- Spirit of the Delta: the Art of Carolyn Norris (2011)
- Lucy Somerville Howorth: New Deal Lawyer, Politician, and Feminist from the South (2011) with Martha H. Swain and Anne Firor Scott (2006)
- Lizzie (1995)
- Going to Graceland (2012)
by Audrey Allen (SHS) 1998
Dorothy Sample Shawhan, a Mississippi educator and author, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on July 16, 1942, to George V. and Jessie Sample. She was raised in Vermont. Her father, who died in 1987, was a farmer and a remarkable storyteller. Her mother was a retired bookkeeper who was living in Cleveland, Mississippi, when she died.
Shawhan attended Tupelo High School and was a hard-working student. Along with her studies, she also made time for many various extracurricular activities, such as writing for the school newspaper, riding in Friday afternoon parades before football games, decorating for dances, and writing epic poems to commemorate memorable events at her school. She continued her education at Mississippi State College for Women where she was an English major, serving in several class and student body leadership roles and graduating with many honors. Postgraduate work included a M.A. Degree in English from LSU in 1966 and an MFA degree in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1991.
In 1968 she married Ralph Thompson Shawhan. They lived in Bloomington, Indiana, where she worked as an editor for instructional television as well as an editor for IU Publications. In 1974, she and Ralph had a son named George. In 1981, the Shawhans moved to Cleveland, Mississippi, where she joined the faculty at Delta State University as an English and journalism professor She went on to become chair of the Department of Languages and Literature, serving in that position for fourteen years.
Shawhan co-founded, with Marion Barnwell, a literary journal named Tapestry, which publishes faculty work at Delta State and where many of her short stories have been published. She was also co-publisher for and contributor to a short story collection, On the Way Home, by Ruby Shoes Press, published in 1996. Shawhan devoted much of her career to writing about strong women and their contributions. Her acclaimed novel, Lizzie, was published in 1994, followed by the biography of Lucy Somerville Howorth which she co-authored with Martha Swain. Another book, Spirit of the Delta: The Art of Carolyn Norris, presents the work of the self-taught artist Norris. Shawhan was a big Elvis fan and wrote the novel Going to Graceland. At her death she was writing the biography of Fannye Cook, founder of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and the Natural Science Museum.
Her first major work was the book Lizzie about a governor’s daughter who is struggling to make her own way in Mississippi throughout the early 1900’s. It is written from many different points of view–Lizzie’s mother, father, best friend, teacher, and other historical characters such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Shawhan’s inspiration for this book came when she discovered that a woman in Clarksdale printed a newspaper for women in the 1920’s. This information gave her the background she needed to invent the character Lizzie and initiate her story. Shawhan worked on the book for two or three years while on sabbatical leave from Delta State University (Shawhan). After the book was published, it received the Mississippi Library Association’s 1996 Author’s Award for fiction.
The novel Going to Graceland is a Canterbury Tales kind of situation. The characters are on a bus tour through the foundation of American popular music, beginning in New Orleans and traveling up Highway 61 to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. Her non-fiction biography is about Judge Lucy Somerville Howorth, who was a lawyer, a feminist, a historian, and a Mississippi legislator in the 1930’s,who ran a newspaper in the 1920’s about instructing women on how to use their newly-won vote (Shawhan).
In 1997 she received the AAUW Woman of Achievement, Mississippi division. In 1998, she was awarded the MUW Alumni Achievement Award. Shawhan also received the Mississippi Humanities Council’s 2004 Teacher Award for Delta State University. In 2006, she was honored by receiving the Kossman Teaching Award at Delta State University and was the fall commencement speaker.
Shawhan died after a brief illness on December 21, 2014, at the age of 72.
by Audrey Allen (SHS) 1998
The book Lizzie by Dorothy Shawhan is a unique type of novel. As it opens, the reader is at once introduced to the distinct way in which Dorothy Shawhan wrote the book. She uses short chapters in which a different character writes each brief section. At one point, you will be reading about a present day antique shop; and the next thing you know, you will have jumped back in time to read about the adventures of Lizzie and the people who are close to her.
It all begins when Mr. Cavanaugh, an antique dealer, comes across some old papers that turn out to be forgotten diary entries. As he reads these, he becomes enraptured by the story of Elizabeth Dunbar. Lizzie is a fiery girl from the day she is born. Back in the 1920’s women were expected to be meek and lady-like, but between her father’s upbringing and her own spirit, Lizzie is as far from this description as “a girl can get.” In her teen years she begins to get into so much trouble that her father sends her away to an exclusive boarding school where she supposedly learns to become a “lady.” While at school, she almost gets expelled for returning back to the school drunk after an outing with her friends. The only reason she is not given this punishment is because she is the governor’s daughter, and the incident would create a scandal. She ends up running away from the school and going to work with her cousin for the war cause (World War 1). When her father finally discovers her whereabouts, he brings her home and leaves her to live in their old house while he goes to live with his new wife. From there, everything goes downhill for Lizzie, but in the end everything turns out how the reader knows it should.
Dorothy Shawhan did a superb job writing this book. I really enjoyed reading it. Its fast pace really kept me involved the whole time. I found myself laughing and crying with the joys and mishaps of Lizzie. She is the kind of person and has the kind of spirit that I’m sure most women wish they possessed. I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories of the struggles of women in the South.
by Audrey Allen (SHS) 1998
When and where were you born?
I was born in Tupelo, MS on July 16, 1942.
Can you tell me something about your family?
My father was George V. Sample, a farmer and wonderful storyteller. My mother is Jessie Sample, a bookkeeper, now retired and living here in Cleveland. My father died in 1987.
Where did you go to high school and what were you like at the time?
I attended Tupelo High School and enjoyed my high school days a great deal. I studied hard, but had lots of fun too – writing for the school newspaper and planning pictures for the annual; riding in the Friday afternoon parades before each football game; decorating for the dances after the games; writing epic poems to commemorate memorable events like getting caught with classmates in a snowstorm on the way back from a basketball game; packing as many people as humanly possible into a friend’s convertible to go to the lake for a party.
I was inspired to write Lizzie by discovering in Mississippi history that a woman in Clarksdale had a newspaper for women in the 1920’s. This became a germ for the fictional life of Lizzie.
How long did it take you to write your book?
I worked on the book for two or three years when I was on a sabbatical leave from Delta State. I returned to school — George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. This allowed me time to write.
I have a draft for a new novel called ‘Going to Graceland.’ It is a Canterbury Tales kind of situation where the characters are on a bus tour through the roots of American popular music beginning in New Orleans and traveling up Highway 61 to Graceland. I’m also working on a biography (along with Dr. Martha Swain at Mississippi State) of Judge Lucy Somerville Howorth, an outstanding feminist and Mississippian who died last August at age 102.
How has Mississippi or living in Mississippi influenced your writing?
Mississippi and my time spent here definitely provide the creative spark for my fiction. I’ve written things about other places that never seem to quite take off.
Do you have any advice for future writers?
My best advice for future writers – WRITE, no matter what. Don’t put it off. In the process of writing one discovers, learns, and grows.
- Amazon.com sells the book and gives a brief synopsis of it.
- Dorothy Shawhan web site
- Remembering Delta State Professor Dorothy Shawhan
- Booth, Martha Owens.”Mississippi State University Librarian Recommends Book by Cleveland Author.” Starkville Daily News 3 (April 10, 1996).
- Shawhan, Dorothy. Email interview April 10, 1998.