The Poetry of Sam Ragan’s Life Well-lived
North Carolina, particularly the Sandhills community, still is shaped by the spirit of this newspaper icon
By Lewis Bowling
North Carolina poetry and prose writing started to flourish in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Into this era came Sam Ragan, who began his newspaper career in the 1930s. Ragan became very influential in North Carolina journalism in 1941 after being named as state editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh, one of the largest and most noted papers in the state. But he really began to influence writing in North Carolina in a big way in 1948 when he first published his Southern Accent newspaper column.
Southern Accent would run from 1948 to 1996, 48 years. Ragan’s prose was, like his poetry, clear and concise, but also very engaging. Many North Carolina writers had their books publicized by Ragan in this column, and many saw their poems in print for the first time here. Reynolds Price, while still in high school, stayed up all night because he was so excited to get a newspaper the next morning knowing he would be seeing his name in print for the first time in Southern Accent. It was a rare column when Ragan didn’t mention one of the literary magazines in the state or one of the book publishers. Ragan used Southern Accent to praise, and in a few instances, criticize North Carolina authors. Writers from around the state, and indeed the country, knew Southern Accent would keep them up-to-date on North Carolina literature. Southern Accent included literary criticism and social commentary.
As the Director of the North Carolina Arts Council in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ragan distributed funds to the state literary magazines, many of which were getting started and in much need of money. He also doled out money to small presses in the state. During this time, Ragan started the Poetry-in-the Schools program, which sent writers into public schools for week-long residencies.
While with The News and Observer in Raleigh, Ragan published a “Poem of the Week.” Ragan devoted at least two full pages, sometimes more, to literary efforts from around the state each week in The Pilot in Southern Pines, which he bought and ran from 1969 to his death in 1996. There would be book reviews, mostly of books of North Carolina authors reviewed by North Carolina authors. Poems, columns, articles, and stories written by North Carolina writers would be on these pages. The book pages in The Pilot gave local and state authors a place to publish their poems, to write an article, and to get paid for a book review.
Teaching writing was a passion for Ragan, which he did at North Carolina State University, St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst. Students of Ragan’s published more than 50 books of prose and poetry.
For most of his career, Ragan traveled the state, moderating poetry and writing events, such as the annual Writers Roundtable. He made hundreds of speeches about literature and promoted North Carolina literary happenings. He did this in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and even more after being chosen as North Carolina Poet Laureate in 1982, a post he held until his death in 1996. As Secretary of Cultural Resources in the early 1970s, he used the position to promote arts throughout the state. He contributed to the formation of the North Carolina Writers Network in 1985.
Ragan was the prime mover behind the establishment of the James and Katharine Boyd estate into what today is the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines. The writers-in-residence program at Weymouth was begun by Ragan, offering writers a refuge to pursue their writing projects. The North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, housed in the former study of James Boyd in an upstairs room at Weymouth, was the brainchild of Ragan.
Sam Ragan would light up when you called him a newspaperman, and it was as a journalist, editor and publisher that he made great contributions also. He once said: “Newspaper work has interested me from way back. In newspaper work, you are an observer, and you are on the scene, and you touch everything that’s important.” As editor of The News and Observer in Raleigh and The Pilot in Southern Pines, he made his mark in those fields.
Sam Ragan is North Carolina’s Literary Godfather. To be honest, this is not a title I came up with on my own. In doing research, I kept coming across so many other writers who called Ragan that. He no doubt deserves the title. Rebecca Godwin, the Director of the Sam and Marjorie Ragan Writing Center at Barton College had this to say: “Nurturing writers and helping to create an atmosphere conducive to the arts, Sam Ragan is largely responsible for the thriving literary community this state currently enjoys.”
To borrow a line from a Ragan poem, “Birth and death, and in between a little living.” Well, Sam Ragan did a lot of living from his first years in rural Granville County, North Carolina, to becoming North Carolina Poet Laureate and North Carolina Literary Godfather. And his light still shines.
Lewis Bowling is the author of Sam Ragan: North Carolina’s Literary Godfather, the 2020 winner of the Sam Ragan Award given by St. Andrews University in Laurinburg. Shelby Stephenson, Marsha Warren, Clyde Edgerton, and Lois Holt wrote forewords. The book may be ordered at cap-press.com or through your local bookstore.