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John Marsden Ehle, Jr. (December 13, 1925 – March 24, 2018)[1] was an American writer known best for his fiction set in the Appalachian Mountains of the American South. He has been described as "the father of Appalachian literature".[2]

John Ehle
John Ehle winston salem journal.jpg
BornJohn Marsden Ehle, Jr.
(1925-12-13)December 13, 1925
Asheville, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedMarch 24, 2018(2018-03-24) (aged 92)
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
GenreHistorical fiction, Southern literature, Non-fiction
Rosemary Harris (m. 1967)
ChildrenJennifer Ehle

Life and careerEdit

John Ehle was born in Asheville, North Carolina, the oldest of five children of Gladys (née Starnes) and John Marsden Ehle, an insurance company division director.[3] His paternal grandparents emigrated from Germany and England, respectively.[4]

He enlisted in the United States Army during World War II, serving as a rifleman with the 97th Infantry Division.[5] Following his military service, he went on to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures in 1949 and later a Master of Arts degree in Dramatic Arts (1953). He also served on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1951 to 1963.[3] During his tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill, he wrote plays for the American Adventure series that played on NBC Radio and began writing his first novel.

Ehle's first novel, Move Over Mountain, was published by Hodder & Stoughton of London in 1957. The following year, he returned with a biography The Survivor: The Story of Eddy Hukov. In 1964, Harper & Row published perhaps his most well-known book, The Land Breakers.[6] The book is a fictional account set in the late 18th century that traces the story of the first white pioneers to settle in the Appalachian wilderness of the mountains of Western North Carolina. The Land Breakers, out of print for several decades, was republished in 2006 by Press 53, a small imprint in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

With The Land Breakers, he started a seven-part series of historical fiction about the Appalachian region.[7] Two of his eleven novels, The Winter People and The Journey of August King, have been adapted as films.

Among his six works of non-fiction is the 1965 book, The Free Men, which is a first-person chronicle of the desegregation struggle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.[3]

Personal lifeEdit

Ehle was married to English actress Rosemary Harris and was the father of actress Jennifer Ehle.

Ehle was active in a number of social, educational, and anti-poverty projects in the state of North Carolina. From 1963-1964, Ehle served as special assistant to North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford, an appointment Sanford often called his "one man think tank."[8] Sanford credits Ehle for the idea behind the statewide initiative The North Carolina Fund (a non-profit organization funded primarily by grants from the Ford Foundation to fight poverty in North Carolina).[9] As an extension of Governor Sanford's focus on education, Ehle was instrumental in the founding of both the North Carolina School of the Arts,[10] and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, among the first such state-supported high schools for the gifted and talented in the United States.[11] He was also responsible for the founding of the North Carolina Governor's School, the first summer program of its kind for gifted students in North Carolina.

From 1964 to 1966, Ehle served as an adviser on President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House Group for Domestic Affairs. From 1965 to 1968, Ehle was a member of the United States National Committee for UNESCO. He also served on the National Council for Humanities (1966–1970).

Legacy and honorsEdit

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, Manuscripts Department, maintains the John Ehle Papers,[12] an archive which contains drafts, notes, correspondence, and other materials pertaining to Ehle's many books. The collection also includes a large collection of audio recordings of interviews, video, and photographs which document the civil rights activities observed by Ehle while he was writing The Free Men.

Ehle was elected to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. He has also received awards including: the Thomas Wolfe Prize, the Lillian Smith Book Award, the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, and the Mayflower Award.[13]



  • Move Over Mountain (1957)[14]
  • Kingstree Island (1959)
  • Lion on the Hearth (1961)
  • The Land Breakers New York : Harper & Row, 1964. ISBN 9780060111700, OCLC 774094
  • The Road New York, Harper & Row, 1967. OCLC 1090449
  • Time of Drums New York, Harper & Row, 1970. ISBN 9780060111748, OCLC 93792
  • The Journey of August King (1971)
  • The Changing of the Guard (1974)
  • The Winter People (1982)
  • Last One Home (1984)
  • The Widow's Trial (1989)


  • The Survivor: The Story of Eddy Hukov (1958)
  • Shepherd of the streets; the story of the Reverend James A. Gusweller and his crusade on the New York West Side (1960)
  • The Free Men (1965)
  • John Ehle; James J Spanfeller, The cheeses and wines of England and France : with notes on Irish whiskey, New York; London: Harper and Row, 1972. ISBN 9780060111670, OCLC 1045048947
  • Trail of Tears (1988)
  • Dr. Frank: Life with Frank Porter Graham (1993)


  1. ^ Correspondent, PAUL GARBER Special. "John Ehle, celebrated writer and founder of the N.C. School of Arts, dies at age 92". Winston-Salem Journal. Retrieved Aug 25, 2019.
  2. ^ Wadington, Katie (27 March 2018). "Appalachian novelist John Ehle dies at 92". Asheville Citizen-Times. Retrieved 27 March 2018.
  3. ^ a b c "Biography of John Ehle". The North Carolina Writers' Network. Archived from the original on October 4, 2006.
  4. ^ "Ehle family". 2013. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  5. ^ Sandomir, Richard (13 April 2018). "John Ehle, Who Rooted His Novels in Appalachia, Is Dead at 92". The New York Times. p. A24. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
  6. ^ Archived November 17, 2005, at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Finding Harper Lee". Greensboro News & Record. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28.
  8. ^ Monks, Sheryl (2013). "Biography of John Ehle". Forsyth County Public Library. Archived from the original on 6 February 2012. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  9. ^ "North Carolina Fund Records, 1962-1971". UNC-Chapel Hill. 2013. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  10. ^ "UNCSA mourns the loss of founder John Ehle". Retrieved 2018-08-27.
  11. ^ "NC School of the Arts". UNC-TV. Archived from the original on 2015-09-13. Retrieved 2015-10-31.
  12. ^ "John Ehle Papers, 1918-1993". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2013. Retrieved 4 November 2013.
  13. ^ "Biography: John Ehle". Press 53. Archived from the original on 2014-09-10. Retrieved 2015-10-31.,
  14. ^ "Ehle works". OCLC WorldCat. 2015. Retrieved 31 October 2015.

External linksEdit