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ESSAY: James Ross

My Search for James Ross,

One-Hit Wonder

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My timing was off with James Ross. I bought a paperback copy of They Don’t Dance Much, Ross’s 1940 crime novel, a few years after his 1990 death. If I had discovered the book in 1975 when Southern Illinois University Press reissued it as part of the Lost American Fiction series, I would have been able to meet the author that William Gay called, “the man who invented Southern noir.” Ross never published a second book, but as Gay suggested, “maybe one was enough.”

Meeting Ross in 1975 would have been as easy as driving up Market Street from my dorm at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to his office at The Greensboro Daily News. Ross, then an editorial writer for the Daily News, probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about the book with me, though. Frustrated that he produced only one published novel, Ross didn’t discuss it much with anyone later in life. 

They Don’t Dance Much has a checkered publishing history. Houghton Mifflin did one printing in 1940 of two thousand copies, and U.S. sales were poor. British, Italian, and French editions didn’t do much better. The novel was abridged and reissued as a Signet pulp paperback in 1952. In 1975, the book was chosen by series editor Matthew J. Bruccoli for the Lost American Fiction canon that resurrected books by authors such as Caroline Gordon, E. P. O’Donnell, and Floyd Gibbons. Despite this opportunity to find a new audience, sales were also few for the SIU edition, barely topping 2,200 out of a print run of 3,000. 

Newsweek senior writer Malcolm Jones called They Don’t Dance Much a “blistering novel about a rural Carolina roadhouse with a dance floor [that] is packed with enough desperate characters to make murder merely inevitable, but no less horrifying.” Jones, a Ross colleague at the Daily News in the late 1970s and early 1980s, put the book on Newsweek’s 2009 list of ten favorite crime novels, alongside works by James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett.  

 


 

I was attracted to the book after judging it by its cover. The British Harrap edition has garish orange type on a black background with an illustration of a Depression-era gas pump and automobile. In the foreground is a bloody, dead body just above the author’s name.

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I put James Ross on a shelf, packed him up in boxes, and re-shelved him during a couple of apartment moves before I finally got around to reading him. Five pages in, I was hooked. Twenty pages in, I was enthralled. When I reached the end, I scoured the book for info on James Ross. Where was he now? Why hadn’t I heard of him? Would he accept a lunch invitation? 

Here is the cryptic bio from the book’s title page:

James Ross, author and newspaperman since 1954, was born and grew up in North Carolina where he attended Elon and Louisburg Colleges. After Second World War service he enrolled in Columbia University but did not complete a degree. He has farmed, played semi-pro baseball, was a clerk in the US Internal Revenue Service, and an editorial writer for the Greensboro Daily News in North Carolina.

I immediately contacted Katie Nash, special collections librarian and archivist at Elon University, where I am on the faculty. (Elon College graduated to a university in 2001.) She found a picture of Ross from the 1930s. She also found his obituary.

Angry with myself for waiting so long to dive into the book, James Ross became my new project.

Leads turned into other leads, until I was fortunate enough to locate Ross’s widow, Marnie, still living in Greensboro just twenty minutes from Elon. Marnie was Ross’s second wife, and they were together for twenty-five years until his death. After his brief stint at The Savannah Morning News, Ross, by then forty-four years old and divorced, joined the Greensboro Daily News (now the News & Record) in 1955. Marion Knox Polk, known as Marnie, some twenty years James’s junior, wrote music reviews for the paper. They began dating shortly after she joined the Daily News in the early 1960s, and they married in 1965.

When I arrived at Marnie’s house, she greeted me with a vigorous handshake and led me inside to her dining room. Cluttered all around were file folders full of typewritten manuscripts on aging paper. “You go ahead and look all you want to, and I’ll be outside,” she said. With that, she exited to mow the grass with a manual lawn mower. 

This was the mother lode. I leafed through unpublished short stories and novels, with James Ross’s handwritten corrections in the margins. I sat at the table where Ross wrote in vain for years, until poor health forced him into a continuing care facility. When I asked Marnie if I could take the papers with me, she generously lent them to me for research. That was in 2010. Since then I have filled a six-foot-tall Ikea bookcase with related books and articles, as well as interviews with Ross’s friends and relatives.  

 


 

While William Gay referred to They Don’t Dance Much as “Southern noir,” Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter’s Bone, is credited with coining the term “country noir.” In a 2009 interview in Southeast Review, Woodrell said: 

To me, noir has got to have a tragic ending; that’s the number one thing. There are all kinds of ways you can structure it. It can be about any kind of subject matter, as long as it leads to a tragic ending…. There were actually a lot of great country noirs in the thirties: Thieves Like Us, They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross, who only wrote one novel. Really, the first few books by James Cain were famous country noirs. The Postman Always Rings Twice is out in some shithole town; it’s not urban.

