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Maxine Hairston

PERRY, GEORGE SESSIONS (1910–1956). George Sessions Perry, writer, the only child of Andrew and Laura (Van de Venter) Perry, was born on May 5, 1910, in Rockdale, Texas. Orphaned at twelve, he was reared through his adolescent years by his maternal grandmother, an autocratic and irascible woman who was the model for a major character in his prize-winning novel, Hold Autumn in Your Hand, and the title figure of his later book My Granny Van. Rockdale and the surrounding area furnished the setting for nearly all of his fiction. Perry attended Southwestern University, Purdue University, and the University of Houston but never received a college degree. At Southwestern he met his future wife, Claire Hodges, and in 1931 he returned from traveling abroad to marry her and move back to Rockdale. Insulated from the worst effects of the Great Depression by a small inherited income, Perry spent the next six years writing six novels and more than fifty short stories about rural and small-town Texas and the semifeudal system of tenant farming that prevailed at the time. Claire Perry acted as his typist, grammarian, and audience. Finally, in 1937, the Saturday Evening Post published one of his stories, and soon thereafter Doubleday published his first book, Walls Rise Up, a comic novel about three vagrants living along the Brazos River. In 1941 Perry firmly established his place on the Texas literary scene with Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a novel about a year in the life of a tenant farmer, perhaps the best agrarian novel about Texas. The book won the Texas Institute of Letters award in 1941 and, in 1942 newspapers reported the book became the first Texas book to win the National Book Award. In 1945 Jean Renoir made a movie, The Southerner, based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, starring Zachary Scott. In 1942 Perry published Texas: A World in Itself, an informal guide to the history, traditions, and folklore of Texas. He continued to write short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentleman, and in 1944 he published his last book of fiction, a collection of short stories titled Hackberry Cavalier.

Declared medically unfit for service in World War II, Perry nevertheless managed to wangle an assignment as a war correspondent and volunteered to go ashore on the Sicily landings in 1943. The death and suffering he witnessed there made such a searing impression on him that he later said it "defictionized" him for life. He found that he could not write much about the war experiences that had moved him so profoundly, nor could he go back to writing lighthearted tales of rural Texas. Consequently, after the war he devoted himself to nonfiction and journalism. In 1949 he published My Granny Van and in 1951 Tale of a Foolish Farmer, an account of his misadventures in buying and trying to run the farm that had been the scene of Hold Autumn in Your Hand. He also wrote an official history of Texas A&M University.

By the late 1940s Perry had established a national reputation as a feature writer for the Post and other magazines, and he and Claire bought a home in Guilford, Connecticut, in order to be near to eastern publishing firms. But as he became successful, Perry developed a growing sense of guilt at having abandoned his roots in rural Texas and his first love, fiction, for what he saw as the easier and more lucrative field of journalism. In terms of the farming metaphors that he liked to use, he felt that he had opted for the easy "sandy land farming" instead of the harder, but more satisfying, "black land farming." His unpublished writings in the early 1950s reflect his deepening depression and his worry about his severe arthritis and his drinking problems. On December 13, 1956, in great pain and tortured by hallucinations, Perry walked into the river near his Guilford home and disappeared. When his body was recovered two months later, the coroner rendered a verdict of accidental death by drowning.

Maxine Cousins Hairston, George Sessions Perry (Austin: Jenkins, 1973). Garna L. Christian, George Sessions Perry: The Man and His Words (Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris, 2009).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Maxine Hairston, "PERRY, GEORGE SESSIONS," accessed July 14, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpe40.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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