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Townsend, John Wilson (1885-1968) | Eastern Kentucky University - Special Collections and Archives

Name: Townsend, John Wilson (1885-1968)

Historical Note:

John Wilson Townsend, Kentucky author and historian was born November 2, 1885. His parents were Charles Wesley Townsend, Lexington journalist and lawyer, and Jeannie Dillon Townsend. Townsend had three sisters, two of whom died in infancy and the third, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Morrison who died in 1931 in West Virginia.

Townsend received his early education in the Johnson and Dudley Grammar Schools of Lexington. Following grammar school, he attended the Preparatory School of Kentucky University. After graduating from Kentucky University, now Transylvania College, in 1906, he enrolled in Harvard University where he continued his study of history and literature.

It was at Kentucky University where he first made the acquaintance of James Lane Allen, who later became his personal friend, and about whom he has written much. This friendship began when Allen made a large contribution to the Periclean Literary Society of which Townsend was the member in charge of fund-raising.

His first book, "The Life of Richard Hickman Menefee," was published when he was only 19 years old. Several others followed during his years as a student at Harvard. After leaving Harvard he taught at the Fishburne Military Academy in Virginia before returning to Kentucky as an assistant librarian at the Lexington Public Library in 1909. He subsequently worked at the Kentucky Historical Society, Lexington Herald (1910 to 1916), the Kentucky Geological Survey (1928-1932), WPA (1936-1942), and the Lexington Signal Depot in the 1940s. Throughout this period Townsend was actively engaged in literary and historical research and published numerous books and pamphlets on prominent Kentucky historical and literary figures.

Townsend's best known work is "Kentucky in American Letters," which was the first anthology of Kentucky literature ever published. This work probably produced most of the letters contained in this collection. In addition, he was good friends with many literary figures that he regularly corresponded with. These include Irvin S. Cobb, James Lane Allen, James H. Mulligan, John Fox Jr., and others.

In 1930, Townsend's finest collection of Kentuckiana, consisting of over 1500 books, numerous pamphlets, letters and pictures, was sold to Eastern State Teachers College Library (now Eastern Kentucky University) where it remains to this day. Townsend continued to collect books until his death in 1968.

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