Read More About Jane Merchant
Jane Merchant was born in 1919, the last of four children of a farm family. When she started walking as a toddler, she broke her leg. When that leg healed, she broke her other leg. The doctor diagnosed her with “brittle bones” disease, a rare condition now known as osteogensis imperfecta.
Her parents decided she was too frail for school, so she was taught at home. At night she would sit at the kitchen table as her siblings did their homework, asking questions until she was satisfied they had told her everything they had heard at school that day. She also read everything her parents had at home—the Bible, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Greek mythology, and American history. Eventually her sisters started going to the Knoxville public library for her, and, on a few occasions, she was taken there to pick out books on her own.
When Jane was 12, both her legs and one arm were broken just moving her from her bed to a wheelchair. Jane was then forced to lie flat on her back in bed until she was 15 when she was given an adjustable hospital bed so she could be raised to a sitting position without straining her bones. Later doctors learned to keep osteogensis imperfecta patients in wheelchairs so they would not lose their mobility, but no one knew that then. Jane would spend the rest of her life bedridden.
Jane began to write poetry during this time. She wrote mainly about the land around her and about her religious beliefs.
I have seen the dawn begin
With a thread of lavender
Hinting, to my leafless sight,
There is something more than night.
I have seen the dawn begin
With a sky of scarlet fire
Declaring, high above each tall
Leafy tree, that day is all.
Whether that reviving ray
Shines with great or little power
On barren tree or grassy lawn
Matters little—it is dawn.
The Merchants lost their farm during the Great Depression , and then later had to move to an even smaller house with no electricity when her father could no longer work two jobs to support his family. When she was 21, Jane went deaf, a side effect of her disease. She wrote in her diary then that she went into a six-month depression—not writing her friends or poetry. Jane started to come out of it when “she read a book by Harry Fosdick that claimed circumstances do not determine the life of a person as much as his response to the circumstances and used the examples of the blind and deaf Helen Keller and the deaf composer Beethoven,” wrote Sarah Ricketts, Merchant’s biographer.
Jane wrote, “I rely on Fosdick saying, ‘We all have cellars in our houses, but we don’t have to live in them.’” She began to keep regular hours for reading and writing. In addition she crocheted baby clothes to be sold in department stores in Knoxville to help with the family finances. Finally her sister, Elizabeth, who was working as a nurse, was able to borrow money to buy a seven-acre house and orchard in Fountain City, and the Merchant family was back on a farm.
In 1946, Jane finally got the courage to send her poems out to prospective publishers—mostly magazines. Her first poem published for money was in 1946 to the Progressive Farmer for $15. But quickly Good Housekeeping bought one and then the Saturday Evening Post purchased two. Soon her poems were appearing regularly in these and other publications around the state and nation. She was interviewed by the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Soon the Post or other magazines would ask her for poems about specific topics, or asked for light-hearted poems.
When it was cold it didn’t take
Grandmother more than half a minute
To walk down to the big mailbox
And back with all that might be in it
But when the first warm days of spring
Began it took her half the day—
She stopped to speak to every leaf
And blade of grass along the way.
The death of her father in 1949 meant the family once again lost their farm. This time Jane and her mother moved to Knoxville and, with her sister’s help, bought a house inside the city. Jane mourned the loss of the countryside, but discovered that the people of Knoxville knew who she was and were anxious to meet her. She made new friends who admired her poetry. And, she continued to receive letters from across the U.S. and the world. She was a prodigious letter writer, sometimes receiving and sending multiple letters a day.
With the help of editors at Abingdon Press, Jane published her first book of poems in 1956, “The Greatest of These,” which won a national prize that year. A Knoxville funeral and ambulance company director who read about her disability donated one of his company’s gurneys, which allowed her to leave her home for the first time in six years. Her family would take her on trips to the mountains and to the countryside. Many of these trips inspired poems, along with her readings from the Bible.
Additionally Jane kept careful notes in her diary of everyone and everything she had seen each day including the books she read, down to even the “Peanuts” comic strip that day. In January 1971, she recorded in her diary that she had counted her poems. Out of the more than 3,300 poems she had written, 2,080 were in print. Jane wrote one more book that year, and then in January 1972 died of heart failure at the age of 52.
I am sustained
In soul and mind
By great words, spoken
To all mankind.
But the best words
My heart has known
Were small words, spoken
To me alone
The Life and Poetry of Jane Hess Merchant
A Window on Eternity
By Sarah Jorunn Oftedal Ricketts
Abingdon Press, Nashville 1989
- Jane Merchant holding one of her books and at her typewriter. Photos by Gerald Fisher. From her biography, The Life and Poetry of Jane Hess Merchant. A Window of Eternity, by Sarah Jorunn Oftedal Ricketts.