A writer opens a window to new worlds using only words. Those words can entertain for a short while, or they can change the way readers see the world, or they can even inspire others to change themselves or change their own corner of the world. Bernie Babcock, a writer perhaps not well-known to most modern readers, helped pave the way for many Arkansans in literature through her life-long love of writing and tireless efforts to create and tell stories.
She was born Julia Bernelle Smade in Union, in southwest of Ohio, in 1868. She was the oldest of six children, and from her middle name, she picked up the nickname “Bernie” that she used her whole life. Some years later, the family moved to Russellville, and as she grew, she developed her interest in literature and social causes. She became a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and had her first publication at the age of 15, an essay denouncing alcohol.
In 1885, she enrolled at Little Rock College. After a year of school, she dropped out to marry William Babcock, with whom she would have five children. After her husband’s death in 1897, she turned to writing to make a living. She wrote at night and sent manuscripts across the country for publication and managed to scrape together a comfortable living at a time when few women were able to be published.
Her first novels were prohibitionist tales, The Daughter of the Republican and The Martyr, both published in 1900. Though respected among prohibitionist readers, Babcock soon moved onto other topics. In 1901, she began working as the society page editor for the Arkansas Democrat, eventually becoming an editorial writer. In 1906, she began her own literary and art magazine The Sketch Book, but the publication folded in 1909. In 1908, she edited the first collection of poetry written entirely by Arkansans, Arkansas People and Scenes.
In the 1910s, she became fascinated with the life of Abraham Lincoln and the story of one woman he courted, Ann Rutledge. She researched Lincoln’s life and corresponded with many of the people still living who knew him personally. In 1919, she published a novel on their relationship, The Soul of Ann Rutledge. It became the first of a series of historical novels centering on Lincoln and American History, including Soul of Abe Lincoln (1923), Booth and the Spirit of Lincoln (1925), Lincoln’s Mary and the Babies (1929), and Heart of George Washington (1932).
Her interest in history continued when she founded the Museum of Natural History and Antiquities in Little Rock in 1928, believing that all Arkansas had a story to tell. She operated it only on donations from friends and interested scholars for years.
Though she was a respected writer and published often, it was not a lucrative living. Like so many others, she struggled to make ends meet while raising a family during the Great Depression. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled the Works Progress Administration in 1935, she picked up a job as a folklorist with the Federal Writer’s Project, her expertise tapped to record the rich folk heritage of the region, including recollections from Native Americans and surviving freedmen. Not only were valuable stories preserved, but with this job, she was able to pay the bills again.
In 1941, she returned to her work at the museum, which was moved to the Arsenal Building at what was then Little Rock City Park. She organized exhibits, solicited donations, and continued with her own writing for years. In 1952, she arranged to have the park named after Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the site in 1880. Babcock stepped down from the museum the next year and bought a small house on Petit Jean Mountain.
Always a storyteller and always a vivid imagination, she never tired of creating or writing. This passion filled her days her whole life, and she never fully retired. At the age of 91 in 1959, she published yet another book, The Marble Woman, a collection of poetry. It would be her last published work. She continued writing, spending her days gazing out across Petit Jean Mountain, and daydreaming as she put pen to paper.
In June 1962, she passed away at the age of 94. She spent her last day as she had spent so many others, sitting back, writing a new story. Like the period at the end of the sentence, she was found with a pen still in her hand.