The literature of Madison County: a wealth of sources
by Rob Neufeld
There had already been a renaissance of Madison County literature 20 years ago, when I’d published a column about it in this newspaper. Now, it is clear that that flowering had been a sign of much more to come.
Oct. 25 and 26, UNC Asheville celebrates the phenomenon with a pro
gram featuring Wiley Cash as keynote speaker. Read about event. Let me jump back on the bandwagon with this updated list.
The ballad tradition went hand-in-hand with dance, famously advanced by Mars Hill native Bascom Lamar Lunsford, about whom Loyal Jones wrote “Minstrel of the Appala
chians” (Appalachian Consortium Pr., 1984; U. of Ky., 2002). Mars Hill University houses the Lunsford archives. The Madison County ballad-preserving and composing
tradition is world-renowned. It had attracted English song collectors, Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles, here for the bulk of their material. Folksinger Betty Smith wrote a valuable biography-oral history-song collection of the leading contributor, “Jane Hicks Gentry: A Singer among Singers” (U. of Ky. Pr., 1998).
Sharyn McCrumb, descendant of itinerant preachers in the area, has incorporated the subject matter, tone, and magic of the ballads into her novels, including “The Songcatcher” (Dutton, 2001) and “Ghost Riders” (Dutton, 2003), part of which concerns the Shelton Laurel massacre (see below).
Hot Springs and Paint Rock have attracted local color writers such as Christian Reid (“The Land of the Sky,” 1876) and Sally Royce Weir (“Hot Springs: Past and Present,” 1904). Before them, there was a tale-telling vein reaching back to the Cherokee, early explorers, and health resort owners, which had included the family of Zebulon Vance.
Forgotten is an excellent novel by “The Secret Garden” author, Francis Hodgson Burnett—”Louisiana” (1880), the story of a local girl who comes under the wing of a sophisticated guest at the (then) Warm Springs Hotel and nearly repudiates her family.
Hot Springs native Jacqueline Burgin Painter is Hot Springs’ most noteworthy historian, having written four thoroughly researched books, including “The German Invasion of Western North Carolina” (Biltmore Pr., 1992; Overmountain Pr., 1997) about the German officers imprisoned at the resort during WWI. It was an inspiration for Ron Rash when he wrote his 2012 novel, “The Cove.”
Terry Roberts’ novel, “A Short Time to Stay Here” (Ingalls, 2012), winner of the 2012 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction,
goes inside the POW camp to reveal its workings through the eyes of its manager, a local man bound by his own desperate legacy. Jane Hicks Gentry makes a cameo appearance, singing a ballad.
3. Shelton Laurel
The tragic, retributive execution of local boys and men by a Confederate regiment in Shelton Laurel in 1863 spawned pages of official literature about what went wrong and what should be done about it. The shock waves have not stopped.
University of Kansas professor Phillip Shaw Paludan’s 1981 account, “Victims: A True Story of the Civil War,” had been, for a long time, the authoritative source; but has subsequently been redressed by numerous treatments.
In “Bushwhackers” (John F. Blair, 1988), William Trotter included a 25-page section on the incident, and invoked the term, “Bloody Madison.” Asheville historian Milton Ready tells the story in his 2011 book, “Mystical Madison.” The mystery of the perpetrators’ motives was most ambiguously explored by Sean O’Leary in his play, “Shelton Laurel” (2005), produced by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre (on Mars Hill University’s campus), a cradle of locally derived literature for the stage.
Ron Rash followed the life of one of his ancestors, a conscientious physician who’d served the Confederate regiment, to create his 2006 soul-wrenching novel, “The World Made Straight.”
4. Manly Wade Wellman
Wellman, an award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, epitomized the tall tale tradition by fusing his interests with Madison County in his epic Silver John stories, compiled in 1988 into the book, “John the Balladeer.”
5. Wilma Dykeman
The pre-eminent chronicler of this region included Madison County history in her narrative, “The French Broad” (1955); and in her novel, “Return the Innocent Earth” (1973), in which a drover gets waylaid by a Walnut innkeeper disguised as an African-American.
7. Sheila Kay Adams
Sodom native Adams is a leading cultural figure, great-niece of legendary ballad singer, Dellie Norton; and relative of many family tradition-bearers. She turned her musical narratives toward the printed page with her 1995 collection of stories, “Come Go Home with Me” (UNC Pr.). Her novel, “My Old True Love” (Algonquin, 2004) focuses on ballad-making, and also includes the Shelton Laurel massacre.
Keith Flynn, born in Flynn Cove near Marshall, and educated at Mars Hill College and UNC Asheville, has become a leading local as well as national poet and editor; and a phenomenon. His poems range world history and literature, celebrating nature religion, feminism, and social justice; and, on occasion, looking at his roots. He bridges his writing with rock music, leading the band, Keith Flynn and the Holy Men. Lately, he has established, in a renovated Madison County Church, White Rock Hall, a soundstage and events venue.
Flynn is joined by Ron Rash and other noted poets and musicians, 7 p.m., Nov. 17 at Diana Wortham Theatre for “A Benefit for the Beloved Community,” an extravaganza to raise funds for homeless and disenfranchised people.
Rash has embraced his Madison County connections in his poems, notably in “Among the Believers” (Iris Pr., 2000).
In addition to Rash, McCrumb, Roberts, and Adams, Vicki Lane has drawn from Madison County lore and created her Elizabeth Goodweather detective series, which began with “Signs in the Blood” (Dell, 2005).
One of the most celebrated novelists of our region, Wiley Cash, set his debut novel, “A Land More Kind than Home” (HarperCollins, 2012), in Madison County, involving a snake-handling minister.
First off, there’s the artful and documentary photography and oral history of Rob Amberg: “Sodom Laurel Album” (UNC Pr., 2001); and “The New Road”(u. OF Ga. Pr., 2009). In addition, there are a wide range of other contributions, including the homemade “Appalachian Memories” by Lillie McDevitt Clark; Pauline Cheek’s essay, “The Hooked Rug Workers of Madison County,” published in Robert Brunk’s “May We All Remember Well, Vol. 1” (1997); and Mark Pinsky’s true crime account, “Met Her on the Mountain” (John F. Blair, 2013).