George Marion O’Donnell Papers
Scope and Content Note
The papers of George Marion O’Donnell date from approximately the 1870s to 1982. The bulk of the collection, however, dates from the 1940s and 1950s. It includes O’Donnell’s correspondence, journals, and daybooks, which reflect his interest in modern literature and the influence of several Vanderbilt and other Southern literary figures over his own work. His correspondence includes one letter each from Allen Tate, John Peale Bishop, and Harriet Owsley, and a brief scribbled note from John Crowe Ransom. His journals from the 1930s and letters from friends and colleagues in the 1940s, however, often mention Tate and Ransom, along with Andrew Lytle, Cleanth Brooks, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Katherine Anne Porter. Two photograph albums include numerous pictures of these literary figures, notably of Tate and Welty, but also of Porter, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, and William Faulkner. O’Donnell’s literary career is further documented by the manuscripts and published versions of many of his poems, stories, essays, and reviews included in this collection. Lecture notes provide a glimpse into his teaching career.
The collection also includes some of the papers of Gordon Roysce Smith, Jr. His correspondence includes 173 letters received from O’Donnell during 1944-45 while Smith was in the Navy. Those letters primarily describe O’Donnell’s day-to-day activities and could be categorized as “love” letters. O’Donnell’s journals from the 1930s provide a glimpse into what he called the “gay group” in Nashville, and his letters to Smith and letters from LeRoy Leatherman, Edward McGehee, and John Shinn provide further insight into his homosexuality, although he appears to have rarely addressed the issue directly.
The O’Donnell Papers are divided into eleven series, as follows:
- Biographical and Personal
- Journals and daybooks
- Collected writings and publications
- Gordon Roysce Smith, Jr.
Series I: Biographical and Personal, 1922-70, nd (.1 cu.ft.)
Biographical information includes articles, obituaries, resumes, lists of writings, and genealogical information regarding the Bell and Hutchens families. Also includes some financial documents regarding loans and legal documents such as deeds and wills; most of the legal documents relate to the affairs of O’Donnell’s aunt (?), Fannie Hutchens Bell, whom he cared for in her later years until her death in the mid-1940s.
Series II: Correspondence, 1934-1962, nd (1.4 cu.ft.)
Includes 883 letters received from and copies of 97 letters sent to 116 individuals, not including Gordon Roysce Smith. (For letters from O’Donnell to Smith see Series X). Major subjects include the Southern literary circle of the 1930s and 1940s, with Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, and Katherine Anne Porter as frequent topics of conversation. Correspondence with Lawrence Bass, LeRoy Leatherman, Edward McGehee, and focuses heavily on literature and the arts. Correspondence with Pearl McLellan, a friend and attorney in Greenwood, Mississippi, provides insight into O’Donnell’s attitudes toward race relations and his support of desegregation in the 1950s. Arranged alphabetically and chronologically.
Series III: Journals and Daybooks, 1933-1961 (1.0 cu.ft.)
Five volumes of journals from 1933 to 1940 detail O’Donnell’s experiences while a student, from the importance of Southern literary figures on his intellectual development to his involvement in the underground homosexual community in Nashville. From 1932 to 1961, O’Donnell also maintained daybooks, recording more briefly his activities and thoughts. Arranged chronologically.
Series IV: Writings, 1933-1961, nd (1.3 cu.ft.)
Includes published and unpublished articles, lectures, poetry, reviews, short stories, and one play, along with notes and sketches for two novels. Arranged first by document type and then alphabetically by title.
Series V: Notes, c. 1930s-1950s (.8 cu.ft.)
Consists primarily of O’Donnell’s notes for classes that he taught, along with some notes from classes in which he was a student and notes for an idea for a symposium on poetry and tradition that would be given by the “Southern group” -- i.e., John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, etc. Arranged topically.
Series VI: Collected Writings and Publications, 1882-1959 (.4 cu.ft.)
Articles, several complete magazines, and two books, including the first issue of Time magazine and articles and stories by friends and colleagues with whom O’Donnell also corresponded. Arranged alphabetically by author or title.
Series VII: Clippings, c. 1940s-1950s (.2 cu.ft.)
Clippings regarding modernism in literature, the arts, and architecture, political matters, and general and human interest stories.
Series VIII: Miscellany, nd. (.1 cu.ft.)
Address book and creative and performing arts memorabilia, such as programs and advertising leaflets. Two folders.
Series IX: Photographs, c. 1860s-1961 (.2 cu.ft.)
Seventy-three photographs and ten loose album pages of O’Donnell and his family, including seven tintypes, and one folder of photograph illustrations from Sumner C. Powell’s book The Puritan Village. Four folders.
