Some Highlights of Appalachian Literature

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Let’s start with that penultimate word of the title.

If you’re visiting eastern Tennessee or western North Carolina, you’ll immediately mark yourself as an outsider if you pronounce Appalachia as Ap-pull-lay-shun. It’s Ap-pull-latch-un to those who live there, with that last syllable dropping hard like a rock.

Appalachia touches 13 states and stretches from northern Mississippi to southern New York. Famous for its national park, the most visited in the United States, the Smoky Mountains are a sub-range of the Appalachians joining North Carolina and Tennessee. Many of the first white settlers who called the Smokies home were Scots-Irish, tough people who built cabins and barns and cleared the land for ploughing. Logging eventually became a major industry, followed by mills that took advantage of natural resources, fast-flowing waterways, and cheap labor. With the advent of the railroad and automobiles, tourists traveled north – and still do – from places like Savannah, St. Augustine and Charleston, seeking solace in the southern summer heat in the cool highlands.

US Geological Survey map of Appalachian areas in the United States. (Public domain)

Smokie artisans, including the Cherokee, were noted for their baskets and quilts. Some visitors from outside the region have picked up the ballads and stories passed down from the generations living in these hills and hollows, while some language students have noted some similarities between the speech of these highlanders and that of Elizabethan England. Words like ‘Granny-woman’, ‘winder-pane’, ‘young uns’ and ‘middlin’ (moderately well)’ were until recently in common use.

These people were also marked by their devotion to family and clan, a special sense of place, and an independent spirit, attributes that feature strongly in literature written by or about them.

Parents

Over the past 20 plus years I have reviewed hundreds of books for the “Smoky Mountain News”. A good portion of those works were novels set in southern Appalachia, most of them in the Smokies, which will be my focus here.

Almost all of these stories centered around families in one way or another. In his autobiographical novel “Look Homeward, Angel,” for example, the region’s best-known author, Thomas Wolfe, places his story squarely within the Gant family, describing in detail the alcoholic father; the petulant and frugal mother Eliza; their son, the protagonist Eugene; and his brothers and sisters. We also hear about the Pentland clan, Eliza’s parents, and the Pentland blood that runs through the children’s veins.

Thomas Wolf
Author Thomas Wolfe, circa 1938. Born in North Carolina, his scripts have autobiographical themes, including “Look Homeward Angel”. (MPI/Getty Images)

Fast forward nearly 100 years to the publication of another novel, “The Ballad of Laurel Springs” by Janet Beard, and we land again in a family saga, this one set in the mountains of east of Tennessee. Author of the best-selling “Atomic City Girls,” Beard tells the story of an extended family haunted by their past, both violence and murder, and Appalachian ballads, some of which seem as old as the hills, which have long recorded the dark deeds of lovers. Women, mostly related by blood or marriage, tell this chronicle of age-old family unrest and love.

Women occupy a prominent place in this literature. In an essay in “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’,” Ivy Brashear rightly writes that “Appalachia, in fact, is a very matriarchal culture. We revere our grandmothers and our mothers.

This place called home

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Thomas Wolfe explores the impact of the Smokeys on those who dwelt among them in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.”

“The mountains were his masters,” wrote Thomas Wolfe in “Look Homeward, Angel.” They “bordered life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle and death. They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.

Or as Fred Chappell put it more concisely in his one-line poem, “Coming Home”: “Even sunlight is a smell you remember.” Winner of the prestigious Bollingen Prize for Poetry and Poet Laureate of North Carolina for five years, Chappell was born and raised in the Appalachian mill town of Canton, North Carolina. He is one of those writers who excels in a variety of genres – poetry, mainstream fiction, science fiction, memoir and essay – and in much of his writing he guides us through the hills he has known in his childhood and youth.

Published in 1987, her coming-of-age novel, “I Am One of You Forever,” gives us 10-year-old Jess Kirkland and a cast of eccentric parents, but the book, like some of Chappell’s poems, also salutes the land that nurtured it. Three more books complete this Kirkland quartet, exploring the effects of both kinship and place on Jess Kirkland.

Like Fred Chappell, and indeed like so many other writers from this part of Appalachia, Wilma Dykeman drew inspiration and subject matter for her books from her native land. Spending her life in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, she notably published the novel “The Tall Woman” and a regional history, “The French Broad River”. In her memoir discovered after her death, “Family of Earth: A Southern Mountain Childhood,” Dykeman also recalls the hills that nurtured her as a young girl.

