Saturday, April 19, 2008

An Outlander Comes to the Hills - Book Review by Gary Carden

Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart
New York: Outing Publishing Company -1913
395 pages

When Horace Kephart got off the train in Proctor, North Carolina in 1904, he probably felt that he was "at the end of the line" in more ways than one. Granville Calhoun, the man who met him at the depot that day, later described him as sad and inebriated. Calhoun had agreed to act as Kephart's guide into a remote section of Hazel Creek, but found himself cast in the role of nurse and helpmate as well. Kephart, ill and despondent, convalesced for three weeks in Granville's home before he ventured into the wilderness outside. He later told Calhoun that he had come to the Hazel Creek area because he wanted to live in an uncorrupted wilderness, far from "the Towers of Babel" and the monotonous drudgery of city life (he was a librarian from Saint Louis). In future years he admitted that prior to coming to Hazel Creek, he had investigated other wilderness locations (the Midwest), but found them lacking in the purity and wilderness that he sought. It was in Hazel Creek and the "outside of beyond" that he hoped to be physically and spiritually reborn.

Indeed, the remote coves and mysterious wilderness seemed to enliven Kephart, and in a few months he became a vigorous hiker, camper and self-taught wilderness cook. With Granville as a go-between, he quickly became an excepted member of the community. He deciphered and "backed" letters at the post office (Calhoun was postmaster) and served as a kind of quasi-doctor. He also began to collect information on plants and animals. Eventually, he moved into a cabin on Little Fork where he spent three years collecting "mountain lore." By all accounts, he drank less ... for a while.

Eventually, his interests turned to his neighbors, and Kephart became a sort of self-appointed historian. He became extremely interested in the origin, customs and character of what he termed "the southern highlander." His interest in mountain speech led to an impressive compendium of mountain dialect, and his "consuming interest" in the making of moonshine provoked him to write an ingeniously worded defense of the alleged crime of the processing, selling and consumption of corn whiskey - a practice that Kephart found to be primarily the direct result of - are you ready? - poor roads! Kephart's logic is as follows: the farmer could get his corn to market over decent roads. In their absence, he was forced to distill the corn into liquid so that it would be easier to transport. Makes sense to me. Well, sorta.

When Kephart published Our Southern Highlanders in 1913, it sold 10,000 in the first edition. Since much of the book had been previously published in popular "outdoor" magazines, Kephart was mindful of the fact that he had an enthusiastic following, and that much of that attention was directly related to his picturesque descriptions of the "quaint and curious" lifestyles of the southern highlanders - In other words, images based on Kephart's neighbors in and around Swain County. Certainly, the author knew that the American public had what he termed "a furtive interest" in the "tall, slouching figures in homespun" that served to represent the inhabitants of the Appalachians. Consequently, Kephart revised and expanded that image in the next edition. Notably, the tree additional chapters - "The Snake-stick Man," "A Raid on the Sugarlands," and "The Killing of Hol Rose" - are direct responses to the public's growing curiosity about moonshine, feuds and the southern highlanders' alleged proclivity for bloodshed and vengeance.

As a native of the region that Kephart describes, I have always had an acute sensitivity to "outlanders" who define, appraise and judge my culture. I always read Kephart with a clenched jaw, anticipating some flagrant offense in the next sentence. However, despite my dislike for his role as the "discerning outlander" - a man who can readily perceive our innermost secrets, and announces a perfectly obvious way to cure our ills - I must conclude that I endorse and even applaud most of his observations, finding that they coincide with the world that I inhabited as a child. I was raised by two Scot-Irish grandparents (both born in the 1880s) who talked, acted and believed in a manner that is roughly compatible with Kephart's world. There are some notable exceptions. I'll get to a few, later.

At times, Our Southern Highlanders speaks with a clarity and an authenticity that is gratifying to read. I hear my grandparents speak again in the marvelous dialectical passages ("I et a bait of greens 'n pone thet give me the mollygrubs.") I recognized my own family in Kephart's observations on the mountaineers' stoic response to suffering and death, and their rare displays of affection (My grandmother used to say, "We ain't huggers 'n kissers"). I also found my grandfather's contempt for the legal system echoed in Kephart's conclusion that the Scotch-Irish settlers preferred to render their own brand of justice - action that my own family heartily endorsed. I even found my grandfather's distaste for city water (he refused to drink water "thet has stood in a arn pipe") reflected in Kephart's observations on the mountaineers'
love of fresh air and clean water.

I am delighted by Kephart's ability to capture both dialect and cadence in mountain speech. Perhaps the most impressive example is the section in "Home Folks" where he reproduces the rhythms of a mountain preacher who utilizes the word "Ah!" as a kind of punctuation: "Oh, brethren, repent ye and repent of your sins, ah, for if you don't, ah, the Lord, ah, will grab ye by the seat of yer pants, ah, and hold ye over hell fire till ye holler like a coon."

There are lyric passages in Our Southern Highlanders that compare mountain folk to 18th century cavaliers or mountain Rip Van Winkles - in effect, race whose virtues have been branded vices by the passage of time which "stands still in the mountains." He also notes that most mountain men - "sly, sullen and suspicious" in demeanor - a condition he attributes to bad diet and a dislike for "ferreniers." They customarily resent intrusion and will confront an outsider with a brash "who are ye 'n whar ye guine?" Apparently, readers outside Appalachia find such behavior delightfully picturesque.

Are Kephart's observations accurate? Well, yes, but he has an irrepressible tendency to exaggerate (salt the mine, gild the lily). He readily admits to adding a bit of "spice" now and then. In his desire to fascinate and enthrall his readers, he sometimes "stretches the blanket" a bit. Determined to provide the penultimate examples of eccentricity, murderous vengeance, or dire poverty poverty, he sometimes goes a bit afield, far outside Swain County and into Kentucky or West Virginia. This is the case when he discusses feuds, which have never been a significant activity in Western North Carolina, so the author resorts to rehashing the infamous Allen murders in Kentucky and the Hatfield-McCoy feuds in Virginia. His explanations for the family vendettas that survive for decades are a bit simplistic, too. Feuds, he says, originated in the Scottish Highlands and when traced to their origin, they are carried out as a form of "honorable clan loyalty."

I find it significant the Kephart chooses not to discuss business and commerical interests in Appalachia. That includes people who own stores and live in an area that the author dismisses as "the valley people." Apparently, these people aren't numerous enough to warrant discussion. I suspect there is another reason. Since they do not fit Kephart's characterization (sullen, sly, suspicious and ignorant), they aren't interesting. Their very existence suggests that there is more to mountain culture than a semi-civilized, illitrate (but very romantic) race that lives like 18th century brigands in their mountain fastness.

I find Kephart's bleak assessment of the role of women in mountain culture especially distressing and over-stated. According to Kephart, women "are little more than a superior domestic animal. They are "drudges" and field hands, demeaned and ignored by their husbands after the hardships of mountain life destroy their youth and beauty. They "stay home where they belong, never visiting or going anywhere without first asking their husband's consent."

Of course, Kephart assures us that the people of Bryson City, Proctor and Hazel Creek are cut from the same template as the folks in Lexington or Western Pennsylvania - a conclusion that I find a bit overstated. Ah, but Kephart always speaks with admirable confidence. When a premise might appear questionable, Kephart thunders with authority. For example, consider his contention that "undesirables," indentured servants, criminals and "poor whites," never came in significant numbers into Appalachia. Such an idea is patently ridiculous, he huffs, since they lacked the courage or the physical stamina to survive in the mountains!