David Deskins Speaks on Effie Waller Smith Research

by Norman Ramsey

Photo of David Deskins.

On Sunday, March 20, 2022, I was able to speak with Mr. David Deskins. For those who may not know, Mr. Deskins is the person who conducted research on Effie Waller Smith and reprinted her books. Without his efforts, it is unlikely that Effie's work would be known today. For this reason, I was nervous about speaking to him. It was obvious, though, from the start of our conversation that my apprehension was unwarranted. Mr. Deskins frequently laughed and spoke of his work with a quiet humility that let me know I was in the unassuming presence of another Pike Countian. We spoke about the true authorship of Rosemary and Pansies, his upcoming biography on Effie Waller Smith, and his thoughts on the continuation of his research.

Deskins: So, what did you want to talk to me about? How can I help you today?

I attended a lecture by Dr. William Turner, hosted by UPike. He suggested we read the poetry of Effie Waller Smith. When I read "Among the "Breaks" of Big Sandy River", it brought me to tears and I had to read everything. Then, I wanted to learn more. You're, of course, the first person I wanted to talk to because you're the expert on her. You've done most of the research.

Bill's a real good friend of mine. He actually has my manuscript right now and is working with it.

The biography of Miss Effie? That was actually the first thing I wanted to ask. You've been working on that since the eighties, haven't you?

That's about right. [laughing] I felt that some of the academic stuff was over my head, but Bill asked for a copy of my manuscript and assured me that he'll do Miss Effie justice. He said he had a professor in mind who had great interest in the project. Bill has the degrees and the connections to do it right. The biography is in his hands right now. I trust him. If you met him, you know he's a good man.

He was nice to meet. I could tell he had a good heart. Have you read about Leatha Kendrick's research? Do you still think Effie Waller Smith wrote Rosemary and Pansies?

I remember worrying over that book when I was researching it, but back then I was doing all my research with shoe leather and gasoline. When Leatha Kendrick came along, she had the power of the Internet to aid her, and she did a good job. It turned out that there was another Effie Smith In East Tennessee. I don't know what the chances of that happening were. She wrote Rosemary and Pansies. I'm grateful for this discovery because now we get to find out more about that Effie, and she may be even more interesting than ours.

Oh, no. Don't say that. [laughing] I think there's an interesting story in Miss Effie adopting the daughter of a friend, coming back to Pikeville just to help someone in need. I think that's an example of a person with true Appalachian values.

That's who she was. I met Ruth four times. She only had one copy of Songs of the Months, and she didn't say much about her mother's work as a poet. I was hoping to find boxes of her poems and letters from publishers but there were none. I didn't understand it at the time, but I think I understand it more now. Effie was a woman who longed so badly to be accepted by her community, but you can only try for so long and then you give up... She moved to Wisconsin at around the age of thirty and didn't write anything professionally after. Sadly, the times were against her.

I wanted to ask how you came into possession of the original books. I read you got them from Bill Brown, the librarian at Pikeville College.

That is right. I was a Junior in 1970, maybe. He asked me what I thought of them and I was immediately touched, just like you were. I started my research and when I took them back to him, he said, "Since you've done so much work on her, you just keep them."

Did you get to see Jessica Leigh Mullins play Effie Waller Smith at The Appalachian Center for the Arts or through the Pikeville History Moments video?

Yes, I did. Jessica did a great job. I haven't talked with her in a while, but I hope she continues in the role.

I couldn't dream of doing anything involving Effie without asking you to be involved in any way you'd like. Would you want to speak at an event or possibly write something for The Effie Waller Smith Society?

Yes, I'll see what I can do. I'm glad you called me and I'm glad you're picking up the ball and gonna carry it a while. I planted a seed many years ago, and I'm still watching it grow. That's where I'm at with it now.

Well, I really want to say thank you. I hope you know that the work you've done is important to our community and it means a lot to people.

We'll see. I hope so. [speaking quietly] Many people have learned about her work from the Collected Works book I did with Oxford. That's taught in schools across the country. To me, the important thing about Effie isn't only her work, but her life, her story, and the lessons to be learned. She was a person who, although she faced so much adversity, loved her community and these mountains and found a way to express that. I'll help any way I can, but I've done my part and now it's time to see other people further this work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.