Biography and History

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1957, Madison Smartt Bell was raised on a farm in Williamson County just outside Nashville. His father, an attorney, and his mother were friends with the Agrarian School of poets at Vanderbilt University, which included Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and John Crowe Ransom. Bell did not follow his parents to Vanderbilt but attended Princeton University instead, although as an undergraduate English major he did do independent research on the Agrarian School. While at Princeton Bell studied fiction-writing with George Garrett and received several prizes for his writing: the Ward Mathis Prize in 1977 for his short story, “Triptych;” the Class of 1870 Junior Prize in 1978; the Francis LeMoyne Page Award in 1978 for fiction writing; and the Class of 1859 Prize in 1979, the year in which he graduated summa cum laude.

In 1983 Bell published his first book, a novel about drug dealers entitled Washington Square Ensemble, while living in the New York City area, also the setting of his second novel Waiting for the End of the World (1985), which deals with the New York City underworld and with terrorism. From the time of his graduation from Princeton Bell lived in New York City or the New York metropolitan area until moving to the Baltimore area in 1984 to teach in the Goucher College English Department where he is still employed today. It is not, however, until his fifth novel Soldier's Joy (1989) that he consciously returns in his work to a specifically Southern setting and to the theme of racism. Soldier's Joy is about a professional banjo player in rural Tennessee who gets shot in a racial struggle involving a black preacher whom he and his fellow Vietnam-veteran friends are trying to protect. (Bell himself is a professional banjo player.) Although he continues to be eclectic in his choice of theme and setting, for a short time Bell wrote a column on Southern literature for Southern magazine and has contributed to several anthologies of specifically Southern fiction.

Bell has also traveled widely in England and Europe and has used that experience in novels such as the thriller Straight Cut (1986) and the more philosophical novel Doctor Sleep (1991), as well as in some of his shorter fiction (e.g., “Petit Cachou” in Barking Man and Other Stories, 1990).

In his most recent fiction, All Souls' Rising (1995), Bell turns to the genre of the historical novel and writes about race in late 18th century Haiti.

Bell received his M.A. from the creative writing program at Hollins College in Virginia in 1981. He has taught as a visiting writer at several workshops and summer programs as well as in the Iowa Writers' Workshop (1987-88) and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (1989). He and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, who were married in 1985, have both held Guggenheim fellowships, allowing them each a year to pursue their writing careers uninterrupted by teaching duties. They have a daughter named Celia Doval Bell.

Madison Smartt Bell worked briefly in the publishing world in the New York area before he began his teaching career and has written about the difficulties young writers have breaking into the world of published fiction. He has helped many of his own students become published writers, among them Carolyn Chute, Hillary Johnson, Marcia Golub, Amy Homes, Wayne Johnson, Simon Black, Brooke Stevens, and Darcey Steinke.

Source: From the finding aid for C0771

  • Madison Smartt Bell Papers. 1940s-2014 (inclusive), 1986-2003 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0771

    Madison Smartt Bell (1957-) is an American novelist best known for his trilogy of novels about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, published between 1995 and 2004. His papers consist of writings, personal and professional correspondence, family documents, memorandum books, printed materials, and subject files, including drafts, galleys, and proofs for his novels, short stories, and other writings from 1983 until 2011.