A physician, humorist, storyteller, and best-selling novelist, Ferrol Sams was the author of eight books. Most notable is his trilogy of novels in which an eccentric and quixotic hero, Porter Osborne Jr., mirrors Sams’s own Georgia boyhood in Fayette County. All of his works are rooted in the oral traditions of southern humor and folklore. With engaging and graceful prose, Sams’s fiction celebrates love of the land, the changing southern landscape, and what he calls “being raised right” in the rural South.
Early Life and Medical Career
One of four children born to Mildred Matthews and Ferrol Sams Sr., the Fayette County school superintendent, Ferrol Sams Jr. (nicknamed “Sambo” by his father) was born on September 26, 1922, in Fayetteville, in the house built by his great-grandfather in 1848. Sams traced his family back six generations, to James Sams, who settled in rural Fayette County in 1820. Ferrol Sams Jr. graduated from Mercer University in Macon in 1942 and attended Emory University School of Medicine for two quarters before joining the U.S. Army Medical Corps. After serving from 1943 to 1947 and seeing action in France, Sams returned to Emory to continue his medical studies. He received his M.D. in 1949.
It was at Emory that he met his future wife, Helen Fletcher, also a physician. They married on July 18, 1948, and had four children. In 1951 Sams and his wife opened a private medical practice together in Fayetteville, and in 1987 they established the Fayette Medical Center. They have four children. Sams was an instructor in creative writing at Emory University and taught at Emory Medical School.
In 1982, at age sixty, Sams published Run with the Horsemen, the first of the semiautobiographical adventures of his antihero Porter “Sambo” Osborne Jr. He began writing the novel in September 1978, as notes for a family history, so he could tell his four children and ten grandchildren what it was like to grow up in rural Georgia between the two world wars. The novel, which became a national best-seller, is a boy’s account of growing up on an ancestral farm in Georgia. Porter is a prank-playing farm boy and aspiring doctor whose misadventures make up a comic memoir of childhood in the South. The Whisper of the River, published in 1984, continues Porter’s adventures during the 1930s, as he enrolls at Willingham University, a Baptist college in Macon. There a young and self-righteous Porter reexamines his own beliefs. The Whisper of the River, a collection of humorous anecdotes and tall tales, is a picaresque tale of a young man’s coming of age that also examines serious moral issues.
Faced with writer’s block about how to continue with Porter’s story, Sams followed his first two novels with The Widow’s Mite and Other Stories (1987) and two nonfiction works, The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America (1988) and Christmas Gift! (1989).
The Widow’s Mite is a collection of eight first-person stories that highlight the social problems of a small southern town. These dramatically ironic stories are sometimes autobiographical, as in “Saba (An Affirmation),” or they are biblical parables that teach moral lessons and offer insights into human behavior and motivation. Two of the collection’s stories, “The Widow’s Mite” and “Judgment,” were adapted as one-act plays in 1993 for the A.R.T. Station Theatre in Stone Mountain. The Passing, sixteen vignettes about the vanished ways of rural life told with Sams’s characteristic humor and detail, is illustrated with paintings by Jim Harrison, a South Carolina artist. (The book was reprinted in 1990 without illustrations.) Christmas Gift! is an account of one family’s celebration of Christmas in Fayette County. It evokes nostalgia, southern hospitality, and family traditions.
Sams returned to Porter Osborne Jr. in 1991 with the publication of When All the World Was Young, which won the Townsend Prize for Fiction that year and was performed in 1992 for American Public Radio’s Radio Reader. The novel begins in June 1942, during World War II (1941-45), with Pfc. Osborne working as a surgical technician for the army during the invasion of Normandy, France. This final volume of the trilogy finds the self-indulgent, practical joker Osborne, obsessed with sex and dating, returning home a wiser man, having maintained his code of honor and compassion.
Epiphany: Stories (1994) is a volume of three philosophical novellas. As the title implies, each of the stories is preoccupied with the sudden revelations of characters and their search for meaning in their lives. One of the stories, “Harmony Ain’t Easy,” dramatized by the A.R.T. Station Theatre for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, is an autobiographical misadventure.
In 2007 Sams published Down Town: The Journal of James Aloysius Holcombe, Jr. for Ephraim Holcombe Mookinfoos, a novel that chronicles four generations of a family living in a fictional Georgia town.
With wit, humor, and old-fashioned moralizing, Sams’s stories are about unlikely encounters and what people learn from them. A natural storyteller whose works made him a popular writer in the South and garnered favorable national attention, Sams was honored in 2001 for fifty years of commitment and service to the people of Fayette County. In 2006 Run with the Horsemen was selected by Atlantans as the inaugural text in the Atlanta Reads: One Book, One Community program.