Although I have lived 33 years of my adult life in these same mountains, I do not feel any particular attachment to them. I was a Piedmontese Carolina boy, and my affections rested on that ground around Winston-Salem.

But I have known men and women who had left the mountains where they were born but ended up returning, longing for the grandeur of the tree-covered ridges. My own children, raised by my wife and I in Waynesville, NC, gateway to the Smokies, still sometimes express their longing for the mountains they knew as children.

As in the literature, these blue hills enter the bloodstream and never go away.

Necessity is the mother of freedom

In my years of living in the Smokies, I have witnessed many examples of the independent spirit of those who call the mountains home, too numerous to mention here. This sovereign sense of self has, of course, found expression in the stories of these people.

In Charles Frasier’s best-selling “Cold Mountain,” for example (the real Cold Mountain was less than 10 miles from my house), Charles Inman deserts the Confederate army and begins his perilous journey home, a lone man trying to escape the Confederate army. patrols looking for deserters and bands of outlaws who then ravaged the Smokies.

The novel’s two main female characters, Ada, whom Inman loves, and Ruby, who helps him on the farm, are both independent spirits. “Need and getting are unlikely to match anytime soon,” Ada says at one point. “What I have to do is up to me.”

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“Cold Mountain” features strong female characters, reflecting the culture of the Smokeys.

Interestingly, as mentioned above, many female characters in Appalachian literature demonstrate a similar sense of personal will and determination. Dykeman’s “The Tall Woman” gives us that quintessential empowered woman in Lydia Moore. Like the “Cold Mountain” characters, Lydia is also a product of the Civil War. She works on a farm, raises children, and tries to restore her husband Mark’s health and soul after the damage wreaked on him by the war. At one point, Lydia reflected, “In that moment of great weakness, she suddenly knew great strength, a core buried deep within her that would refuse to be intimidated by the outrageous blows or petty trifles whose life human was the heiress.”

“Montani semper liberi,” says the old Latin tag that also serves as West Virginia’s motto: “Mountaineers are always free.”

Lost his soul

Like the nation as a whole, Appalachia has changed since World War II. Factories and industries, such as shoemakers and the Dayco plant once located near Waynesville, have closed. Government programs brought social programs and improved schools, and health care improved. Television and now the Internet have homogenized culture with society in general. The Brooklyn teenager and her Waynesville counterpart have equal access to social media.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, circa 1960. (Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

And as elsewhere, modernity has brought about the disintegration of family and marriage. Most of the young people gave up farming a long time ago and many of them are looking for work far from their ancestral land. Opioids, methamphetamines and other drugs have rocked these communities with addiction, disease and death.

Contemporary writers have addressed the coming of these changes in the Smokies. In “The Risen,” Ron Rash gives us Ligeia, a young Florida woman who introduces two small-town mountain brothers to the 1960s, with disastrous results. In an earlier Rash novel, “Above the Waterfall,” a local sheriff and ranger come to terms with the evils crystal meth has brought to their community.

William Forstchen’s “One Second After,” a story about an electromagnetic pulse strike that thrusts most of America into the 18th century, is unlikely to be considered by most critics an Appalachian novel. Nonetheless, the story is set in Black Mountain, North Carolina, and Forstchen’s portrayal of this place and its people gives us a glimpse into the ancient spirit of the mountains.

Regrets and encouragement

Discussing Appalachian writers in a single essay, even limiting this study to two states, necessarily means ignoring many quality writers. Novelists like Catherine Marshall, Robert Morgan and Wayne Caldwell, poets like John Thomas York and storytellers like Gary Carden: even adding these names would still cross the list of authors worthy of inclusion.

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“Christy” by Catherine Marshall.

To those I have neglected, my apologies.

As for readers, I encourage you to embrace some of these books, and not necessarily for their depictions of the past. When we read a book like Catherine Marshall’s “Christy,” based on her mother’s days teaching at a Smoky Mountain school, or Frasier’s “Cold Mountain,” the men, women, and children who inhabit those pages can awaken the dreams and ambitions of an old America that is half dormant in our hearts. They remind us of who we were, yes, but also gently shake us from sleep, or in some cases, from our nightmares, and remind us of who we are.


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