What about Jane?

Knoxville likes to flaunt her literary giants -- and rightly so. After all, what other town our size can claim a significant handful of Pulitzer Prize- winning writers and an Oscar nod or two? We do have a lot to gloat about. This list of A-list writers who called Knoxville home is impressive:  Frances Hodson Burnett, Cormac McCarthy, James Agee, Alex Haley, Nikki Giovanni, and even Elizabeth Gilbert. 

But what about Jane? She hardly gets a mention in the shadow of these titans. Nowadays, most people know Merchants Drive, which was named for her family, but they don't know Jane Merchant. Her personal story is remarkable for her immense suffering and celebrity in her relatively short 53 years of life. Born in 1919 in Inskip, she was bed-ridden by age 12 due to Brittle Bone Disease, deaf and nearly blind a decade later. But that wasn't what defined her. She was well-known and well-loved around the globe for her literary work, yet most people did not know about her physical health. 

Merchant took up the pen and wrote more than 3,000 poems, many of which were published in the biggest national magazines of the day including Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post. She published several volumes of her work in Petals of LightHalfway up the Sky and The Greatest of These, among her many titles.  She was known mostly for her inspirational/religious poetry and was a fan favorite of Ruth Graham Bell. Carl Sandberg called her poetry "a good companion." Jesse Stuart called her the finest poet of religious poetry in America. 


Biographer Sarah Ricketts tells her story in A Window on Eternity: The Life and Poetry of Jane Hess Merchant. Ricketts says, "To a multitude of friends and fans, she had brought the light into darkness, strength into weakness, courage in trials, hope in suffering, laughter in despair." In it, there are poignant photos of a bedridden Jane who is wheeled out to the porch and able to experience nature. Living life in a self-described "horizontal position" may have provided her a unique view on the world that yielded creativity and a rare kind of gratitude. 

In Women's History Month and on the cusp of National Poetry Month, it's time to give Jane Merchant her due. 

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