Monday, June 29, 2009

A HARD JOURNEY by James J. Lorence

A Hard Journey by James J. Lorence
Chicago: University of Illinois Press
$39.95 – 344 pages

West felt that Appalachia had been”missionarized, researched, studied, surveyed, romanticized, dramatized, hillbillyized, Dogpatched and povertyized again .… and [he] offered a spirited challenge to outsiders who had come to exploit, instruct and denigrate mountain people.
- A Hard Journey, p. 204

Once on a warm, summer afternoon (circa 1957), I met Don West in the Townhouse Restaurant in Cullowhee. He was visiting his daughter, Hedy (a student at WCC) and talked easily about provocative topics: McCarthyism, HUAC, Eugene Debbs and union violence in Georgia. At one point, he indicated a well-dressed coffee-drinker at the counter and said, “See that guy? He is an FBI agent that follows me everywhere I go.” The coffee-drinker nodded and smiled. I was skeptical. Besides, I was eighteen, and most of my attention was focused on his daughter, Hedy.

When he got up to leave, he gave me a battered copy of Clods of Southern Earth and suggested that I read it; we could talk about it the next time we met, he said. I had no way of knowing that just a few months before our conversation, he had narrowly escaped lynching near Blairsville, Georgia. Shortly after visiting Hedy, he would return to his farm in Douglasville to find his livestock poisoned, a KKK cross burning on his property and a government agent on his porch with another HUAC subpoena. I had just met what may well be the most controversial and significant poet,minister,activist and teachers in the last century of Appalachian history.

I found James J. Lorence’s biography to be a dense, difficult but rewarding book. Certainly, it presents a comprehensive portrait of a charismatic, flawed and driven man whose confrontational manner caused him (and his family) considerable hardship. Like an old storytelling friend of mine once observed about her own difficult life: “I have dug my grave with my tongue.” In a pulpit, a classroom or in crafting the lines of a “working man’s poem,” West possessed an astonishing gift: the power to persuade and inspire others. Yet, that same gift provoked his enemies to bring him down.

Born Donald Lee West on June 6, 1906 in Gilmer County, Cartecay, Georgia, West’s early beliefs were shaped by his grandfather, Asberry Kimsey Mulkey. From an early age, Don was taught to believe in the inherent wisdom of common people, the equality of all men (anti-slavery) and the concept of Jesus Christ as a revolutionary. Raised in a family with a reverence for the power of words, music and oral tradition, Don learned to use them to promote his grandfather’s principles. These basic precepts remained with West throughout his life.

When West’s family moved to Cobb County and became share-croppers, Don and his sister were ridiculed for their clothes at school. This experience in conjunction with an encounter with educational “paternalism” convinced Don that schools were attempting to eradicate his culture and replace it with middle-class values. Although he received a work scholarship to Berry College, Don quickly found himself expelled when he led a protest against the blatant racism in the film, “Birth of a Nation.”

Gaining admission to Lincoln Memorial University in east Tennessee, West becomes friends with Jesse Stuart and James Still marries Connie Adams, decides to become a minister and moves to Vanderbilt where he soon becomes involved in radicalism, strikes, unions and educational reform. A trip to Denmark convinced him that the Danish school system offered the solution to retaining traditional values in education.

At this point, West’s life becomes a striving for ideals that invariably brings him into conflicts with authority. His attempts to launch the Highlander Center (1933) in Monteagle, Tennessee with Miles Horton is successful, but leads to irreconcilable conflicts with Horton. Amid accusations that the Highlander was a “communist training center,” Don leaves and begins a series of erratic journeys (on his beloved Indian motorcycle). West’s nebulous involvement with the Communist Party causes many of his friends (including Jesse Stuart) to distance themselves from him. Eventually, West’s publicized ties with the Communist and Leftist politics forces him to seek work under an assumed name.

For much of West’s life, his mainstay is his wife Connie. A gifted teacher, she readily finds employment. Even when Don’s notoriety brings her dismissal as well (guilt by association), she frequently travels to Florida and other states to teach. She sends the money home to Don and her family. In time, she also becomes a talented artist.