Series X: Gordon Roysce Smith, Jr., 1944-1982 (1.5 cu.ft.)
Includes 544 letters received from and copies of 16 letters sent to 81 correspondents, including 173 letters from George Marion O’Donnell from the period of Smith’s Naval service, 1944-45. Major topics include Smith’s personal relationship with O’Donnell, the book trade, and censorship in Georgia in 1953. Also includes Smith’s poetry, articles, and drawings, personal calendars for the years 1962-63, 1965-66, and 1975, collected publications, and clippings. A group of sixty-eight photographs includes an 8x10 of Charles M. Schulz autographing Peanuts books and a 4x5 negative of Cleanth Brooks signing his work at a booksellers’ convention. Organized by document type and/or alphabetically and chronologically.
Series XI: Oversized materials, c. 1860s-1964 (1.0 cu.ft.)
From the O’Donnell papers, this series includes oversized photographs of Pearl McLellan and her historic Mississippi home, five photograph albums, and one scrapbook. Two photograph albums include pictures of Robert Frost, Andrew Lytle, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, Carl Sandburg, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Ford Maddox Ford, and Caroline Gordon. The scrapbook consists primarily of clippings from the 1930s; O’Donnell has entitled it “Phenomena in the Arts.” From the Smith papers, the series includes two sketch books, the John F. Kennedy memorial edition of Life magazine, and fifteen movie posters from the 1950s and 1960s. Organized by document type.
- Inclusive: c.1870s - 1982; Bulk: 1940s-1950s
Language of Materials
George Marion O’Donnell was born January 21, 1914, on the Silver Home Plantation near Midnight, Mississippi. Upon graduating from the Belzoni, Mississippi, high school in 1932, he entered Memphis State University. In 1934, he transferred to Vanderbilt University, where he was influenced by several well-known Southern literary figures, including Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Andrew Lytle. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Vanderbilt in 1936 and continued his graduate studies there, receiving the Master of Arts in 1939.
Having completed his studies, O’Donnell embarked upon a career as a college English professor and writer. As a teacher, he specialized in modern literature and creative writing, but also taught a variety of classes ranging from freshman composition to world literature, arts, and philosophy. He spent 1939-40 at Vanderbilt as a fellow in creative writing. From 1941 to 1945, he taught at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), then served as a guest instructor at Harvard University from 1945 to 1947. After two years as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, O’Donnell was appointed to a professorship at Oglethorpe University near Atlanta, Georgia, where he taught from 1947 to 1957.
During his career, O’Donnell’s literary criticism, reviews, short stories, and poetry appeared in over thirty scholarly journals, popular and literary magazines, and anthologies, including New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, A Southern Vanguard (Prentice-Hall, 1947) and the Agrarian symposium Who Owns America? (Houghton-Mifflin, 1936). He was particularly noted for his essays on William Faulkner and for his poetry.
After spending 1957 to 1959 on leave in New Haven, Connecticut, O’Donnell resigned from Oglethorpe and made New Haven his home, ostensibly to pursue his writing full time. In reality, he suffered from manic depression and alcoholism and had entered a period of decline that resulted in his death in 1962, just prior to his 48th birthday.
From approximately 1943 until his death, O’Donnell had as his companion Gordon Roysce Smith, Jr. Smith was born in Dothan, Alabama, in 1924. He was studying at Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1942-43 when he met O’Donnell, who was on the faculty at that time. After serving in the United States Navy as a quartermaster aboard a submarine from 1944-46, Smith joined O’Donnell in Baton Rouge and continued his studies at Louisiana State, although he apparently did not receive a degree.
Smith spent most of his post-military career in the book trade. From 1949 to 1957, he worked at Davison-Paxson Booksellers in Atlanta as an assistant buyer. From 1957 to 1971, he managed the book department at the Yale Co-op in New Haven. In 1971-72, he served as Educational Project Director for the American Booksellers Association in New York City. He was subsequently appointed Executive Director of the American Booksellers Association, a post that he held until his retirement in 1984.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Smith wrote several articles and edited a few publications in the book trade. From 1966 to 1971, he produced and moderated a television talk show, “The Opinionated Man,” in New Haven. He also served on the Executive Committee of the New Haven Festival of the Arts from 1959 to 1969 and on the Board of Directors of the Starlight Music Festival from 1964 to 1971. In both Georgia and Connecticut, Smith was active on issues related to censorship.
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Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository
Jean and Alexander Heard Library
419 21st Avenue South
Nashville TN 37203 United States