John Gould Fletcher had a privileged but sheltered upbringing in Little Rock at the end of the nineteenth century and became one of the nation’s most celebrated poets of all time. Though a gifted writer, his path would be a tortured one.
Fletcher had received critical praise for the early works he published as he toured Europe in the years before World War I. After the war, he returned to the United States and met his greatest successes as a writer. He wrote several collections of poetry and published many others in magazines.
The Imagist style he and others wrote in attempted to present more realistic imagery in poetry instead of abstract ideas. Fletcher worked to create an image of music in his works, and wrote many poems about life in the South.
He published The Tree of Life in 1918 and Breakers and Granite in 1921. He branched out with his writing that year, publishing Paul Gaugin, His Life and Art, a biography of the French artist known for his willingness to break with popular trends and experiment with style and color. However, while he was respected in the artistic community, he struggled with book sales during this period and was critical of his own efforts.
By 1927, Fletcher joined a southern artistic movement called the Fugitives, as more writers and artists expressed dissatisfaction with industrialization and saw the beauty in rural life. He published several poems in their literary magazine, Fugitive, some of which appeared in Fletcher’s next collection of poetry, Preludes and Symphonies, in 1930. Tragically, he suffered a major episode of depression in 1932 and had to be hospitalized for several weeks.
He gradually returned to his writing. The South took a prominent role in his works. In a 1933 poem, "Big River," he described the Mississippi River as "immense and fathomless as the Milky Way," and in a 1940 poem, he described the Ozarks as "These are the mountains that have no history. Cut off from time, none knew them but too late."
He married popular children’s author Charlie May Simon in 1936. The two settled in Little Rock where they built an impressive home on the cliffs of the Arkansas River. The two travelled often and continue to write. Fletcher would dedicate some of the poems he wrote in this period to his wife.
In 1937, he wrote a noted autobiography, Life is My Song. It was his 1938 poetry anthology simply titled Collected Poems that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1939. He became the first southern poet and first Arkansan to be so honored.
His writing slowed down by the 1940s. He published The South Star in 1941. He followed up with The Burning Mountain, another collection of poems, published in 1946. It would be the last collection that he published in his lifetime.
In 1947, he wrote an acclaimed history of the state, Arkansas, a work that became noted for its mix of facts, clever writing style, and critical analysis of events and trends in the history of Arkansas.
In his later years, he had increasing bouts of depression, and his health began to fade. Fletcher could find no peace from the inner demons tormenting him. Though he had many people close to him willing to help him through the darkness, he committed suicide on May 10, 1950.
Years after his death, in 1996, the Central Arkansas Library System dedicated a new library to him in Little Rock, a fitting memorial to one of the state’s great writers.