Time and time again, West succeeds in an astonishing variety of ventures: a beloved superintendent in Hall County, Georgia; three years of teaching at Oglethorpe; a successful newspaper editor in Dalton, Georgia; the creation of the Appalachian Center at Pipestem (modeled after his beloved Danish school system); a series of awards, including Appalachian Writers Association, Berea College and the Lincoln Memorial Hall of Fame – all remarkable achievements. Yet the majority of his successes turned to dust in his hands. His notoriety and his past involvement in radical activities results in his dismissal from Oglethorpe; the KKK and groups of anti-red organizations (including the American Legion)drove him from Dalton, and his major nemesis, Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution is credited with driving West from Georgia. For a time he lived and taught in New York. Then came a realized dream at Pipestem.

Lorence’s biography gives a detailed account of how a battered and demoralized West retreated, again and again, to his farm in Georgia to seek renewal from the land. Even this final refuge is denied him when his farm is torched and his collection of 10,000 books destroyed – a tragedy that Don later claimed was provoked by Ralph McGill. However, the last decade of Don's life was relatively peaceful, and was spent fundraising, teaching and promoting the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem. West died at the Charleston Area Medical Center in 1992.

This is what remains: His awards, his poetry and essays and the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia; the multitudes of students who still speak of him with respect, the lifetime friendship of people like Langston Hughes, Paul Green, Byron Herbert Reece and Arthur Miller; and the music of his daughter, Hedy an art that owes its authentic beauty to the same forces that shaped her unrepentant father.

It may be that the final judgment of Donald Lee West’s significance is yet to be made. If Communism is finally a harmless scarecrow and if McCarthyism has been defanged, perhaps it is possible that we can finally give this angry, impatient and gifted man a fair hearing. He loved mountain people and honored them in every act that he performed. Let us finally acknowledge that.

Note: After completing this review, I had the good fortune of contacting George Brosi, the editor of Appalachian Heritage magazine. Brosi sent me the Fall, 2008 issue which is largely devoted to Don West. Included with Don's poetry, Connie's paintings and a host of essays, the magazine includes a marvelous article by Jeff Biggers, "The Pride and Prejudice of Don West." Much of this issue is available at the Appalachian Heritage website. I urge you to go and read it.


  1. Sounds fascinating! This isn't a name I'm familiar with but certainly I should be. My knowledge of Appalachia is so limited . . . pretty much to Madison County.

    I'll have to give this book a try! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Gary, this review squares with a lot that I heard about West over the years. I've never made a focused study of him and his life; just reading this makes me wilt, the hatred and organized vendettas against progressive thinkers and doers. I remember Jim commenting once that in TN the Highlander Ctr. was considered "communist." I do remember Hedy West coming back to give a concert here and one of my friends finding her self-involved. (Same thing said by someone about Emmylou Harris, come to think of it. ) Musicians and activists probably have to be, but the jist of the story, who knows how accurate, is that my friend, also a young Eng. teacher, had a student who sang and played guitar and was a Hedy West admirer. They'd hoped Hedy would give her a listen, but she was "too busy" doing her own songs and talking about herself after her program. This is all hearsay. I wasn't there at the party afterward.I can imagine that being Don West's daughter, she was indeed single-minded in her attention to her music and her culture. You are right that West should be brought back from the margins and re-introduced to the Appalachian region. And beyond. Sounds like you are the one to do that.
    I would have thought Ralph McGill would look favorably on West's views, but then, the communist label probably got in the way. And since they were both strong-willed men, with fervent opinions, they may have clashed in numerous ways. All I know is my father hated McGill because he was pro-Civil rights and wrote about S. Ga. as if it were Sodbuster Heaven. The Bottom of the Backwoods.
    This isn't much help, in terms of a real response, I know. I really like the way you work into the West material, with the story @ the Townhouse. Lord, the hours I spent there. West was a handsome devil. What a face! I'll have to read the Brosi-Biggers edited collection of poems and prose. Then I'll feel more entitled to make what I hope are intelligent comments.

  3. Kay,
    I was amazed to learn that Hedy came back to WCU for a concert. When I talked to her in 2004 or 2005, she told me she hated Cullowhee and that all of her memories about her classes were unpleasant.
    She spoke with genuine warmth for her old music teacher, Renfro and George Herring, but she despised Niggli(who actually black-balled her from the drama department). Of course, Hedy had cancer and was probably in bad shape when she was talking to me. She contacted me again the next day and more or less apologized. I remember that she told me that she had a very "troubled relationship" with her father. I was also surprised to learn that by 1959, Hedy was already living in New York and moved her father and the family into her apartment because they had no where else to go. Don had been fired again, their home had been burned and her mother was in a car accident that made her a near-invalid for the rest of her life.