 

Ross bristled at comparisons with Cain, whose first book, The Postman Always Rings Twice, was, unlike Ross’s novel, a best-seller. “At the time I was writing They Don’t Dance Much, I had never read one line of Cain,” Ross said in an interview with Philippe Garnier. “The authors whom I admired the most were Hemingway, Faulkner, Ring Lardner, and Mark Twain. The only ones with whom I ever discussed literature are Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Jean Stafford, and Flannery O’Connor.”

Gay, in an essay published in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Chattahoochee Review, wrote that They Don’t Dance Much

was as noir as novels get. It made the pseudo-tough style of Cain read like Dick and Jane Go To The Sea Shore and reminded me of one of the early short stories of Ernest Hemingway…. As far as I’m concerned, this book is where dark Southern fiction began, and any writer who works in the field owes Ross a debt of gratitude, whether he or she has read They Don’t Dance Much or not.

The plot of They Don’t Dance Much revolves around Smut Milligan, a moonshiner who runs a gas station near the fictional town of Corinth, North Carolina. Other characters include Catfish, an old black man who tends Smut’s still; county Democratic political boss Astor LeGrand; the wealthy Charles Fisher and his flirtatious wife, Lola, who used to date Smut; Bert Ford, a fifty-year-old bachelor-farmer rumored to be hoarding cash; and the novel’s narrator, a poor farmer named Jackson (Jack) McDonald. The novel is set in 1939, the year Ross wrote it while working for the Internal Revenue Service. 

At the book’s opening, Jack McDonald has just lost his forty-five-acre farm as a result of two years of unpaid taxes. His perpetual debt leads him into a web of deceit, theft, and, eventually, murder. McDonald is broke and homeless, and this poverty will lead him into a sinister affiliation with Smut Milligan.

Jack is hired at Smut’s filling station, where he also secures a room in the back. Smut, an enterprising if unscrupulous capitalist, gradually remodels the station into a roadhouse with a restaurant, gambling parlor, dance hall, and tourist cabins that rent by the hour. Prior to the renovation, Ross describes the look and location of the business:

Smut Milligan’s filling station was about fifteen feet off from Lover’s Lane and it was sunk down a little below the level of the road. It was a wooden building, painted yellow, and had a tin roof…. He had a lot of merchandise in it; as much as there is in a general country store. But he sold more liquor than anything else.

As the novel’s plot unfolds, Smut kidnaps and kills Bert Ford for his money, about twelve thousand dollars hidden in fruit jars on Ford’s property. Jack is dependent on Smut for both income and shelter and reluctantly helps him hide Bert’s body inside Smut’s still, deep in the Carolina woods. The two men later return to the site to drain the homemade beer and cremate Bert’s body, preserved inside the now empty still. “When we finished there was about fifty gallons of it and it looked like good liquor, but neither one of us had the stomach to taste it,” Jack ruminates. This beer-as-embalming-fluid device serves an example of Ross’s macabre humor and also as a plot point when Catfish goes to check on the still, nearly discovering the body inside.

Jack and Smut have a mutual distrust and eventually come to blows over the cash stolen from Bert. Smut is later shot dead, not by Jack, but by a jealous Charles Fisher, who then goes home and shoots his wife and himself:

I looked toward Smut just as Fisher shot him in the belly. Smut put his hands down there; he made a wry face and swayed a little to the right. Sam Hall dropped the grease gun against one of the empty oil cans and it made a loud noise. Fisher shot again and I heard the bullet whining in the pine thicket back of the woodpile.
Smut was shot bad, but he made a dive at Fisher. Fisher waited until Smut was almost touching him, then shot him in the forehead. Smut fell over on his face. When he fell, he clawed his fingers into the dirt.

Smut, a murderer, is murdered himself. Instead of being convicted for Bert’s murder and sentenced to hang, he is shot by a jealous husband. Jack, still broke, is left to fend for himself again, leaving the roadhouse he called home for a brief time:

I went into my own cabin then, got the bag that was tied with a piece of window cord, stepped outside again, and pulled the door to. Night was coming on. The wind out of the east was wet and raw. I turned up the collar of my windbreaker and pulled my hat down around my ears. It was beginning to rain a little when I crossed the yard to the highway. 

 

The book ends here in tragedy, ambivalence, uncertainty.

