Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919) was a writer, poet, and artist whose works capture the essence of the natural world and the culture of Southern Appalachia.
Early life and education
Miles was born in Evansville, Indiana in 1879 and moved to the area that is now Red Bank, Tennessee when she was a young child. Later, she and her family moved to Walden's Ridge (now Signal Mountain), Tennessee. A talented young woman, she left home to study art in St. Louis, Missouri. However, she fell in love with a young man named Frank Miles and moved back to Walden's Ridge to become his wife.
Career as writer
Emma and Frank struggled to make ends meet, and oftentimes their major source of income was from the short stories and poems Emma sold to magazines such as Harper's Weekly. She also made money selling her art. Emma's major success was The Spirit of the Mountains published in 1905. This genre-defying book has elements of local color, short story, travel narrative, personal memoir, and cultural analysis. Her other works include Our Southern Birds and Our Southern Flowers. She also wrote several articles for local newspapers, the most popular of which were entitled The Fountain Square Conversations, a fanciful series in which birds gather at a fireman's memorial fountain in downtown Chattanooga and have philosophical conversations on life. A fourth book, presumably focused on nature, The Good Gray Mother, was never published and the manuscript has been lost.
Emma and Frank had a difficult marriage. They and their children often suffered from poverty and hunger, and Emma was very bitter about Frank's inability to find paying work to support the family. The separated a number of times, and during these times Emma lived in the Francis Willard Home for Women in Chattanooga, in order to make money in town. Emma proved to be a darling of society, and she often gave lectures which were highly regarded and well-received. Emma also held the post of writer-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee for one term. Yet no matter how much Emma enjoyed the intellectual life of the city, she always returned to her simple life on the mountain with her husband.
This life of continual poverty eroded Emma Bell Miles's health and after spending several years in the Pine Breeze Sanitarium in Chattanooga, she died in a small house Frank had rented in what is now North Chattanooga, in 1919. By this time their children were mostly living with others better suited to care for them. She was buried in a simple grave in Red Bank, Tennessee.
The major scholarly source on Emma Bell Miles's life is the biography, Emma Bell Miles by Kay Baker Gaston published by the Walden's Ridge Historical society. There are two collections of Emma Bell Miles material in the Special Collections and Archives of the Lupton Library at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga: The Kay Baker Gaston Collection (Emma Bell Miles' biographer), and the Jean Miles Catino Collection (Papers of Emma's daughter, including several of the unpublished journals Emma kept in the last eleven years of her life).
The Spirit of the Mountains has been republished in a facsimile edition by the University of Tennessee Press in 1975.