  4. What a life! It seems that remarkable mavericks like Don West are, too often, doomed to obscurity. Thanks for letting us know more about him.

  5. Good stuff, Gary. I definitely want to read that
    book. Never knew about Don West, the father, but, as a folk music aficiando back in the day, and anti-war activist, I recall his daughter Hedy quite well. Always thought that somehow
    there was more grit and substance to her than the others -Joan Collins and Joan Baez, for instance (though their voices were so beautiful). Hearing about her father and family life sheds light on that. Anyway, I just checked Hedy out on Wikipedia. It's worth the trouble. Back to father Don. His coal miner organizing past interests me. Also his connection to the Highlander Center. And the fact that Ralph McGill considered him an enemy. There's a wealth of material here - a play, Gary? - I want to get my hands on the book.


  6. Yeah, John, you are right. There is a dramatic monologue here. I also have a complete history of the Highlander Center and the fact that Don essentially founded it, but was forced to withdraw because of significant conflicts with Miles Horton regarding the Highlander's "mission." I once met Ralph McGill, too. He was damned intimidating. Celestine Sibley introduced me to this huge, glowering man who must have been in bad health since he was an unhealthy blue. We didn't have much to say to each other so Sibley took me across the street to a little cafe that specialized in black-eyed peas, onions and cornbread.

  7. P. S. I have two books about the history of the Highlander - both partially written by Myles Horton. One is "Unearthing Seeds of Fire" by Frank Adams with Myles Horton. The other is "The Long Haul" which is Myles Horton's autobiography. (He had lots of help in writing it.)

  8. Well, Gary, you constantly amaze me with your
    erudition, and the fact that you seem to have
    read every book worth reading in the history of
    book publishing. I say that with utmost respect.
    Anyway, the Don West, Highlander Center, Ralph
    McGill, etc. material is out there just begging
    from some dramatic treatment. And you're the guy
    to do it. Fits in with your monologue about Mother Jones, too. Given, also, the backdrop of
    the times - Hard Times and so forth - I think
    there might be an interested audience for such a
    piece of work. Personally, I'd like to learn
    more about working class struggles in our neck of the woods.


  9. How delighted I am that Gary Carden is seeking to expand awareness of the contributions of Don West.
    I met Don at a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 and we enjoyed a strong friendship for the next thirty years until his death in 1992.
    I think that the third paragraph of your review, Gary, is particularly insightful. The strong beliefs and passion that drove Don to create such beautiful poetry and devote himself to such important causes was the same force that wouldn't allow him to shut up when it would have been smart - in some ways - to do so.
    I am very impressed with all the contributions that Kay Byer has made to North Carolina and beyond as poet laureate, and I'm delighted that she is so supportive of your work, Gary.
    I remember that the Appalachian Writers Association met for a couple of years perhaps in the late eighties at Western Carolina University, and I think that one of those years they honored Don, but I can't remember if he attended. I recall being on a panel up front at one of those meetings, and John Ehle walked in the room in the middle of the panel and said, "hello, George" to me and incidentally the whole auditorium! I also recall that some of the art work of Don's now-deceased daughter, Hedy, was in the English Department's offices around 1990 when I got my masters there. Don's other daughter, Ann, lives in Anderson, South Carolina, now, with her husband Dr. Patrick Williams.
    George Brosi, editor, APPALACHIAN HERITAGE, a literary quarterly

  10. I can't resist adding a word about Ralph McGill and Don West. Ralph McGill made the mistake that may liberals make in dealing with radicals. He felt that they made his causes look bad. Sure, some radicals do some pretty stupid stuff, but, of course, so do folks of ALL political persuasions. Radicals are actually the liberals greatest hope. They move the center of the political debate to the left and thus make the liberals appear less extreme and more acceptable to the mainstream.

  11. George,
    Thank you, kindly, George.
    The reference to Hedy's "art work" was another surprise, although I do remember that she contributed to WCC's (now WCU's) first literary magazine, a modest memeographed magazine illustrated with wood-cuts. Hedy contributed a marvelous little essay on the Spanish gutarist,

    George, I certainly hope that you will visit us again. Hopefully, we will discuss other aspect of Appalachian culture.

  12. Garu,

    Well, here's another Gary recommendation I gotta read.

