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William Blythe

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Perhaps the most respected journalist and versatile author in Mecklenburg County’s history, Blythe got his professional training at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. His classmates included Thomas Wolfe, the future novelist, and Paul Green, future playwright.  Journalism was Blythe's first career, which he pursued at The Charlotte News (1922-1925) and The Charlotte Observer (1925-1950). He left the newspaper business and began writing books full time in 1950, winning awards for Miracle in the Hills and Thomas Wolfe and His Family. He was inducted in The North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame posthumously in 2002.

Other works by Blythe available in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library include:

  • Alexandriana
  • Bold Galilean
  • Brothers of Vengeance
  • Call Down the Storm
  • North Carolina Today
  • The Crown Tree
  • Echo in My Soul
  • Gift From the Hills
  • Hear Me, Pilate!
  • Hornets’ Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County (book - history of Mecklenburg County)
  • The Hornets’ Nest (play for the bicentennial of Charlotte, 1968)
  • James W. Davis, North Carolina Surgeon
  • Look To the One Beckoning Star
  • Marshall Ney: A Dual Life
  • Meet Julius Abernethy, Trader and Philanthropist
  • Mountain Doctor
  • Robert Lee Stowe, Pioneer in Textiles
  • Shout Freedom!
  • Soul on Fire
  • The Stableboy Who Stayed at Bethlehem
  • A Tear for Judas
  • When Was Jesus Born?
  • William Henry Belk, Merchant of the South

Words from Will Blythe, LeGette’s grandson:

My grandfather LeGette Blythe was a writer, and he was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. I’m not talking about spritzy, bubbly, lick-your-face happiness; no, I mean the deep, underground-river kind that makes a person steady and content and a boon to his fellows. Unless you are family or from a certain generation of North Carolina readers, mostly died out now, you probably haven’t heard of my grandfather. He was born in 1900 in the tiny town of Huntersville, North Carolina. As a child, he won a pair of shoes in an essay contest sponsored by the Mecklenburg County Fair. I always thought it was his first pair of shoes, but I’m not told that it wasn’t; it wouldn’t have been unlike my grandfather, honest though he was, to embellish a story ever so slightly. (There are a few overly literal-minded members of my family who say I’ve inherited this tendency from him.)

He eventually became a newspaperman in Charlotte, famous among his peers for not taking notes and not playing poker. He published several books while still a reporter, including one novel, Bold Galilean, that became a best-seller for the University of North Carolina Press. When the editors of The Charlotte Observer wouldn’t give him a leave of absence to write a new novel, banking on their suspicions that he couldn’t afford to give up employment, he called their bluff and quit. He was fifty years old, with a wife, three children, and bills to pay. Over the next four decades, he paid those bills, turning out plays, biographies, history, and fiction (including several biblical novels), some twenty-nine works in all.

The citizens of the Bible were as real to him as his family and neighbors. The story is often told in my family of how he once drove up to the edge of Lake Norman, where he was mistaken for a game warden by several locals who were fishing without the benefit of a license. “How y’all doing?” he said. “Catching anything?” “No sir, no sir,” they insisted, pretending to be unaware of the poles bobbing in front of them. (In truth, no one could have been further from a game warden. My grandfather’s sympathies tended entirely toward the underdog. He evinced a mild truculence toward improperly or heavily asserted authority, having as a young reporter been bashed into unconsciousness by a hired thug outside a textile mill in Gastonia during the strike of 1929.)

The fishermen relaxed that day by the lake only when my grandfather, apparently oblivious to the discomforting effect he was having, began telling them how Lake Norman was the exact size of the Sea of Galilee, and how the location of the grand town of Cornelius corresponded precisely to that of the Judean city of Capernaum. “Is that right?” the fishermen said, sensing that this might indeed be a day of deliverance, not to mention free fish. It wasn’t so much that Pappy, as we called him, saw the Holy Land superimposed on the local map in a kind of geographical allegory. Instead, Mecklenburg County was the Holy Land. Who needed Jerusalem when you had Caldwell Station? Over the years, he defied every chance he had to actually visit the dry landscape of his waking dreams. If you were openhearted and sympathetic, history was here now. For my grandfather, it was a mere quirk of chronology that Paul and Judas (the subjects of two of his novels) were not there beside him on the clay banks of Lake Norman, admiring the view.

