The attraction to the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee is the natural beauty.
The great, thick forests, the ephemeral mists, the crags and valleys and the wide views over the ancient, worn-down peaks are why the national parks were made.
Even the people of the early 19th century, not precisely the most environmentally friendly folks to ever walk the earth, recognized the need to protect the natural beauty within the mountains.
But it would be a mistake to think the mountains are the only objects of fascination in the Smokies and beyond.
Books inspired by the Smoky Mountain locals
The mountain people, their ways, their histories and their art have long been of great interest to the wider public and the world.
It is, of course, an impossible task to generalize a people, but certain qualities helped feed the public’s desire to learn about, and often look down upon, the people of the mountains.
The insular nature of the mountains helped create a certain mystique — and more than a few stereotypes.
This isn’t a new phenomenon.
There is a great American tradition of authors who found great success in telling the stories of the mountains to the wider public.
Some of these locals who, in simply telling their own stories, illuminated the lives of the region.
Others were visitors, attracted to the region, writing about the people like anthropologists studying an ancient and inscrutable population.
The author Mary Noailles Murfree
Among the first, and most well-known, Smoky Mountain author is Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1922) who grew to fame writing under the pen-name Charles Egbert Craddock.
Though a Tennessee native, Murfree was not of the mountains. A Middle Tennessean from Murfreesboro, the town named after her great-grandfather, Murfree was a member of the upper crust, born on the family cotton plantation.
She spent most of her young life in Nashville and then St. Louis. Murfree was educated at a French finishing school in Philadelphia.
For 15 years of her youth, she spent summers in Beersheba Springs, a resort where her family owned a cabin in the Cumberland Mountains of Grundy County. Here, she made the acquaintance with the mountain people who would later bolster her literary fortunes.
She had a few of her satirical essays published while she lived in St. Louis as early as 1874 under another male pseudonym. In 1878, the Atlantic Monthly published her story under the Craddock pen name.
Her first book, a collection of her essays In the Tennessee Mountains was published in 1884. Her first novels were published later that year, Where the Battle was Fought, set in her native Murfreesboro and The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains.
I started to write that she was in the right place at the right time, but that’s not quite correct.
To get published, she pretended to be a man
She was a female author, and the best way to get published was to pretend to be a man.
But she was providing local color about “exotic” people at a time when the American reading public was demanding it.
Her summers in Grundy County, even though she spent them in a high-dollar resort, provided her content and insight but tellingly, not perspective.
In her own voice, Murfree wrote like the highly educated daughter of urban society that she was. Her prose can sag with the heft of endless litanies of description.
A passage from ‘In the Tennessee Mountains’
This is the opening of “Drifting Down Lost Creek”, a short story from In the Tennessee Mountains.
“HIGH above Lost Creek Valley towers a wilderness of pine. So dense is this growth that it masks the mountain whence it springs. Even when the Cumberland spurs, to the east, are gaunt and bare in the wintry wind, their deciduous forests denuded, their crags unveiled and grimly beetling, Pine Mountain remains a sombre, changeless mystery; its clifty heights are hidden, its chasms and abysses lurk unseen.”
“Whether the skies are blue, or gray, the dark, austere line of its summit limits the horizon. It stands against the west like a barrier. It seemed to Cynthia Ware that nothing which went beyond this barrier ever came back again One by one the days passed over it, and in splendid apotheosis, in purple and crimson and gold, they were received into the heavens, and returned no more.”
But then, when she switches to the mountain people’s voice, she rends the dialect in a manner that is all but impenetrable.
From the same book:
“I do declar’, it sets me plumb catawampus ter hev ter listen ter them blacksmiths, up yander ter thar shop, at thar everlastin’ chink-chank an’ chink-chank, considerin’ the tales I hearn ‘bout ‘em, when I war down ter the quiltin’ at M’ria’s house in the Cove.”
It is jarring as she switches back and forth. It’s clear she wants to tell the mountain people’s story.
She also wants you to know she is not one of them.
Was this the start of the mountain stereotypes?
There are times I have to read the passages aloud to myself to understand them. It’s no wonder so many stereotypes built up over time.
For a time, Murfree’s work was among the best known in the country, for better and worse. When Teddy Roosevelt arrived in Murfreesboro, he got off the train and hollered that he wanted to meet Craddock.
However, in appendix to one of his novels, Mark Twain offered Murfree as an example of overblown writing. That had to hurt.
As the national taste changed, so did Murfree moving into the burgeoning historical fiction market, but with significantly less success.
Still, Murfree’s work is a valuable resource, a view into the lives that passed chiefly unchronicled. Even if she did seem to look down upon them, she was at least looking.
Have you read any of Murfree’s work? Let us know in the comments.