The bag lady of Almond was a literary light
by Rob Neufeld
In the late 1930s, children in Almond saw an old lady walking around town carrying bags and muttering to herself.
She was the celebrated playwright, poet, and novelist Olive Tilford Dargan, who had come to Swain County, the place of her former farm, after feeling a Red Scare chill in Asheville over her allegedly proletarian novel, “Call Home the Heart.” She had written it under a pseudonym, Fielding Burke, but a publishing insider had leaked her identity.
Dargan’s bag contained gifts for the children. The muttering they heard was poems she recited in the act of composition.
“The rain it raineth every day/ From skies of wrath and rue,” she’d repeat, enjoying the “r” sounds before launching into her idyll, “But I’ve a garden where I play/ Whatever skies may do.”
When a Citizen-Times reporter visited her at Bluebonnet Lodge, her West Asheville home, in 1936, he entered her garden there via a flagstone path at the end of Balsam Ave. to discover a lawn “hidden by massive trees and shrubs … Climbing roses, clematis and trumpet vine run riot over” the “ancient logs” of the home, “and boxwood and evergreens peculiar to the mountains add their beauty to a house that bespeaks the primitive, sturdy mountaineer.”
The cabin dated back to the early 1800s, and had been bought, in 1897, by Rutherford Platt Hayes, son of President Rutherford B. Hayes, and early West Asheville developer.
Not long after Dargan’s death at age 99 in 1968, Richard Coleman razed the cabin to make way for an office park that would include a U.S. Post Office. The most visible part of that development now is Aldi’s.
Writer at work
Dargan had established an indoor-outdoor office in a screened outbuilding at Bluebonnet Lodge and “moved her small portable typewriter outside beneath the tall, stately pine trees,” an unsigned reporter noted in 1932.
She’d just completed her novel, “Call Home the Heart,” which follows fictional Ishma Waycaster from her mountain community to a piedmont mill.
Workers’ lives, Dargan asserted, lie closer to real experience “than the ‘flutter of an eyelid.’ which has occupied bourgeois writers for years and is considered by standpat critics as art. Still, these same critics will call the struggle of workers to free themselves ‘propaganda.’”
“Before she was seven,” Dargan writes about Ishma, the girl “had joined the class of burden-bearers.”
At 18, she planned to leave, horrified by the fates of her pathetic sister and luckless brother-in-law. Yet, she married Britt, a folk-singer, and they made a go at farming.
At one point, the couple “rebuilt their future on the slender basis of seven bushels of (soy) beans.” Stray cows trampled half the hay crop.
Continued misfortune overwhelmed even hope of joy, and one day, Ishma ran off to the mills with Rad, the beau she’d once rejected.
The dark view of life in “Call Home the Heart” concludes when Ishma goes back home to Britt and the mountains. Readers had become familiar with this setting in Dargan’s 1925 book of stories, “Highland Annals,” reissued in 1941 as “From My Highest Hill.” The later edition included photos of people from Almond taken by celebrated photographer Bayard Wooten.
“Highland Annals” had been based on the tenant farmer and local families Dargan had known while managing her farm in Swain County after her unstable husband, Pegram, had drowned.
Even then, Dargan had been the writer lady.
Round Top world
Since 1904, when she’d published the poetic drama, “Semiramis,” Dargan had been considered one of America’s great writers with her daring plays in Shakespearean form; and her poems of Wordsworthian wonder.
Some time into her tenure on Round Top in Almond, “the families on my farm ceased to look upon me as a mere outsider occasionally invading my own territory,” she wrote in “Highland Annals.”
Coretta, a tenant farm woman, comes by for a favor, interrupting Dargan’s precious morning hours after a long night. Coretta doesn’t understand Dargan’s displeasure at being disturbed.
“But Sam.” Coretta exclaims, referring to her husband, “had to git to the ploughin’ early, an’ you only had to jest sit and write!”
On the other hand, Serena, a young wife who helps Dargan, is on Dargan’s side when a haughty woman from Chicago suggests that if Dargan wished “to memorialize a passing folk, you will find material more worthy of your pen in the twilight of the bourgeoisie.”
A fire to her Round Top home sent Dargan to West Asheville. “The thing that most frequently stymies me,” she wrote a friend, “is a suffocating sense of guilt. In the world we breathe in to-day every moment calls one to its own job, and it isn’t ‘poetry.’”
The stock market crash occurred on October 29, 1929, and on Nov. 6, Dargan wrote her friend, Grant Knight, a University of Kentucky literature professor, about her state of mind.
“When I said ‘there are no people here,’ I did not mean artists and writers,” she explained. “We do have them with us. But ‘real people’ to me are only those who understand that a new society is a-borning.”
Dargan’s friend, Charlotte Young, a poet from Hominy Valley, called Dargan one of the best poets in the country in her time, but added that she was someone who hobnobbed with Communists and who would “fall for anything that came along if it was sold to her with a glib tongue.”
In contrast, Sylvia Latshaw, a friend and neighbor in Almond, commenting on what she called Dargan’s blacklisting, said she didn’t mind because in Almond “nobody knew anything about it and no one cared … We weren't even reading the daily papers. We don't get them out there. And we didn’t have time to read them if we had gotten them. There she [Dargan] stayed until the hue and cry died down.”
Over the next few years, Dargan traveled and worked on “A Stone Came Rolling,” the sequel to “Call Home the Heart.”
Dargan “has selected and assimilated her material emotionally,” Bernard Smith wrote in a “NY Herald Tribune” book review, … (She) is less interested in the epic and dramatic nature of her material than in the intimate and emotional effects of the class struggle upon individuals.”
In 1956, when she was 87, Dargan sold her home in West Asheville to a couple who agreed to let her live upstairs. Dargan’s space was reached by rickety stairs. There was “a makeshift arrangement with her water and toilet,” Latshaw said.
Dargan’s will, dated February 28, 1961, bequeathed her papers and manuscripts to the University of Kentucky at Lexington, but they never arrived. Family members allegedly burned her correspondence; and her manuscripts and notes somehow got trashed.
In 1958, when she was 89, she’d published “The Spotted Hawk,” a book of poems. It won multiple awards. In one poem, “Vain Rescue,” she imagines her death.
But rising now no inner fires outflow,
No gleam around me save a pale moon's haze.
I know a wood of beech and birch and snow
That waits my step. And come the June-warm days,
Where two brooks wed I'll find a lulling seat,
And stir white pebbles with my slow, bare feet.
Dargan is buried in Green Hills Cemetery in West Asheville. A state highway historical marker was erected in front of the West Asheville Library in 2000.
Great Article! Heart wrenching about her destroyed manuscripts and letters and notes but I will look for more of Olive Dargan! Lee Ann Brown