“If you have to walk, be sure to start in time.” On the masthead of “The Prairie Flower,” Carlisle’s first newspaper.
With the nation’s newspaper industry going through a transformation phase, it’s enjoyable to remember pioneers of the industry.
Opie Pope Read was one of those newspapermen, as well as being an author and lecturer. He co-founded the comic newspaper The Arkansas Traveler.
Read was born on Dec. 22, 1852, in Nashville, Tenn., the youngest of eleven children. His mother and father were Guilford and Elizabeth Wallace Read. During young Opie’s early life the family lived in Gallatin, Tennessee. His education was limited but he was a voracious reader.
After writing his first anonymously published piece for a local newspaper, he learned the printing trade at the Franklin Patriot. He furthered his education by attending classes at Neophogen College in Gallatin while working as a printer. He went on road as a tramp printer in Tennessee and Kentucky before joining friend Harry Warner in Carlisle (Lonoke County). The two edited and published the Carlisle Prairie Flower in 1876. After it collapsed later that year, Read went to Little Rock, where he got an International Typographers’ Union card and became city editor of the Arkansas Democrat. He left after a falling out with owner-editor J. N. Smithee, partly because of Read’s habit of embellishing his stories and partly because of his description of the so-called “last duel in
Arkansas,” between Smithee and John D. Adams, in terms unflattering to Smithee.
Read worked for three different Central Arkansas newspapers: the Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Evening Democrat, and the Evening Ledger. His work as city editor and his associations with the state’s antebellum elite provided him with decades of literary material.
Read earned a national reputation covering the 1878 outbreak of yellow fever in Memphis, Tennessee, for The New York Herald. He also worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Cleveland Leader before returning to Little Rock where he became city editor of the Arkansas Gazette. He continued to write sketches, on one occasion inventing the death of veteran state politician Bradley Bunch, who was quite alive.
In 1882, Read and Philo D. Benham founded The Arkansas Traveler. It soon had a national audience for its folksy material, but many in Arkansas were critical of the image it suggested. Read moved the paper to Chicago in 1887 and retired from it in 1893. He also married Benham’s sister, Ada, in 1879 and had eight children, two of whom died in infancy.
Starting with Up Terrapin River (1888), Read wrote a string of highly successful novels and short stories that he populated with Southern character types: the ex-planter, the old judge, the northern businessman, the liberated woman, and African Americans were all woven in specific geographic settings, most commonly Arkansas, Tennessee, or Kentucky. In two of his Arkansas works, he applied his expertise in newspaper lore: Len Ganset (1889) and Emmett Bonlore (1891) differed by contrasting the country weekly with the urban daily.
Read’s family had owned slaves, and Read might be described as an enlightened paternalist who had no use for the age’s rising racism. In some of his short stories, African Americans had their own voices. His novel My Young Master (1896) had a slave narrator.
A noted golfer, fisherman, and poker-player, he once in a poker game traded away his future royalties from a book in exchange for $700 so that he could continue playing – those royalties amounted to more than $50,000.
Read died after a fall on Nov. 2, 1939 in Chicago. In accordance with his instructions, he was cremated. Obituaries appeared not only in Chicago and Little Rock but also across the nation. “His name,” the New York Times read, “was inseparable from Arkansas.” Read was little read after his death. “He wrote something that everybody read but nobody remembers,” critic Shirley M. Mundt observed.
Source: Encyclopedia of Arkansas