    Thanks! I had no idea how dramatic and varied his history, just the comments, often vague, at the time we were in school with Hedy. (You were Seniors, I was a mere Freshman.) But several years after school I was calling on someone work-wise in Murphy(?) and mentioned Hedy and her father to a local. I got a funny look, raised eyebrows and a changed subject.

    I was sorry to hear Hedy died, thank you for that blog, too, and I will try to add a comment there. And, yeah, your friend is right, Don West would make a great dramatic monologue.


  13. Mac,
    Don West's wife, Connie, was a master teacher and much sought after. She kept the family afloat each time Don was fired. However, she was fired several times (including Murphy) because she was Don West's wife. The smear campaign launched by Ralph McGill was a "guilt-by-association" affair that made life hard for all of the West family and their friends.Connie was often told that she could keep her job if she would divorce Don.

  14. Since Dot Jackson's computer refuses to post on my blog, Dot has sent the following and asked that I post it for her:

    Glad for this reminder. Yes, this guy DOES deserve some kind of resurrection -- we may be more able to get the point today. It has taken centuries for the average sharecropper, et al, to understand that God doesn't necessarily give GOOD people land or money or put them in charge -- and being the "boss" should not always guarantee reverence. That notion (of the rich being favorites of God) came out of the cotton field and straight into the cotton mill, and has remained entrenched in the psyches of the poor to this day. That may be why the poor suckers vote Republican -- licking the hand that starves, cheats and beats them.

    How classic that when Don West told and showed the benighted what was being done to them, by whom, they were ready to kill him at once. Not sure this is ever really going to change. Frustrating to the point of madness.

    This is an excellent review -- it may be better than the book, because you had a leg up on who Don West was, before you read the bio. It was then much easier for you to stick with, and follow.

    Many thanks --

  15. newtsmith said...

    Gary, thanks for the review and opening the discussion of Don West, who certainly deserves a lot more attention than he has gotten over the years. I was at Western Carolina University when his daughter Hedy came back to visit and play, in the late 60s or early 70s, I can’t remember exactly. I did not know she hated it until I heard it from you. George mentions the woodcut that was in the English Department. It was by Bill Lidh who was on the faculty and who did woodcuts of visiting artists coming through. And George also mentions the Appalachian Writers Association meeting that was held at WCU two years. I was chair of the association then and he is right, Don was recognized but there. I regret that I did not make a stronger effort now. He should be recognized or resurrected by someone and it might as well be you, Gary. His writing has mostly been lost or ignored. I have somewhere in my office a photocopy collection of his poetry, which was accomplished but not well published. West’s book, No Lonesome Road, was the beginning of his recognition, and I think we all owe Jeff Biggers and George Brosi thanks for editing it and getting it into publication. Don was a prophet like Jeremiah, pointing out the truth no one wanted to see. His role in establishing the Highlander Center alone is a considerable accomplishment. The last time I was there they had a good collection of documents on Don during those early years when everyone wanted to shut him up. I think that group that started out at Lincoln Memorial College and then went on to Vanderbilt as being the beginning of Appalachian literature. Certainly Stuart and Still were key figures, but there was a commitment to place and common people that separated them from some of the others who came out of Vanderbilt. Your review mentions Byron Herbert Reece, another of those committed to the common people whose writing was also prophetic and not well received by those in power. He too needs a resurrection. I remember once a long trip from Boone to Virginia Tech with Charlotte Ross. I think she was Don’s niece or some close relative. She talked about a Thanksgiving dinner where he was both sort of an honored member of the family and a black sheep who did not fit in. She had a lot of memories of him. I also think you might want to contact John Newman who retired from IT at WCU. He was a friend who worked with Don on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and has some priceless photos of Don. I am glad this thread has started. Maybe it will go further and excite others.
    July 2, 2009 11:33 PM

  16. Don West's life is stark reminder for anyone who wishes to speak Truth to Power that there are consequences. No wonder 'multitudes of students still speak of him with respect'! In so many ways he LIVED the poems.

    Thanks for lending your insight and personal stories to the discussion.

  17. Dave, I'm pleased that you showed up! I'm currently working on a dramatic monologue for Mother Jones, and I am amazed by the similarities in the forces that drove these two people. Mother's hatred for Power and Greed in America is often spoken in denouncements that sound like they were spoken by Don West.

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