Wayne County, Kentucky.
McBeath was brought up on a farm, acquiring only a common school education, but learning his grandest lessons of instruction and inspiration, as he tells us, from theopen book of Naturebefore him, the towering Cumberland Mountains that shut him in, and all the minstrelsy of the picturesque woodland where, in boyhood, he loved so well to meditate or roam.
At the age of twenty-seven he found himself on board the first railroad train he ever saw, with $34 in his pocket, bound for college. He determined that if he could not find a way open he would make one. He sought and obtained work at school to help pay his way. He rented a room (or one-fourth of it, rather), at 12½ cents a week, and for nearly two years lived on baker’s bread, molasses and water, at a cost of 35 cents a week. At the end of three years he graduated with two diplomas, as the valedictorian of his class, and to-day is one of the most accomplished scholars in America.
He had written much, he says, but published little; and in 1888, while President of the Cooper Normal College, at Daleville, [Mississippi], he began the preparation of three books for publication, when the building took fire and all his literary productions, the accumulation of nearly twenty years, were burned to ashes. I’ll declare, it makes me want to cry for him and for humanity. It seems to me that I would rather have had a million dollars burned up; for if those books of prose and poems, had been at all in keeping with what we have seen of his works, they would have won for him almost, if not quite, the first place in American literature, and blessed the world at long as language lives.
William David Upshaw
Earnest Willie, 1899