Novelist, poet, editor, critic, and teacher, Guy Owen (1925-1981) grew up on a tobacco farm in Bladen County, North Carolina. Although his college education was interrupted by three years as an army private in Europe during World War II, he ultimately earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Although he never returned there to live, his Depression-era boyhood in the Cape Fear region, spent accompanying his grandfather to auctions and clerking at his father’s general store, informed his writing, providing him with a lifetime of material for his fiction and poetry.
In the years between earning his MA and his PhD., Owen taught briefly at Davidson College and Elon College. During a four-year stint as an associate professor at Stetson University in Florida, he published his first poetry collection, and founded Impetus, the literary magazine which would evolve into the Southern Poetry Review. In 1960, he published his first novel, Season of Fear, a Depression-era story set in a rural community. The story of one man’s struggle between religion and sex was critically well received, but its seriousness left Owen ready to write some lighter fiction. The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man follows the comic adventures of an aging confidence man and his young AWOL sidekick in a thinly fictionalized Bladen County. Mordecai Jones and the guitar playing Curley Treadaway were to become two of Owen’s favorite characters. The book was made into a movie starring George C. Scott and Michael Sarrazin, and the characters reappeared in two more books to “con” the greedy and gullible who only get what they deserve. The 1970 novel Journey for Joedel won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for best work of fiction by a North Carolinian and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
In 1962, Owen took a position at North Carolina State University. He continued over the years to publish stories and poems in numerous periodicals, and his collection The White Stallion and Other Poems won a Roanoke-Chowan cup for poetry by a North Carolina poet. Throughout his career, until within months of his death, Owen worked hard to promote and improve the poetry of others. He co-edited several anthologies of state and regional verse, lectured and conducted workshops across the state for writers of all levels, participated in the “poetry in the schools” program, and directed the North Carolina Poetry Circuit, which brought together poets and college students.
As a writer and teacher of writing, Guy Owen adhered to two principles. The first was specificity: “Never write ‘flower’: write ‘rose’ or ‘marigold’ or ‘chrysanthemum.'” The second was “Make your reader comfortable,” meaning that a writer should give enough information in a clear style to enable the reader to easily enter the writer’s world. Owen’s many honors include a Bread Loaf Scholarship, the Henry H. Bellamann Foundation Award, a Yaddo Fellowship, and the 1971 gold medallion North Carolina Award for Literature.
Guy Owen’s archival material, held in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is here.
View the Guy Owen collection at the North Carolina State University library.
Visit the Southern Poetry Review, founded by Guy Owen in 1958.
Watch a clip of The Flim-Flam Man starring George C. Scott from 1967:
(Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)