Martha Strudwick Young (1862-1941) was a prolific author and poet best known for her poems and stories written in rural southern African American dialect as well as children’s short stories and fables. Her works were popular throughout the United States in the early part of the twentieth century and were critically well received, although today they are generally perceived as racially insensitive and overly sentimental. They are notable as cultural artifacts of their time.
Martha Strudwick Young Young was born on January 11, 1862, in Newbern, Hale County, to physician Elisha Young and Anne Eliza Ashe (Tutwiler) Young; she was the oldest of eight children (five of whom survived childhood) and called “Mattie” by her family. Her father was a prominent physician who served as post surgeon in the Confederate Army at Fort Morgan and was at the August 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay. He was later appointed to the board of control of Bryce Hospital by Gov. Thomas Seay (1886-1890) and was a member of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. Slavery and its aftermath would heavily influence Young’s writings, particularly the family’s formerly enslaved workers who told folk tales featuring such well known characters as Brer Rabbit and Mister Terrapin common in African American oral traditions at the time. From her parents, she acquired stories of the hardships in the region owing to the Civil War, particularly on the local young white men called to service.
When Martha was six, her moved the family to Greensboro, also in Hale County. At the age of eight, Martha enrolled in the Greensboro Female Academy. whose faculty included her aunt, Julia Strudwick Tutwiler, an educator and social reformer, and writer Louise Clarke Pyrnelle, who would be an inspiration. When Young reached her early teens, she transferred to Greene Springs School (formerly the Greene Springs School for Boys) near Havana, Hale County (then Greene County), owned and operated by her grandfather Henry Tutwiler. At Greene Springs, Young spent much of her time in the library reading the classics of American and British literature. Additionally, she enjoyed horseback riding, studying flowers and birds, and reading African American folk tales, all of which she would later use as the basis for her fiction and poetry.
When Young completed schooling at Greene Springs, she enrolled in Tuscaloosa Female Academy, where her aunt was on the faculty. She is believed to have transferred to Livingston Female Academy and State Normal College (now the University of West Alabama) when Julia Tutwiler accepted a position as co-principal there in 1881, joining her uncle, Carlos G. Smith. (Some sources, however, conflict on the sequence and her date of graduation; no records exist prior to 1890 according to one.) After graduation, Young returned to Greensboro, where she divided her time among her family, her church, and her writing. Aside from domestic and international trips, Young remained in Greensboro the rest of her life, caring for the family after her mother’s early death in 1887.
Young’s interest in African American folklore and African American dialect led her to attempt to write in the genre. She began publishing under the pseudonym Eli Shepperd because southern women were not customarily accepted as writers, according to a family account. She published her first story, “A Nurses Tale,” in the New Orleans-based Times-Democrat on December 25, 1884. Young continued to publish stories under her pseudonym for more prominent magazines, including The Southern Bivouac, Century Magazine, and Home and Farm. She revealed her identity in 1889 in the Birmingham Age-Herald when they engaged her to write weekly articles. Her first article, entitled “Negro Dialect,” warned of the gradual disappearance and loss of the language and culture of formerly enslaved rural African Americans and encouraged efforts to preserve their dialects.
Although Young enjoyed most of her success with her dialect stories, throughout the 1890s she also published non-dialect stories, including historical tales and romance, but they met with mixed reviews. Despite these relative failures, by 1900 her name was well-known throughout Alabama. Young realized that her successes lay in her popular interpretation of African American life in post-war Alabama. Her works fit with a general movement in both the South and the North to romanticize the antebellum South as a sort of “Golden Age” of honor and chivalry, typically called the Lost Cause.
In 1900, Young sent a manuscript under her pseudonym Eli Shepperd to R. H. Russell Publishing Company of New York. It was immediately accepted, and by 1901 Young’s first book entitled Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and Other Negro Lyrics and Monologues was published. Plantation Songs was a collection of songs, rhymes, and African American hymns and enjoyed immense critical and popular success. In 1902, Young published her second book, Plantation Bird Legends, a collection of poems, stories, and illustrations that was immediately successful and built her reputation as a major southern literary figure. Additionally, it solidified her position as one of the nation’s foremost dialect writers. Joel Chandler Harris, the renowned creator of the Uncle Remus character famous for his Brer Rabbit stories, sought her collaboration on one of his works and his artist, J. M. Condé, illustrated her Plantation Bird Legends and Behind the Dark Pines.
After the success of her two books, Young turned to writing children’s stories. In 1903, she published her first children’s book, Bessie Bell, a short story about a homeless child whose life in a Roman Catholic children’s home was filled with wonder, joy, and sorrow. Bessie Bell received critical praise and became so popular that it was listed on the official Alabama Young People’s Reading Circle and Rural Library List for that year. It was republished in 1910 with the title Somebody’s Little Girl.
In addition to remaining active in writing and publishing, Young participated in several stage events, including an acclaimed 1903 recital at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City, where she read her stories, lyrics, and poems accompanied by a musical ensemble. In August 1912, she published When We Were Wee, a children’s book that recounted the games children played at the homes of her grandparents and the everyday life of children during the Civil War. The book met with favorable reviews and popular success and was reprinted several times. Soon after, Young published Behind the Dark Pines, a collection of 55 African American dialect folk tales told by an elderly woman character. Widely described as her best work, Behind the Dark Pines takes place in a sentimentalized, make-believe world of happiness. In it, the old woman offers moral counselling and wisdom through tales of her animal children and their adventures. The stories feature the Brer Rabbit character as well as Mister Frog, Brer Buzzard, and other animals wearing clothes like the characters made famous by Harris.
Young later published Two Little Southern Sisters and Their Garden Plays, a 1919 children’s book containing a series of short stories whose subjects focused on a vegetable, flower, or tree. It was popular with the general public and was adopted as supplementary reading by both the Alabama and Tennessee school systems. Minute Dramas: The Kodak at the Quarters (1921) was a collection of dialect verses similar to Plantation Songs. During this time, she is reported to have written another book, Fifty Folk Fables, but it does not appear to have been published.
Young continued to write for national journals and make appearances throughout Alabama. On several occasions she spoke at colleges and universities, including the University of Alabama. There in 1926 she was introduced by Prof. Carl Carmer, whom she later accused of “appropriating” some of her material for his 1934 Stars Fell on Alabama. By the time Young turned 70, she was focusing on sentimental poetry and religious hymns, but as she aged her writing and activity slowed. She took to strolling around Greensboro and spending time with young children, who knew her as “Miss Mattie.” In May 1941 she suddenly became ill, and on May 9, 1941, she died. She is buried next to her father and mother in Stokes Cemetery in Greensboro. She never married. Young was enshrined in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame at Judson College in Marion, Perry County, in 1986.
Works by Martha Strudwick Young
Plantation Songs for My Lady’s Banjo and Other Negro Lyrics and Monologues (1901)
Plantation Bird Legends (1902)
Bessie Bell (1903)
Somebody’s Little Girl (1910)
Behind the Dark Pines (1912)
When We Were Wee (1913)
Two Little Southern Sisters and Their Garden Plays (1919)
Minute Dramas: The Kodak at the Quarters (1921)