Manly Wade Wellman: a Brief Biography
Wellman, Obray Ramsey and David Shelton. Info courtesy of Troy Harrison
Wellman at his cabin with Obray Ramsey and guitarist David Shelton

Manly Wade Wellman, a Brief Biography

Manly Wade Wellman was born on May 21, 1903, in Kamundongo (now Angola), Portuguese West Africa where his father Dr Frederick Creighton Wellman was a physician at a British medical outpost. It was there that he first encountered African tales of magic and the spirit world, a fascination that would stay with him for life. His first story published, "The Lion Roared" (Thrilling Tales, 1927), was based on the stories told to him in his African childhood upbringing.

He later moved to the States, going to grade school in Washington DC, prep school in Salt Lake City, and college at Wichita, Kansas where he received a BA in English in 1926. Around that time he started a friendship with Vance Randolf, an acclaimed folklorist and expert on Ozark mountain magic and traditions. Randolf took Wellman on trips through the Arkansas Ozarks, learning folk traditions and meeting the secluded people of the American back country. It was through Randolf that Wellman met folk music legend Obray Ramsey, whose music would have a profound affect on Wellman and his writing.

Also in this period he worked in Wichita at the papers The Beacon and The Wichita

Eagle, and married Frances Obrist "Garfield" (her pen name), who is a horror writer in her own right; she sold her first yarn to Weird Tales in 1939. During the depression Wellman's newspaper work started to dwindle, so he moved to New York where he became Assistant Director of the WPA's New York Folklore Project.

In the late 20's Wellman was writing for Ozark Stories and Thrilling Tales, and then later in the 30's and 40's, the bigger publications Weird Tales, Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories. At this time, Weird Tales published numerous stories based on three of his most famous characters, Judge Keith Hilary Persuivant (writing under the pen name Gans T. Fields), psychic detective and New York playboy John Thunstone, and possibly the most famous and enduring character, John the Balladeer. He also wrote for comic books (what he called "squinkies") and wrote the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures for Fawcett Publishers. Later he would be called into court to testify against Fawcett in a lawsuit by National (D.C. Comics) about plagiarism of Superman by the creators of Captain Marvel. Wellman testified that his editors had encouraged their writers to use Superman as the model for Captain Marvel. Though it took three years, National won their case.

In 1946 Wellman won the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award over William Faulkner for his Native American detective tale "A Star For A Warrior". Apparently Faulkner was quite upset to be second fiddle to a sci-fi and horror writer. Faulkner indignantly wrote to the editors of the magazine, proclaiming that he was the father of the French literary movement and the most important American writer in Europe.

After serving as a lieutenant in WW II, Wellman moved his family to Pine Bluff, North Carolina, population 300, to be closer to the folksy backwoods people he was starting to write about. There he immersed himself in American southern mountain folklore and history, becoming an expert on the Civil War and the historic regions and peoples of the Old South. Then in 1951, he made his final move to the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lived out his days writing and teaching fiction.

Wellman built a vacation cabin on what he called Yandro Mountain in the Smokies, next to his friend Obray Ramsey's place, where they would invite friends for a taste of mountain music, food, fun and a good lick of blockade whiskey.

In 1986 Wellman took a fall from which he never recovered and he died on April 5th, 1986. Before passing on he finished his novel Cahena, about an African warrior princess (possibly the inspiration for Xena?), and the John the Balladeer short story "Where Did She Wander".  Frances Wellman passed away on May 7th, 2000.  She was cremated and her ashes spread on the lawn of their home at Dogwood Acres in Chapel Hill, NC.

Ex-Night Shade Books intern Jeremiah Rickert has posted a lengthy page at the Oregon Literary Review.
This includes an introduction by Rickert along with his reconstruction of the events that lead to a show-down between Wellman and William Falkner of which Wellman won.Also posted is an excellent Wellman biography by Karl Edward Wagner, interviews with writer and Wellman Estate holder David Drake and Night Shade Books editor Jeremy Lassen.

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