In typical Southern fashion Charlie May Hogue had been named after both her father Charles and her mother Mary. And she turned out to be a lot like both of them: an author and teacher like her father, a hardworking homesteader like her mother—and a lifetime lover and student of the humble people from which each of them came.
Charles Wayman Hogue was a teacher in Monticello, Arkansas, when Charlie May was born. He had come down out of the Ozark hills to attend Little Rock University and subsequently taught himself standard English pronunciation after he realized his Ozark dialect might prove a hindrance to his getting on in life. After he got the teaching job in the rich farmland of the Delta, he met and married Mary Jackson Gill. Charlie May came along shortly after, August 17, 1897, born in a little log cabin on Mary’s parents’ farm somewhere in between Monticello and Tillar.
When Charlie May was three, her father took the family to Memphis, Tennessee, where she spent her childhood—except for happy holidays spent with her grandparents back in Arkansas. She attended the West Tennessee State Normal School (now University of Memphis), but when her first novel was rejected by a publisher, a disappointed Charlie May decided to pursue art instead. She simultaneously decided to marry Walter Lowenstein, a wealthy heir to a Memphis mercantile business, but tragically Walter died soon after they were married, leaving Charlie May a young widow—with a good bit of money.
Charlie May studied art at Stanford University in California and the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Paris in order to study at the Grande Chaumiere. There she met Howard Simon, and the two were married in 1926. Not long after, the couple returned to the United States, and lived briefly in New York City before settling down in Possum Trot, Arkansas, in the Ozark mountains of Perry County, a suitable spot for aspiring artists and writers.
Using a stick and the dirt as her sketch pad and pencil, Charlie May designed a cabin for their mountaintop home. There was no electricity, no running water, no stove—cooking was done in the fireplace. She was now living among the kind of folk her father was from, and she loved it—the toilsome work of homesteading, the Ozark people and their Ozark ways, the beauty and comfort of the village and the land. The Depression had set in, money was tight, and the lives and people of the mountains were doing their work of inspiration. She began to write, and Howard provided the illustrations.
Charlie May was not the only one writing. In 1932 her father published Back Yonder: An Ozark Chronicle, recalling his growing-up years in the late nineteenth century. The book, also illustrated by Charlie May’s husband, was well-received. The New York Times published a full-page book review, describing it as “a chronicle as engrossing as it is refreshing,” and Arkansas folklorist Vance Randolph said the book was “one of the finest nonfiction books ever written about the Ozark country. Hogue . . . knows the truth about this region and sets it down without any sentimental twaddle.”
Two years later Charlie May followed with the publication of her own book, a children’s book, Robin on the Mountain, which received even greater praise and quickly became a classic of children’s literature. It was the beginning of a long career in writing, not only children’s literature but biographies and short stories as well. She was a celebrated success.
Years of hard living took its toll on the marriage, however, and Howard decided to leave the Ozarks to Charlie May and return to Paris. The two were divorced in 1936. The same year, Pulitzer-prize winning poet John Gould Fletcher showed an interest in Charlie May, married her, and took her home with him to Little Rock. Fletcher and Simon (she kept her previous husband’s name for professional reasons) built a house of wood and stone on the western edge of town, in the woods and on the bluffs overlooking the Arkansas River. They named the place Johnswood.
John Gould Fletcher was given to the flights of a moody poet; Charlie May Simon to plodding and thoughtful prose. Fletcher had come from a prestigious and wealthy family in Little Rock; Simon from among the humble people of the mountains and the farmlands. The two got along great. Each of them admired the other and each other’s work, and their common love for hearth, books, and home drew them close. They breakfasted together each morning, spent the rest of the morning writing in their respective studies, and then spent afternoons enjoying and working on the grounds.
This went along nicely for a decade and a half. Every year saw a new and successful book by Charlie May Simon. Fletcher, however, battled a manic-depressive disorder, declining fame, and chronic rheumatism. When he was found drowned in a shallow pool of water at Johnswood, Charlie May was shaken. She struggled to stay on at Johnswood and began to travel extensively. She visited the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer in Africa: All Men Are Brothers: A Portrait of Albert Schweitzer appeared in 1956. She spent three years teaching at the Women’s University in Tokyo, Japan: A Seed Shall Serve, the story of spiritual leader and social reformer Toyohiko Kagawa won awards in 1958.
When she was not traveling, Charlie May Simon lived at Johnswood until her death in 1977. For over forty years now Arkansas has awarded an annual Charlie May Simon Award to a distinguished children’s book. The most interesting thing about this award is that tens of thousands of Arkansas children—from Monticello to Little Rock to Possum Trot—read a number of selections chosen by committee and then cast votes to select the winner. The selection process encourages Arkansas children to read good books, of course, but more than that, it makes the average child—any child—an important participant in the rich celebration of good literature being written by the Charlie May Simons of today.
The hard-working homesteader turned author and teacher would have liked that a lot.