Novelist. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 2, 1945, Humphreys is the daughter of William Wirt Humphreys, a longtime director of the Charleston Development Board, and Martha Lynch. She attended schools in Charleston and enrolled at Duke University, where the author Reynolds Price served as her mentor. After receiving her bachelor of arts degree in English in 1967, she went on to Yale University, where she earned a master of arts degree the following year. On November 30, 1968, she married the attorney Thomas A. Hutcheson. She studied at the University of Texas at Austin from 1968 to 1970, returning to Charleston to teach at Baptist College (now Charleston Southern University) from 1970 to 1977. She has two sons, Allen and William.
Drawing praise for its finely honed language and strong characters, Humphreys’s first novel Dreams of Sleep (1984) won the Ernest Hemingway Prize for a first book of fiction. The story concerns Alice Reese and her husband Will (a Charleston gynecologist), who have two daughters. When Alice learns that Will is having an affair with his receptionist, she hires Iris Moon as a babysitter to allow herself time away from home. Iris, a teenager from a troubled home but mature beyond her years, idealizes the Reese family and becomes an unlikely catalyst in saving the marriage.
Humphreys’s second novel, Rich in Love (1987), also depicts a family in crisis and a precocious teenager, in this case the lively narrator Lucille Odom, who Humphreys acknowledged to be modeled after Iris Moon. Lucille’s mother abandons her and her father, her pregnant sister Rae returns home to Charleston unhappily married, and Lucille breaks up with her boyfriend. Out of these troubled relationships comes some resolution in Lucille’s increased independence and her realization that she is “rich in love.” The 1992 film adaptation of the novel starred Katherine Erbe, Albert Finney, and Jill Clayburgh.
Although Humphreys makes no attempt to capture the exact geography of Charleston, her first two novels bring the city to life, touching on its beauty, traditions, and troubled past as it clashes with the new developments on its fringes. Her third novel, The Fireman’s Fair (1991), also takes the Charleston environs as its setting. Here Humphreys writes from the point of view of bachelor Rob Wyatt, who at age thirty-five decides to quit his law practice. He then meets Billie Poe, a refugee from a bad marriage and also a breath of fresh air for Rob. Billie, as does Iris in Dreams of Sleep, has a maturity that belies her age.
In 1994 Humphreys collaborated with the pseudonymous Ruthie Bolton on Gal: A True Story, an account of Ruthie’s deeply troubled childhood and near miraculous escape into a stable life in Charleston. In that same year, she was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Nowhere Else on Earth (2000), as does Humphreys’s previous work, concerns a family in crisis, but in this case the threat derives from racial violence, and the setting is Scuffletown, North Carolina, at the end of the Civil War. The narrator, Rhoda Strong, is another of the author’s memorable and enduring women. For her significant contribution to southern letters, Humphreys won the 2012 Thomas Wolfe Prize at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Magee, Rosemary M. “Continuity and Separation: An Interview with Josephine Humphreys.” Southern Review 27 (Autumn 1991): 792–802.