Great Smokies literature unfolds in guide
by Rob Neufeld
The University of Tennessee Press has engaged experts to scour archives for publications about the Great Smoky Mountains, 1544 to 1934; and they’ve emerged with a user-friendly guide titled “Terra Incognita.”
Observing the observers
The guide is an annotated bibliography—a scholar’s dream; and also, for all of us, a somewhat shocking encounter with the ghosts of experts past.
From the 1,299 item descriptions, let’s pull out a few that show how much clearer retrospective vision can be than contemporary sight.
The enlightened experts of the Progressive Era, we now see, had been caught up in a debate about the need that Appalachian people had had for rescue. There were three camps of helpers: missionaries; industrialists; and scholars looking to celebrate native white people.
You might think, “What about natives writing about themselves—where are they?” We’ll get to that, but first let’s turn to Chapter 7, “Life in the Great Smoky Mountains,” the sociological section.
In 1928, Isabel Gordon Carter wrote a doctoral thesis titled, “Reduction in Variability in an Inbred Population.” To her credit, the annotation reveals, she included a quote from a local doctor, who had stated, “The mentality of the inhabitants is above average and the percentage of feeble-mindedness less than other areas.”
On the other hand, the author thought it necessary to administer intelligence tests to schoolchildren in the Gatlinburg area, and correlate the results to any inbreeding she discovered in their family trees.
The next two items in “Terra Incognita” reveal how scholars are sometimes afflicted by self-fulfilling expectations.
Thomas Robertson Dawley Jr., a child labor investigator, concluded in 1910 that the only salvation for Appalachians living in poverty was for them to leave the mountains and move to mill towns.
In 1912, the same author published, “The Child That Toileth Not,” based on his tours of mountain homes and city factories.
“God-forsaken in appearance with no visible land for tillage,” he wrote about local homesteads, “I wondered why human habitations were built in such places.”
“The author concludes,” the annotation summarizes, “that children working in the cotton mills are healthier and happier than those in the mountains who do not work.”
The next entry we’ll look at—from the “Religion” section of the book—will make us feel decidedly superior to the do-gooders who reported on Great Smokies denizens in 1872
“About one-fourth of them,” the East Tennessee Christian Association of Friends noted, “live in houses or cabins, with no floor but the earth, and their average intelligence is below that of the colored people, because they have had less intercourse with intelligent white people, and far less (that is, fewer) opportunities to attend any kind of religious services.”
Aside from having discarded racial superiority theories, today’s social scientists no longer equate non-modern homes with a lack of quality of life (oh wait, there had been 1960s and 70s urban renewal). In any case, we know that a legitimate historical survey of Appalachian homes would not isolate the most “wretched” examples to make an agenda-driven point.
Pre-1935 writings do include views that exhibit greater fairness than the ones already cited here. Any era will have its mix of bought and free thinkers.
For example, Edward Guerrant, a traveling Presbyterian minister, and author of “The Galax Gatherers” (1910), generously professed, “The follies of fashion and the dissipations of society have never invaded those quiet hamlets in the Great Smokies.”
But then he added, “We need these highlanders to leaven the great influx of foreigners, seven millions of whom entered our country in the last ten years.”
“Terra Incognita” devotes a whole chapter to Horace Kephart, the librarian, outdoorsman, writer, and Appalachia-lover who published “Our Southern Highlanders.” The introduction to this part, written by George Ellison, reveals Kephart’s integrity by following his career.
If there is any bias in Kephart, it’s his Romanticism, as in his passionate confession, “I love the wilderness because there are no shams in it,” transmuted to the people and to such heroic essays as “The Mountain Moonshiner.”
You’ll find straightforward writing in Chapter 4, “History of the Great Smoky Mountains”; Chapter 12, “Natural History of the Great Smoky Mountains”; and elsewhere.
But, if you’re like Kephart and you not only want to set up camp but also connect with spirit on your outing, you’ll travel with particular interest to literary sources.
Chapter 9, “Literature of the Great Smoky Mountains,” presents a host of authors with whom you’ll want to sit a spell: David Camak, author of “June of the Hills”; Olive Tilford Dargan, “From My Highest Hill”; George Washington Harris, “High Times and Hard Times”; Heyward Dubose, “Angel”; Mary Noailles Murfree, “The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains”; and others.
Going to the wellspring
It’s curious how fiction-writers will sometimes get things most right. Dargan, for instance, followed up her short story collection, named above, with the novel, “Call Home the Heart,” which fearlessly follows her mountain characters down to the mills. Consequently, critics of her time unfairly dubbed her work proletarian, a limiting term that “Terra Incognita” repeats, albeit in quotation marks.
Currently, with interest in Appalachian fiction proliferating—among local writers and national publishers—it seems that consulting such sources as “Terra Incognita” might be beneficial.
UNC Asheville is home to the “Great Smokies Writing Program,” one indication of the wellspring. Today at 3 p.m., the program presents its monthly author reading series, “Writer’s at Home,” at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville (254-6734).
One of the readers is Margaret Brown, author of “The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains,” one of the 52 books included in a post-1934 reading list provided by “Terra Incognita.”
Terra Incognita: An Annotated Bibliography of the Great Smoky Mountains, 1544-1934, ed. by Anne Bridges, Russell Clement, and Ken Wise (U. of Tenn. Pr. hardcover, 2014, 470 pages, $83).
That East Tennessee Christian Association of Friends comment, especially bothered me, but it clarifies the view some folks from outside the region have about us even to this day. … average intelligence...below that of colored people...intelligent white people...religious services… Uh, uh, uhm!
I grew up Black, running around barefoot in summer (not because I had no shoes, but I liked it then.), and attended a one room/one teacher segregated school; but still became an honor graduate from high school and college.
I think we who know who we are cherish our mountain life and lifestyles, in spite of what others may think of us.
There are so many wonderful books and some that cause me to think beyond my own experience. I wish I could read faster. Audio books have helped to enrich my knowledge over the years since I used to spend many hours in my car.
Thank you for this post. I enjoyed "the read."