For as much as the world-at-large intrigued him, no part of it fascinated him more than his home, Mecklenburg County, in western North Carolina. He lived just a hundred yards or so away from the house he had been born in. He knew the night skies, the vegetation, the fields, the creek beds, the old homesteads, even the cats that lived (because he fed them) in the woods behind the house. He knew the citizens of Huntersville as if they were kin, and if you were kin...well, either way you had better be prepared to talk for a while when you saw him coming. Many was the noontime when my grandmother had to drag him away from the information gatherings on the lawn after church. “Come on, Gette,” she’d bark, being made of sterner stuff than he. It was a hopeless task. He could ask you questions until your head spun, as my father’s frequently did when he tried to explain to Pappy some obscure point about sodium transfer in the kidneys. Pappy liked to keep abreast of things. Some days later in his life, he would stand at the window of the house he built for his family in 1928, counting the cars that rolled by on the highway. This wasn’t some senile arithmetical mania so much as another way to proudly determine how much his hometown had grown. He had never acquired the antidevelopment bias that is understandably rampant late in this century. He would return from one of his walks shaking his head in delighted, open-eyed wonder at the establishment of a Dairy Queen in some old, kudzu-ridden pasture.

Although he always made himself available to his seven grandchildren, being forever willing to take us out to the garden or bend our ears with family history, he wrote very hard until near the end of his life. He kept deadlines, his own and others’, disappearing into his cluttered study (books, old shoes, a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a hornet’s nest) for a few hours almost every day, when we heard his typewriter clattering as he pecked away with two fingers, like the old-fashioned reporter he had been. In the closet of his study, he brewed homemade wine that occasionally detonated when the fermentation became too extravagant for its container. There was also, I think, an extra bit of fermentation, of vim, of force, in my grandfather when he wrote-a kind of bottled intensity that ended up on the page. Photographs of him at the typewriter reveal Pappy in a light we rarely witnessed at close range- lost to us, to the world, deep in concentration, utterly elsewhere. And yet he made the process of composition sound maddeningly simple. I once asked him how he wrote his books. "Well,” he said, “if you know the beginning of your story, and you know the end, all you have to do is get from one to the other.”

For Pappy, writing was part and parcel with the rest of his life, not an extreme quest requiring a hermit’s hut in the desert. No, several hours a day upstairs in that maze of a study would do. He was no literary naïf: he wanted to make money, as his deal-making letters to agents and editors confirm, sometimes poignantly. And he was aware that he wasn’t exactly famous in the way of, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I remember his reading The Great Gatsby at the beach one summer. After he finished, he pronounced it a “pretty fine book,” which was high praise since he was not a florid man. “ I guess he did pretty good, didn’t he?” my grandfather said of Fitzgerald. “But I don’t believe he had a happier life than I’ve had. No, I don’t think I would trade with him.” He died on Halloween afternoon, 1993. He had asked my grandmother if his dying would be all right with her. She probably told him to hush.

Why did he write? His life is emblematic of fiction writers in that he wrote, in part, because he was good at it. He got paid for it (not an insubstantial thing); he made a name for himself with it. And as with other fiction writers, making stories put him in contact with otherwise inaccessible regions, in his case, the Holy Land. I also think that writing was his gift, as it is the gift of the authors who have contributed to this book, and that a gift avoided and exercised is deep trouble indeed. My grandfather would surely have seen the Old Testament story of the talents applying here. He located his motivation somewhere between the customs of a trade and the dictates of compulsion. Not every novelist dives deep under the ocean of existence, nor does every one wield an ax with which to strike the frozen sea within. Would my grandfather have been a better writer if he’d been an unhappier man? Perhaps, though unhappiness takes its toll, and what it offers in the way of insight, it can take away in energy and conviction. Anyway, he had his sadnesses and disappointments, mind you, and he felt the pain of many beyond himself. It’s not as if any of us escapes sorrow for long. My grandfather’s virtues were not exactly simple. Goodness never is.

Blythe, Will. Why I Write. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1998, pp. xv-xix. Reprinted with permission of the author.