor, love, and duty as schoolmaster John Gray realizes his forbidden love for a married woman.
Acclaimed as one of America's great writers, Allen chose to depart from the formula that had given him so much recognition. The Choir Invisible, together with Two Gentlemen Of Kentucky (1899), marked the end of his first phase, as he tried to write more about the questions troubling modern America. But in so doing, he left behind the audience faithful to his earlier books. His next work, produced at age fifty in 1900, was The Reign Of Law: A Tale Of The Kentucky Hemp Fields. Dealing with religious doubt and Darwinism, the work proved popular but angered churchmen in Kentucky. Allen's success continued with his complex The Mettle Of The Pasture (1903), another national best seller. Allen sought new themes, but as he tried to change, he never again was so successful. Even when he returned to romantic themes, the criticisms continued and sales dropped. The cold and humorless Bride Of The Mistletoe (1909) scandalized reviewers with what they perceived as the vulgar frankness of its descriptive passages. Although some of his later work had real merit, only cursory public and critical attention was given to The Doctor's Christmas Eve (1910), The Heroine In Bronze (1912), The Last Christmas Tree (1914), The Sword Of Youth (1915), A Cathedral Singer (1916), The Kentucky Warbler (1918), The Emblems Of Fidelity: A Comedy In Letters (1919), The Alabaster Box (1923), and the posthumous The Landmark (1925).
Allen lived in New York after 1893, and his literary output declined. He died on February 18, 1925, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery . His will specified that his royalties and estate go to the city of Lexington, to be used for the young.
Allen's writing often seems romantic and sentimental, but so was his time. He met perfectly the reading tastes of his age, wrote some outstanding literature, and made America aware that the Bluegrass State could produce fine writers.
JAMES C. KLOTTER, Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries:
Allen, James Lane. James Lane Allen Papers, 1892-1925. (1892). Print.Allen, James Lane. King Solomon of Kentucky. New York, 1888. Print.
8M52, Room 019, Special Collections Research Center - Manuscripts Collection
F AL53ki, Special Collections Research Center - Fiction Collection
Allen, James Lane. Homesteads of the Blue-grass. S.l.: S.n., 1892. Print.
F452 .A440, Special Collections Research Center - Reading Room