Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Clifford Shirley Dowdey (23 January 1904–30 May 1979), writer, was born in Richmond and was the son of Bessie Bowis Dowdey and Clifford Shirley Dowdey, an inspector for Western Union. After graduating from John Marshall High School, he attended Columbia University for the 1921–1922 academic year and again from 1923 until 1925. Coming of age in an era of burgeoning newspapers and magazines, Dowdey worked as a reporter for the Richmond News Leader in 1925 and 1926, before returning to New York for a short stint at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He joined the editorial staff of Munsey's Magazine and the Argosy, and in 1928 he edited pulp and fan magazines for the Dell Publishing Company. By 1929 Dowdey was freelancing for the same magazines, as well as writing Western and romance novels under various pseudonyms, including Shirley Brander and Bennett Ladd.

During the mid-1930s Dowdey's short stories began appearing in such periodicals as American Mercury and Collier's, and one first published in 1936 in the Atlantic Monthly grew into Dowdey's first historical novel. A love story set in Richmond during the Civil War, Bugles Blow No More (1937) garnered praise for its realistic detail. Margaret Mitchell, whose best-selling novel Gone with the Wind had been published the year before, initiated a long correspondence with Dowdey. She encouraged him and admired the "restless vitality" of his style. In 1938 Dowdey received a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, although his next four novels, three of which featured Virginia settings, met with less acclaim.

Dowdey moved around the country during the 1930s and early in the 1940s. He lived at various times in Connecticut, Florida, Arizona, and California, where he spent several stretches of time writing screenplays. By 1945 Dowdey had returned to Virginia to conduct research for his first foray into nonfiction. Focusing on Confederate Richmond, Experiment in Rebellion (1946) proved a turning point in his career. Primarily an account of the presidential administration of Jefferson Davis, the book was the initial choice of the History Book Club. A decade later Dowdey returned to nonfiction with The Land They Fought For (1955), a finalist for the 1956 National Book Award. His narrative detailed the struggles of the South as a region from the Nullification Crisis of 1832 through the end of the Civil War. Historians criticized his lack of in-depth research, and some dismissed his efforts as directed at Civil War buffs, yet his vivid writing won much praise.

Dowdey's roll call of books on his native state and Civil War history made his a household name. Turning to Virginia's colonial past, he published a history of Berkeley, in Charles City County, entitled The Great Plantation (1957). Most of Dowdey's histories focused on the Civil War era, and in 1958 the governor named him to Virginia's Civil War Centennial Commission. That year Dowdey published Death of a Nation, an analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg. He edited The Wartime Papers of R. E. Lee (1961) with Louis Henry Manarin, with whom he also collaborated on the posthumously published History of Henrico County (1984). Dowdey explored the defensive strategies Robert Edward Lee had employed during 1864 in Lee's Last Campaign (1960). In his stirring account of The Seven Days: The Emergence of Lee (1964), Dowdey argued that Lee's successful defense of Richmond in 1862 prolonged the war and led to the Emancipation Proclamation. The volume won the Fletcher Pratt Award from the Civil War Roundtable of New York. Dowdey also wrote a biography, Lee (1965). In the years following the Civil War centennial, Dowdey had difficulty getting his work published. Lauded as the historian of the Army of Northern Virginia, he observed in a 1969 interview that "I have made a discovery: nobody cares anymore." His final two works focused on the rise of Virginia's planter families of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: The Virginia Dynasties: The Emergence of "King" Carter and the Golden Age (1969) and The Golden Age: A Climate for Greatness, Virginia, 1732–1775 (1970).

Progressive and liberal, Dowdey spent a lifetime combating the South's idealization of the past, while insisting to outsiders that the region could not be understood without respecting its history. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch series written during the summer of 1945, he lamented the South's intransigence regarding race relations and improved technologies and pleaded, "But don't look away, Dixieland. Look right at it."

A self-made man of American literature, Dowdey enjoyed his professional independence and viewed himself as Richmond's first vocational writer since Edgar Allan Poe. While publishing his nonfiction works, Dowdey continued to write historical novels—Jasmine Street (1952), The Proud Retreat (1953), and Last Night the Nightingale (1962), as well as a fictionalized account of his brother's struggle with mental illness, Weep for My Brother (1950). From 1955 to 1979 Dowdey served as editor of the venerable Virginia Record, a monthly periodical that published articles on the state's history as well as contemporary business, industrial, and cultural developments across Virginia. He taught creative writing at the University of Richmond from 1958 to 1969. Ripon College awarded him an honorary LL.D. in 1961, and in September 1972 the governor honored him, along with thirty-four other living Virginians, for having achieved national recognition in the arts and humanities.

Dowdey's restlessness was evident in his private life. He married Katherine Wright Carrington, a New York stage actress, in 1930; they divorced the following year. In New York on 23 January 1935 Dowdey married Helen Irwin, a Fort Worth socialite. After they divorced in 1944, on 13 July of that year in Boston he married twenty-three-year-old Frances Gordon Wilson, a copy editor at the Richmond News Leader who had received an M.A. in philosophy. They had two daughters before her death on 13 July 1970. Dowdey married Carolyn Luke DeCamps, a reference librarian, on 9 September 1971.

Having suffered a mild stroke earlier in the decade, Clifford Shirley Dowdey died from complications of emphysema and lung cancer at his Richmond home on 30 May 1979. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. As he had predicted, Dowdey was remembered and judged as a historian rather than a novelist and was lauded for his prolific and popular writing, which renewed national awareness and appreciation of Virginia's history.


Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Clare D. Kinsman and Mary Ann Tennenhouse, eds., Contemporary Authors, vols. 9–12 (1974), 245 (with birth date and selected bibliography), and Ritchie D. Watson, "Clifford Dowdey: Contemporary Romance Novelist and Historian," Richmond Quarterly 4 (winter 1981): 17–21; feature articles and interviews in Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday Magazine Section, 18 Oct. 1936, 9 May 1937, New York Times Book Review, 13 July 1941, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8 June 1969 (second quotation), 4 June 1972, 24 Aug. 1975; personal and business correspondence and draft MSS in Papers of Clifford Dowdey, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; correspondence in Roy Catesby Flannagan Papers and Beverley Randolph Wellford Papers, both Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., and published in Richard Harwell, ed., Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind Letters, 1936–1949 (1976), with first quotation on 281; Richmond News Leader, 29 Sept. 1939 (second marriage), 14 July 1944 (third marriage); Bureau of Vital Statistics Marriage Return, Richmond City, 1971 (fourth marriage); Richmond Times-Dispatch, 15 July 1945 (third quotation); personal library, with marginalia, at Chesterfield County Public Library; obituaries in Richmond News Leader (portrait) and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 1 June 1979; editorial tribute in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5 June 1979; memorial in Virginia Record 101 (July 1979): 5–7.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Ruth Ann Coski.

How to cite this page:
Ruth Ann Coski,"Clifford Shirley Dowdey (1904–1979)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Dowdey_Clifford_Shirley, accessed [today's date]).


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