Poet Laureate Louise McNeill (January 9, 1911-June 19, 1993) was widely praised both early and late in her poetic career. As a poet she also accomplished many of the tasks normally reserved for historian, biographer, and folklorist. There are, as well, a legion of West Virginians who warmly recall Louise McNeill as their professor of history or English.
She was born on the family farm in Pocahontas County and died near Charleston. Her father, G. D. McNeill, was also an author, having written a still valuable account of the decline of wilderness along the Cranberry and Williams rivers. His book, The Last Forest, contained rich anecdotal and narrative material.
Louise McNeill is best remembered as the author of Gauley Mountain, her first full-length collection of poems, published by Harcourt Brace (1939) with a foreword by Stephen Vincent Benét. Much is rightly made of its vivid portrayal of character and folkways. Although reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, her portrayals show a greater depth and poignancy. Additionally, Gauley Mountain reveals McNeill as a poet with great technical skill, able to create a masterful range of imagery and rhythm. In all of her work, not only Gauley Mountain, she created a wide range of characters, especially rich with the details of life lived in rural Appalachia. McNeill was often hailed for her unflinching acceptance of local speech and dialect into the overall construction of her rhythmic poetry.
McNeill continued publishing poetry throughout her life but did not publish another major collection until 1972. She was appointed poet laureate by Governor Jay Rockefeller in 1979, holding that title until her death. Her later years saw a rebirth of public interest in her work and several important publications, including her prose memoir, The Milkweed Ladies (1988). The humble yet rich environment that shaped her psyche and eventually her poems is clearly revealed in this book. The exceptional concluding chapter, ‘‘Night at the Commodore,’’ shows how, rooted in family and history, McNeill can see not only for herself, not only for her native West Virginians, but also for the entire nation, the true and ominous magnitude of the unleashing of the atomic bomb.
Also published later in her life was Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems (1991), a compilation underscoring the strength and vitality of the entire body of her work. This book is also important for the revealing biographical introduction written by Maggie Anderson, one of a generation of younger poets influenced by McNeill.
McNeill married Roger Pease in 1939, and was known by his surname as well as her own. She taught history and English at West Virginia University, Potomac State College, Concord College and Fairmont State. In Louise McNeill we had not only a supremely gifted poet and dedicated chronicler of family and folk tradition, we had a writer who could still say: ‘‘Until I was sixteen years old, until the roads came, the farm was about all I knew.’’
This Article was written by Marc Harshman
Last Revised on October 20, 2010
McNeill, Louise. Gauley Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939.
McNeill, Louise. The Milkweed Ladies. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1988.
McNeill, Louise. Hill Daughter: New & Selected Poems. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1991.