 


 

James Ross was born near Norwood, North Carolina, in rural Stanly County in 1911 and was the eldest sibling of a respected regional writing dynasty. Dubbed the “Writing Rosses” as early as the 1950s, the four siblings—James, Fred, Eleanor, and Jean—collectively produced numerous essays, criticism, poetry, short stories, and novels from the 1930s to the present. 

In Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont: A Guidebook, author Georgann Eubanks delineates the network of connections to Ross’s sisters Eleanor and Jean that would become important to James’s writing career:

Upon their graduation from Norwood High School, Eleanor Ross and her sister, Jean, attended Woman’s College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Eleanor studied with novelist and literary critic Caroline Gordon and her husband, poet Allen Tate.

Eleanor Ross told Tate and Gordon about James’s writing talent, and the couple agreed to look at his work, establishing a lifelong friendship. When Tate and Gordon left Greensboro in 1939 for Princeton, their relationship with the Rosses continued. They Don’t Dance Much was published the following year. 

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The Writing Rosses: James, Eleanor, Fred, and Jean.

Ross was accepted for a residency at the prestigious Yaddo writer’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1948, where he met Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, and other notables. O’Connor, who was working on her first novel, Wise Blood, recommended Ross to her literary agent, Elizabeth McKee. “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent,” O’Connor said in a letter to McKee. “He wrote a very fine book called ‘They Don’t Dance Much.’ It didn’t sell much. If you are interested in him, I daresay he would be glad enough to hear from you.” 

“I am always a little embarrassed when people ask me why I only wrote this novel,” Ross confessed to Garnier years later. “In fact, I not only wrote another, but two—which were rejected by editors…. I wanted to write short stories; that’s what I liked. But the things I sent to editors were never published in newspapers or magazines. It was Caroline Gordon, a fellow novelist who lived at that time in Greensboro…who suggested to me that I first write a novel to make myself better known.” 

Elizabeth McKee took Ross on as a client and helped him place several stories. In a letter to Ross at Yaddo, McKee said, “Miss Flannery O’Connor wrote me recently about your work. She said that you are at present working on some short stories and that you think you might like to have a literary agent. I would very much like to see some of your stories and hear about your writing plans.” Ross sent McKee five stories, including “Zone of Interior,” which appeared in the July 30, 1949 issue of Collier’s, and “How to Swap Horses,” published in the magazine two weeks later.

“I am really delighted that these two stories have sold,” McKee wrote in a congratulatory note to Ross. “Perhaps this is really the beginning of high good luck for you!” In the decade after They Don’t Dance Much, Ross had eight stories published in respected but low-paying literary journals such as Partisan Review and Sewanee Review, as well as in the national popular trade publications Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and Argosy before the well dried up

 


 

Raymond Chandler mentions the book in two of his personal letters. In a 1953 letter, Chandler conjectures that Ross must have continued to publish under a pseudonym: “I often wonder what happened to this fellow that he never wrote any more books, or if he did, it must have been under some other name.” In correspondence to his English publisher Hamish Hamilton the following year, Chandler ponders the fate of those who write in obscurity: “James Ross wrote a novel called They Don’t Dance Much, a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town. I’ve never heard that he wrote anything else.”

Knox Burger, a former Collier’s editor, became Ross’s agent later in life. Until his death in 2010, Burger constantly advocated for They Don’t Dance Much, sending out copies with pleas to reprint it. In 1993, Dutton senior editor Ed Stackler rejected the book, asking in his reply to Burger, “All the more curious…is what ever happened to Ross’s second novel?”

Although he associated with and caught the attention of some of the best writers in the country, James Ross never achieved fame. He did earn respect, though, and continues to do so.

southern literature

Inscription on back: “James Ross (1950?) Greensboro, N.C. ‘Here is a picture of me interviewing a dog. He wanted A GOOD WRITE-UP.’ ”

In a 2010 essay called “James Ross and the Agony of the One-Hit Wonder,” Bill Morris, another former Daily News colleague and now a novelist himself (Motor City, 1992) wrote, “When [Ross] died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.” 

I’m certain that I read Ross’s work in the pages of the Greensboro newspaper when I was in college and graduate school in the 1970s and 1980s, and it gives me some small comfort to know I read him while he was actively writing. The Greensboro News & Record published a tribute to Ross after his death:

Ross’s prose, like his view of life, was direct and clear. He saw through pretense and hypocrisy and used his droll sense of humor to expose them. His presence here added significantly to Greensboro’s—and North Carolina’s—impressive literary tradition, and he will be greatly missed.

Not a bad legacy for a one-hit wonder.

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