Harriette Louisa Simpson Arnow was born and raised in Kentucky, the daughter of two teachers. She began writing as a young girl. She spent two years at Berea College, then transferred to the University of Louisville, where she graduated in 1931. After teaching in rural Appalachia for two years, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she worked for the Federal Writers' Project of the WPA. Her first short stories were published in Esquire Magazine under the name H.L. Simpson. Her first novel, Mountain Path, appeared in 1936. In 1939, she married Harold B. Arnow and the couple later moved to Detroit, the setting for her best-known work, The Dollmaker (1954). During her career, she produced five novels, two nonfiction books, a short autobiography, and about 30 short stories, essays, and book reviews.