north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, Arthur Talmage Abernethy, has faded into the mists of literary history. The Burke County native served in the post from 1948 to 1953. His successor, James Larkin Pearson of Wilkes County, is better remembered and left a greater imprint on North Carolina letters and journalism. Gov. William B. Umstead appointed Pearson Poet Laureate on Aug. 2, 1953, with much attendant acclaim.

     Pearson had been born in a log cabin on Berry Mountain three miles from the Wilkes community of Boomer. Looking back, he recalled that his skill at rhyming came early in life. Education was not a priority for his family and he worked in the fields, composing in his head. From the publication of his first poem in the New York Independent in 1900, Pearson considered himself a professional poet. His first volume of poems, Castle Gates, was published in 1908.

     Yet printing and journalism would be Pearson’s bread and butter for much of his life. He worked for The Yellow Jacket in Moravian Falls and for the Charlotte Observer. In 1907 he married Cora Wallace and they returned to Wilkes County where in 1910 he began publishing a monthly paper, The Fool-Killer. His aim was for the paper “to make a fellow laugh right big and to cram a truth down his throat while his mouth was open.” The Fool-Killer gained a readership of 50,000 at its peak but appeared irregularly before closing in 1929, due to financial problems. That year the writer Upton Sinclair wrote a letter to the New York Times asking the public to buy Pearson’s books and send money to him in North Carolina.

     The News and Observer of Raleigh wrote of Pearson in 1934: “More than any other living North Carolinian he has put the life of the people into poetry, made it tangible and beautiful and easily seen.” In the late 1930s Pearson was employed by the Federal Writers Project. He died a few days shy of his 102nd birthday and held the Poet Laureateship to his death. He is buried at Moravian Falls. His library and press were acquired by Wilkes Community College which displays them prominently in an addition completed in March 2007. The college published a revised edition of his collected poems, taken from his five earlier self-published works, in 1971.


References:
Jan G. Hensley, Crowned with Laurels: A History of the Poets Laureate of North Carolina (2005)
Sam Ragan, “Remembering Stalwarts,” North Carolina Historical Review (Spring 1982): 139-146
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, V, 46-47—sketch by Richard Walser
Wilkes Community College website: http://www.wilkescc.edu/library/Pearson_Library.htm
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