James Steet

(1903–1954) Author, Journalist, Minister

James Howell Street, an American novelist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, and minister, was born on 15 October 1903 in the sawmill village of Lumberton, Mississippi, to John Camillus Street, a liberal Irish Catholic lawyer, and his uniquely named Scots-Irish Calvinist mother, William Thompson Scott. While Street never considered himself a literary writer, he acquired international recognition for his work in fiction, which relied heavily on his thorough understanding of southern culture and folklore. Street’s literary corpus includes seventeen novels and thirty-five short stories. A majority of his novels became best sellers, and The Biscuit Eater, Tap Roots, and Good-Bye, My Lady were later adapted into successful films.

As a teenager, Street accepted journalist positions with newspapers in Laurel and Hattiesburg. In 1923 he married Lucy Nash O’Briant and decided to follow in his father-in-law’s footsteps by becoming a Baptist minister, attending Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary and Howard College. However, Street grew unsatisfied with pastoral work and decided to return to journalism and writing novels.

Street worked as a feature writer for newspapers in Memphis, Nashville, and Atlanta until he was offered a position as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, where he covered such high-profile national events as the Scottsboro trial and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. While working for Hearst, Street published his first book, Look Away! A Dixie Notebook (1936), a nonfiction travel narrative. In 1940 he returned to Mississippi and settled his family in Natchez, but five years later they relocated again to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, because Street wanted his two war-veteran sons and daughter to attend the University of North Carolina. Street assisted with the establishment of the University of North Carolina’s school of journalism and continued to write fiction. Suffering from glaucoma, Street devised a routine in which he dictated his books for three hours and then turned to editing the day’s work. In his spare time, his hobbies included raising cacti and collecting recordings of American ballads, walking sticks, books, and pipes.

During the 1940s and early 1950s Street composed a five-novel historical fiction series regarding the progress of the Dabney family in Lebanon, Mississippi, from the late eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. The Dabney Pentology—Oh, Promised Land (1940), Tap Roots (1942), By Valor and Arms (1944), Tomorrow We Reap (1949), and Mingo Dabney (1950)—primarily involved issues of race and honor in the South. Street wrote two semiautobiographical novels classified as works in his “preacher” sequence, The Gauntlet (1945) and The High Calling (1951). Street believed that his sociological novel, In My Father’s House (1941), was his best work. Both The Biscuit Eater (1939), arguably his most famous work, and Good-Bye, My Lady (1954) concerned country boys and dogs. Street also wrote another nonfiction travel narrative, James Street’s South (1955), and two nonfiction historical pieces, The Civil War (1953) and The Revolutionary War (1954).

On 28 September 1954 Street died of a heart attack.

Further Reading

  • James L. Cox, Mississippi Almanac (1997)
  • Josephine Frazier, James Street: A Bio-Bibliography (1958)
  • Lindsay Roberts, James Street: A Biography (1999)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title James Steet
  • Coverage 1903–1954
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 9, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018