Ferrol Sams Jr Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Fayetteville, Georgia, 1922. Education: Attended Mercer University; Emory University, M.D. 1949. Military Service: Served in military 1943-47. Career: Physician in private practice, Fayetteville, Georgia, 1951—; instructor in creative writing, Emory University, Atlanta, 1991—. Awards: Townsend Prize for Fiction, 1991; D. Lit.: Mercer University, 1987, Emory University, 1992, Medical University of South Carolina, 1993, and Rhodes College, 1994. Agent: c/o Longstreet Press, 2140 Newmarket Parkway, Suite 118, Marietta, Georgia 30067, U.S.A.
Run with the Horsemen. Atlanta, Peachtree Publishers, 1982.
The Whisper of the River. Atlanta, Peachtree Publishers, 1984.
When All the World Was Young. Marietta, Georgia, Longstreet Press, 1991.
The Widow's Mite and Other Stories. Atlanta, Peachtree Publishers, 1987.
Epiphany: Stories. Marietta, Georgia, Longstreet Press, 1994.
The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America (nonfiction), paintings by Jim Harrison. Marietta, Georgia, Longstreet Press, 1988; also published as The Passing: Stories, Marietta, Georgia, Longstreet Press, 1988.
Christmas Gift! (nonfiction). Marietta, Georgia, Longstreet Press, 1989.
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Ferrol Sams, Jr., is an occupant of a dwindling, if not nonexistent, category of contemporary writers for whom writing is secondary to another occupation. Within a relatively short period of time, Sams has created a substantial body of work and has cemented himself as a significant voice in southern literature, all the while maintaining a successful medical practice with his wife Helen in Fayetteville, Georgia. Sams is best known for his colorful and accurate depictions of the early twentieth-century American South, representing a family-oriented lifestyle and community that is now disappearing in the name of progress and growth. Several of his works—both novels and short stories—have been adapted for the theater, and all of his works have been praised for their wry southern humor and for their introspective reflections on the nature of rural life, love, and sexuality. He has similarly been praised for his use of southern dialect and idiosyncrasies, and for richly developed characters. Though Sams has also produced nonfiction accounts of his early childhood, he is predominantly a fiction writer, and is best known for a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels detailing his own youth and education in Georgia and his experiences in World War II.
At the age of fifty-eight, Sams revised private journals written earlier in his life, adapting and embellishing them to create his first novel. His trilogy begins with the work Run with the Horsemen, published in 1982. This novel, as with much of his work, is told from a first-person perspective, and the plot closely parallels the life of its author. The novel centers around a young prankster born in rural depression-era Georgia. Sams recounts his childhood through the voice of Porter Osborne, Jr. (Sams's own great-grandfather was named Porter), who is given the nickname "Sambo," a name that had been given to Sams as a young farmboy born into a similar rural setting. Porter's varied, rustic adventures and shenanigans serve as a backdrop to explore and depict the early southern American scene. Besides presenting conditions of early southern families and the farming life, Sams has been praised for confronting issues of race and gender while neither embracing nor encouraging stereotypes in his characterizations.
The novel was warmly received by critics and the public, encouraging Sams to continue the tales of Porter as he left the farm and headed to the university in The Whisper of the River. Porter's journey to "Willingham University" parallels Sams own education at Mercer University, and exposes the young boy not only to traditional forms of learning and pedagogy, including a thorough introduction to canonical English literature, but also to the advanced sexual situations and challenges to accepted beliefs that come with further maturity and distance from home. The novel shows Porter questioning the Christianity taught in his childhood and, while he is still marked by the intelligence evident in the first novel, readers will also find him nevertheless engaging in his similarly characteristic pranks and escapades. Anyone who ended the series here might conclude that the smoking, sexually active, and rebellious Porter had affected a complete break from the stability of his home and family, although throughout the novel there is a "whisper of the river" to remind him of the stability of the land and its community, a familiar theme throughout Sams's work.
It is clear, at the end of The Whisper of the River, that a further novel is required to resolve both the approaching World War and Porter's process of maturation. Sams, however, was at first not entirely prepared to write that novel. Faced with writer's block on the longer project, he turned to producing other works. The result was a collection of short stories, The Widow's Mite and Other Stories, and two volumes of nonfiction childhood memoirs, The Passing, and Christmas Gift!. Although Sams has been given moderate criticism for his overabundant use of southern colloquialisms, these collections again exploit his knowledge of the southern homestead and southern traditions to good effect. In The Widow's Mite, he returns to biblical and spiritual subjects used in his previous novels, though the collection transcends the boundaries of the typical southern oral storytelling tradition. Sams employs varied dialects, perspectives, and narrative formats, including a story told from the perspective of a small girl, a nonfiction letter to a friend of Sams, and even contemporary tales that might be disturbing to those familiar with Sams's otherwise homespun narratives. The final story, "Porphyria's Lover" (referring to the Robert Browning poem of the same name), is a first-person confessional narrative that confronts entirely secular themes. The narrator of the story is an adulterous bisexual man who relates a tale of betrayal, sexual disease, and murder.
Despite the occasional profane morality tales, however, Sams is best known for the capricious, lighthearted nature of his fictional stories and nonfiction reflections. He is perhaps best recognized for his witty cataloging of southern behavior, and his reminiscences of southern traditions and communities that have now been erased or forgotten. The Passing argues for the value of small-town life, with its minimal traffic and earnest inhabitants, who have now gone the way of progress, swallowed in "the avarice of politicians, the greed of developers," while Christmas Gift! celebrates the unity and love of Christmas traditions shared by the family—traditions of Christmas that survived and flourished even in the gift-deficient times of the economic Depression of Sams's youth.
The final novel in the trilogy of Porter Osborne, Jr., is entitled When All the World Was Young, a reference to G. K. Chesterton's poem "Lepanto," cited throughout the novel. While the story is filled yet again with ribald tales of trickery and horseplay, the novel continues the trilogy's themes of maturity, spirituality, and community. Porter, ready to die for his country during World War II, soon confronts the deaths of those around him and learns about his own mortality. In response to this, his father writes in a letter from home, "You are not becoming a man, you are a man." Porter also continues to confront the issue of his faith in God, finding at the end of the novel that doubt and faith are concepts that do not exist independent of one another. Another repetitive theme in the novel is the continuity and stability of the land; Porter carries a lump of red Georgia dirt in his shoes to remind himself of his home and his reasons for fighting. The novel ends with Porter's reflection that, even if he has not found himself in his journey, at least "I sure as hell found America!"
Sams's work following the trilogy includes a book of three short stories given the collective title Epiphany. In this work, Sams furthers his experimentation with the short story format and also continues to write stories that readers will surely interpret as autobiographical in nature. The title story, "Epiphany," involves an old, eccentric doctor whose relationship with a patient seems more like psychoanalysis than physical therapy, both men maturing by the end of the story. The subsequent stories in the collection explore the subject of enduring relationships between people (apparently Sams and his own wife), and connections between old and young, including observations on morality and slavery, which continue to be repetitive themes for Sams.
With few exceptions, Sams's work has been enthusiastically received by reviewers and the reading public. His detailed description of southern living reveals traditions and personalities that may be quickly and quietly passing from our world, and his writing urges a return to, and preservation of, the warmth of familial community. His work is influenced by the rich history of the South and by the literary history of England and America. Sams's narratives include tales of maturation, struggles with faith, blossoming sexuality, and, perhaps above all, idiomatic southern wit and wisdom. Though Sams is too recent an author to have received a great deal of literary criticism, his skill and craftsmanship has led many reviewers to place him among the best of contemporary southern writers.
—Steven J. Zani
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