James Murray Sheehan (1887–1963)

James Murray Sheehan served as the first journalism instructor and first publicity director at University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), was editor of the Arkansas Traveler, and published two well-received novels, Half-Gods and Eden. Half-Gods, published in 1927, offered a scathing satire of Fayetteville and the university.

Murray Sheehan was born to David Este Sheehan and Alfarata Winder Sheehan on December 15, 1887, in Hamilton, Ohio. Sheehan earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a master’s from Harvard University. Before coming to the University of Arkansas, he served as a sergeant major of artillery in the Sixth Division during World War I, worked as a newspaper reporter, and taught at the University of Wisconsin.

Often characterized as being colorful and bohemian, Sheehan built a rustic stone house approximately three miles from campus and rode an old mare to the university each day. Although he was responsible for most of the university’s public releases, Sheehan disliked public relations and claimed to have no knowledge of or interest in athletics. While at UA, Sheehan authored several entries in the Little Blue Books series of Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company, including The Story of Painting (1923), The Story of Architecture (1923), and Hints on News Reporting (1923).

Although Half-Gods is set in the fictional town of Roosevelt, Missouri, it is a thinly veiled lampoon of Fayetteville, the university, and several community leaders. According to Robert A. Leflar in The First 100 Years, the novel’s villainous President Bissell “was easily identified” as university president John C. Futrall. When Futrall suggested that Sheehan invest less time in writing fiction and more time in university publicity, Sheehan impulsively offered to resign. Futrall had ignored several such offers from Sheehan in the past but, in this instance, accepted his resignation.

In his second novel, Eden, published in 1928, Sheehan suggests that the biblical Adam fell from grace because his newfound knowledge of good and evil closed his mind to the loveliness of Paradise. Although both books are long out of print, they were widely reviewed and well received by critics. The novels were reviewed in Booklist, the New York Herald, the Boston Transcript, the New Republic, the New York Evening Post, the New York Times, the North American, the Saturday Review of Literature, the Springfield Republican, and other newspapers and journals. Edwin Clark noted in his review of Half-Gods in the New York Times that Sheehan displays “[t]he maturity of feeling” that is unusual in a first novel and wrote that Half-Gods is “[a]n excellent, ironic, humorous, understanding portrayal of an abortive element of American life.” In her review of Eden in the Saturday Evening Post, Grace Frank stated that “one must welcome work at once so full-bodied and so imaginative, so sincere and so graciously conceived.”

After resigning his position at the University of Arkansas, Sheehan served as a liaison for the Legation of Siam (Thailand) in Washington DC, and as a tutor for the Prince of Siam. Sheehan never married and had no children. He died on June 23, 1963.

For additional information:
“An Instructor Arrives.” History of the Arkansas Traveler. https://arkansastraveler.typepad.com/history_of_the_arkansas_t/2005/01/an_instructor_a.html (accessed November 12, 2020).

Bob and Patty Besom Collection (MC 1758). Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Clark, Edwin. “Half-Gods and Other Recent Works of Fiction.” New York Times, April 17, 1927, BR6.

Coyle, William. “Murray Sheehan.” In Ohio Authors and Their Books: Biographical Data and Selective Bibliographies for Ohio Authors, Native and Resident, 1796–1950. Springfield, OH: Wittenberg University, 1962.

Frank, Grace. “Genesis Reinterpreted.” Saturday Review of Literature, February 4, 1928, pp. 569–570.

Gilbert, Allan, Jr. “Classical Antiquity, Circa 1927.” Northwest Arkansas Times, September 29, 1967, p. 7.

Leflar, Robert A. The First 100 Years: Centennial of the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Foundation, 1972.

Simpson, Ethel C. “Arkansas, University Of.” Encyclopedia of Southern Literature, edited by Mary Ellen Snodgrass. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Phillip Howerton
Missouri State University

Last Updated: 11/12/2020