WNC’s rich literary legacy comes alive in guidebook
By Joy Franklin, JFRANKLIN@CITIZEN-TIMES.com Anyone who knows much about books knows that the Western North Carolina mountains have a rich literary history. Who doesn’t know that Thomas Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward Angel” about his boyhood in Asheville or that Carl Sandburg lived the last years of his life in Flat Rock or that Wilma Dykeman’s “The French Broad” helped launch the environmental movement? Who hasn’t heard of best-selling authors Charles Frazier, whose “Cold Mountain” became an award-winning movie, and Robert Morgan, whose “Gap Creek” became a national bestseller after being chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club? But did you know that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote the first draft of “The Yearling” in a cabin in Banner Elk in 1936? Or that Margaret Mitchell fled Atlanta and spent the same summer in Blowing Rock after “Gone With the Wind” was published and droves of fans began calling her home? Mitchell won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “Gone With the Wind.” Rawlings won in 1939 for “The Yearling.” During that same summer Kathleen Moore Morehouse, who wrote “Rain on the Just,” a book nominated for the Pulitzer, lectured in Blowing Rock at Edwin Osgood Grover’s Blowing Rock School of English.
A bounty of writers
That’s just one bit of WNC’s fascinating literary legacy recounted in Georgann Eubanks’ “Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains,” published in 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press. Eubanks, who has been director of the Duke University Writers’ Workshop since 1989, was commissioned to write the guidebook, the first in a series of three, by the North Carolina Arts Council.
In 1936, Blowing Rock was, Eubanks writes, “a literary hotbed.”
Another Georgia native, Caroline Miller, who won the 1934 Pulitzer for “Lamb in His Bosom,” spent much of her life in Western North Carolina after the fame that came with her literary success destroyed her first marriage. She later married Clyde Ray Jr., a Waynesville florist and antique dealer, and spent the remainder of her life in Waynesville.
I thought I knew something of the writers who have lived and worked in Western North Carolina. But when I discovered Eubanks’ literary guide, I learned I had no idea of the number of writers whose lives have touched or been influenced by the mysterious and majestic mountains that surround us.
Influence of nature
For example, Anne Tyler, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for “Breathing Lessons,” spent part of her childhood in Celo after her Quaker parents joined an “intentional community” founded by Arthur E. Morgan in 1937.
“Here the Tyler family practiced organic farming, raised livestock and participated in community activities,” Eubanks writes. “Anne took art, carpentry and cooking lessons and was reportedly writing stories as early as age 7. She attended a one-room school until South Toe Elementary opened in 1952. Always the precocious student, Tyler was often asked to take over the class when her teacher had to go check on his cows.”
Then there’s the story of Asheville landmark Homewood, built by Zelda Fitzgerald’s psychiatrist, Robert Carroll, who helped found Highland Hospital. The mansion is now used for weddings and business events, but its current staff told Eubanks that the Carrolls once hosted the Fitzgeralds and the Vanderbilts for a private concert by Hungarian composer and pianist Bela Bartok.
The concert took place in the same enormous room where Mrs. Carroll gave piano lessons to Tryon native Nina Simone (who grew up Eunice Wayman). In her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” Simone tells of her twice-a-week lessons with Mrs. Carroll and of getting up at 4 a.m. and practicing hard until 8 p.m.
Simone went on to attend the Juilliard School and become a civil rights activist and a singer, pianist and composer whose music was a heady blend of classical, jazz, blues and other influences. A writer who could create a work of fiction as filled with triumph and tragedy as Simone’s autobiography would earn a place among the greatest writers in the pantheon of American literature.
“I think there are a lot of states you could go to where you’d be pressed to do a three-volume series connecting tours by literary means,” Eubanks said during a recent interview.
In “Literary Trails” she tells how Ron Rash became convinced of the magical power of writing very early in life as he sat with his grandfather who never learned to read, but pretended to read Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” to his grandson, making up a story to go with the pictures as he went along. Each time the story and words would change.
“That’s emblematic of how great storytellers live in the hills, and the language is rich and those things have made their way into print,” Eubanks said.
Rash, a Boiling Springs native, spent time as a child with his grandfather in Leicester. He now holds the John A. Parris Jr. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professorship in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. His books include “Saints in the River,” “One Foot in Eden” and “The World Made Straight.”
The oral tradition of the Appalachian culture created people who wanted to write, Eubanks said.
People like Asheville’s Wilma Dykeman, who “kind of became my hero and guide through the whole process,” Eubanks said.
The guidebook provides 18 whole and half-day tours through 27 WNC counties. The tours takes readers to literary landmarks, but also notes bookstores, good locations for birdwatching, festivals, walkable downtowns and other points of interest along the way.
Eubanks, a Georgia native, has been involved with writers and writers’ organizations since she moved to North Carolina in 1973. She and photographer Donna Campbell set out to drive the tours interviewing folks about literary figures along the way.
The guide is a treasure trove of stories and tales about writers, some famous and some not, and their connection to Western North Carolina. It’s a must-have for WNC book lovers, an invitation in Eubanks’ words to “read your way across” the mountain landscape.
ON THE NET: www.georganneubanks.net/
Readers can write Franklin at P.O. Box 2090, Asheville, N.C. 28802; phone her at 828 232-5895; or e-mail her at Jfranklin@CITIZEN-TIMES.com.