When Mary Elizabeth Nelson acquired Rivendell in 1990, she envisioned a place that would cultivate the imagination of residents and inspire possibility. Building on her vision through the development of a nonprofit entity, Rivendell Writers’ Colony, with an emphasis on mind, body, and spirit, seeks to provide residencies and fellowships for writers, as well as guest stays for readers.
Rivendell was built between 1905-1910 by Malcolm MacDowell and changed hands many times before reaching Mary Elizabeth in 1990. It was during the 1980s when a family with small children lived on the property that the home was named Rivendell. The children, avid readers of J.R.R. Tolkien, thought the property, positioned on the edge of a bluff, secluded from the rest of Sewanee and often covered in a dense but comforting fog, reminded them of the world Tolkien created for the elves found in many of his books, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Mary Elizabeth began renovations on the home in 2005, thoughtfully converting it into the space that exists today. Today, the home still sits on much of its original footprint, the hardwood floors laid by the MacDowell’s in the early 1900s gently yielding to the footsteps of the home’s rotating residents.
Rivendell Writers’ Colony adjoins and builds on the legacy of the historic Brinkwood property once owned by William Alexander Percy, and later his novelist cousin, Walker Percy. “Uncle Will,” as he was affectionately known to Walker and his two brothers, provided the foundation for Walker’s vivid imagination and keen sense of observation, as well as access to numerous well known authors and artists who often visited Brinkwood. Walker Percy spent many summers at Brinkwood during his young adult life and his entire first year of marriage. It is here where he developed images for characters, as well as specific references to places like Lost Cove throughout his work.
(Left: Rest a while on Walker Percy’s own bench, just steps through the woods from Rivendell Manor, where you will find the same contemplative quiet and the sweeping view of Lost Cove that sustained him.)
Rivendell Writers’ Colony is inspired by the literary legacy found in Sewanee, Tennessee. The Sewanee Review, which has published a long list of literary geniuses such as Flannery O’Connor, Wendell Berry, and T.S. Eliot, as well as many other prominent and promising writers, was founded in 1892 and is renowned as the nation’s oldest continually-published literary quarterly.
For the last 25 years, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference has brought authors, publishers, and literary critics from all over the world to Sewanee each summer, thanks to a bequest left by the playwright Tennessee Williams.
Heading into its eleventh year, the Sewanee School of Letters, an MFA and MA program at the University of the South is the newest addition to the Mountain’s literary legacy.
We welcome each of these wonderful literary institutions to participate in life at Rivendell, offering their rich traditions and literary resources for our residents.
Mary Elizabeth has committed over twenty years of her energy, resources, and hope to Rivendell. Her restoration of the properties, along with her love and care for the natural beauty and land of Rivendell and Brinkwood, creates an opportunity for others through her enduring efforts.
We hope you’ll join us as we help write yet another chapter in the literary history of Sewanee.