In the brief time that she lived in Alabama, Eleanor de la Vergne Doss Risley (1867-1945) produced two notable volumes of sketches and stories that provide an insight into residents of Fairhope in south Alabama and the rural mountain communities and peoples of north Alabama. Her monograph Real Fairhope Folks (1928) consists primarily of sketches originally written for The Fairhope Courier from 1921 to 1924. The Road to Wildcat, which appeared serially in the Atlantic Monthly and then was collected in a book (1930), recounts her adventures in the north Alabama mountains.
Eleanor Doss was born in January, 1867, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Philip Stanton Doss and Anna de la Vergne Doss, but she spent most of her childhood in Henry County, Missouri. Risley graduated from a Presbyterian school for girls and then married a member of a prominent Kansas City family; she divorced him after the death of their only child, Eugene, at age eight. She rarely mentioned her son again. She then moved to San Francisco, California, where she held various jobs, including teaching music, playing accompaniment for moving pictures, doing welfare work, conducting research for an author, and modeling coats for a department store. She remarried, but her second husband, Alan Douglas Risley, disappeared and was believed to have drowned.
Because of continued financial difficulties, Risley returned to Missouri to operate an apple orchard that she had inherited from her first father-in-law, an experience she recounts in her third book, An Abandoned Orchard. She married Pierre Risley (no relation to her second husband), whom she calls Peter in The Road to Wildcat. The Risleys moved to Fairhope, Baldwin County, where Eleanor joined a group called the Scribbler’s Club and began to publish her sketches of local people in the Fairhope Courier. These sketches later were collected and published as Real Fairhope Folks, which had an initial printing of 500 copies.
On the advice of a doctor who suggested that she might have less than a year to live (she was diabetic and her husband asthmatic), Risley and her husband undertook a vigorous walking tour of North Alabama to improve their health, accompanied by their dog John and a pushcart they named Sisyphus. Letters to her friends describing her adventures came to the attention of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who solicited her contributions to the magazine. His efforts were successful; after initial articles in 1929, the Atlantic Monthly published serially most of Risley’s account of her Alabama travels, an account later published as The Road to Wildcat. The sketches and the subsequent book received favorable reviews, especially for their sense of humor and portraits of people, although some reviewers questioned the authenticity of her rendition of the regional dialect. One of her sketches is even given credit for exposing a corrupt sheriff who controlled the local moonshine trade and used his power to arrest people falsely to work on his chain gang, leading the Alabama legislature two years after the book’s publication to correct the situation.
Looking for a more economical place to live, the Risleys moved to a rural area about two and a half miles from Ink, Arkansas, a small community in Polk County near Mena, where they lived in relative poverty. In the late 1930s, they moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, residing for five years in an apartment in Carrie Nation’s last home, Hatchet Hall, which had been purchased by Eleanor Risley’s cousin, noted painter and muralist Louis Freund.
Her husband passed away after a stroke in 1943. Risley, suffering from blindness brought on from her diabetes, spent her last days in Little Rock, where she died in 1945 after complications brought on by surgery for a broken hip. She is buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Despite Risley’s fall into obscurity, her works make interesting reading as an articulate observer’s perceptions of rural life. They also reveal a woman whose independence, courage, and perseverance defy stereotypes of Southern women of her generation.
Note: This entry was adapted with permission from the Introduction to The Road to Wildcat, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).
Works by Eleanor Risley
Real Fairhope Folks (1928)
The Road to Wildcat (1930)
An Abandoned Orchard (1932)
Davis, Katherine Murdock. “Interesting Arkansas People.” Arkansas Gazette, March 2,1941, p. M10.
Puckett, Newbell Niles. Rev. of The Road to Wildcat. Saturday Review of Literature 31 (May 1930): 1088.
Viera, Carroll. “Introduction.” The Road to Wildcat. Eleanor de la Vergne Risley. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004