Although a native of Tennessee, novelist Robert Rylee is considered a Mississippi writer. He lived in Mississippi for many years, and two of his three novels explore Mississippi and its people.
Rylee was born in Memphis on 17 September 1908 to a family whose members had lived in Tennessee and Mississippi for more than a century. After attending public elementary school in Memphis, he spent his high school years at Phillips Andover Academy, a prestigious Massachusetts preparatory school. Rylee then attended Amherst College, graduating in 1929. The following year Rylee obtained a job as a clerk with the Hardware Dealers Mutual Fire Insurance Company, which sent him first to Mississippi and subsequently to New York, Wisconsin, and Texas, where he settled permanently. While working his way up the company’s ranks over the years, Rylee found time to travel in Europe and to write three novels.
Rylee’s first novel, Deep Dark River (1935), was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club Selection. Set in 1930s Mississippi, the novel chronicles the lives of black and white characters on a plantation. Rylee detailed the vicious injustices of the white family operating the plantation and situates Mose Southwick, a black man framed for murder, as the hero. The novel was well received at the time of its publication and tackled progressive subject matter about the psychology of race and power in the South.
Rylee’s second novel, St. George of Weldon (1937), depicted the life of a middle- class family in the Mississippi Delta. The novel challenged the myth of class binary between the Delta’s planters and tenants during this period by focusing on a group that represented an economic middle ground. The book also revealed insights into the sociological conditions in the Delta.
Rylee’s final novel, The Ring and the Cross (1947), is set in a fictional Texas city and tackles the economic and social conflicts between a US senator and a shipbuilder. The characters in the novel represent the class groups that clashed during this period.
Rylee’s novels express his deep understanding of the region and its people, while his writing reveals his view of the novel as a vehicle for interpretation and evaluation of southern life, history, and tradition. He died on 16 October 1981.
- L. Moody Simms Jr., Notes on Mississippi Writers (Fall 1973)