Authors: Stephen Kirk
In the small mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe lies at eternal rest just a few steps from William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry. Those graves are a short hop from the great inn where F.Scott Fitzgerald tried to dictate his writing from the estate where the aged Carl Sandburg wrote deep into the night.
The city's ties to the world of letters are equally strong today. Gail Godwin and Charles Frazier were schooled in Asheviile, for example, and Robert Morgan and Fred Chappell in the immadiate area.
Stephen Kirk, author of Scribblers, in the editor and would-be literary gadfly. Taking Asheville as has canvas, he learns stories of the area's legendary authors and interviews some of its contemporary greats. Meanwhile, he also seeks out writes living in the shadows of the famous. He meets genre authors who make their living penning romances, Weserns, and mysteries. He immerses himself in the culture of writers' groups and conferences, exploring the hopes and frustration of the unpublished and self-published. For every well-known author, there are a thousand folks laboring in obscurity. What drives them so hard, given such a remote likelihood of success?
is ultimately a humorous, sympathetic examination of the writer's urge, set against the background of a noted literary town. Its Woody Allenstyle narrator, who wants to be in the club as badly as the rest, casts a critical eye on his own efforts as he flubs a few interviews, commits a faux pas here and there, and graually finds his way.
Stalking the Authors of Appalachia
Copyright Â© 2004 by Stephen Kirk
All rights reserved under
International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
The paper in this book meets the guidelines
for permanence and durability of the Committee on
Production Guidelines for Book Longevity
of the Council on Library Resources
Design by Debra Long Hampton
Cover image by Martin Tucker and Anne Waters
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kirk, Stephen, 1960-
Scribblers : stalking the authors of Appalachia / by Stephen Kirk.
p.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â cm.
ISBN 0-89587-307-9 (alk. paper)
1. American literatureâNorth CarolinaâAsheville RegionâHistory and criticism. 2. American literatureâAppalachian Region, SouthernâHistory and criticism. 3. Authors, AmericanâHomes and hauntsâNorth CarolinaâAsheville Region. 4. Authors, AmericanâHomes and hauntsâAppalachian Region, Southern. 5. Appalachian Region, SouthernâIntellectual life. 6. Appalachian Region, SouthernâIn literature. 7. Asheville Region (N.C.)âIntellectual life. 8. Asheville Region (N.C.)âIn literature. I. Title.
For M, Z, and B
“Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.”
The dancing Maxwell Perkins is too old for the part: that's my first impression. The legendary Scribner's editor was in his forties when he met Thomas Wolfe. This guy looks a good fifteen years older.
I'm attending a ballet based on Wolfe's life. Called
A Stone, A Leaf, A Door,
it's billed as a “world premiere.” Two of the girls in the chamber choir have barbwire tattoos around their ankles. Stage right, a solemn-looking fellow gravely intones poetry adapted from Wolfe while the dancers emote. A stone, a leaf, and a door are the dominant symbols in
Look Homeward, Angel.
I recently finished that novel and was hammered by those images for five hundred and twenty-two pages. Confronting them again makes my head hurt. Damn me for a lowbrow, but ballet seems a silly way to tell the story. I wish I had my ten dollars back.
I've come to Asheville, North Carolina, for the Thomas
Wolfe Festival. Because of obligations at work, I was late getting on the road for the three-hour drive to this mountain city. As a result, I've missed the mock debates on the front porch of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the walking tour of Wolfe's Asheville, the readers' theater presentation of Wolfe's story “The Child by Tiger,” the radio broadcast from the memorial, and Wolfe's posthumous birthday cake. I've missed the presentation of sundry papersâ“Thomas Wolfe: A Psychobiography,” “Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein,” “The Flood of 1916 and Thomas Wolfe's
Antaeus, or a Memory of Earth,”
“Thomas Wolfe's Literary Use of the Civil War.” Maybe that's for the best. To be honest, I'm not much interested anyway. And I'm too lame for the Thomas Wolfe 8K Road Race.
I don't feel much affinity for Wolfe. He was a drunk, a skirt chaser, a mama's boy, and a lout. He was needy, crude, self-pitying, and impressed with his brilliance. I admire him for his grand, naive ambition to capture the entire world on paper, but I don't much care for his writing. When I began
Look Homeward, Angel,
the book so frustrated me that I started counting all the exclamation points and penciling a running tally at the end of each chapter. “O
waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cylinder, lost!”
O juvenile crap! Like many readers before me, I later got caught up in the high madness of his thinly fictionalized family. But the novel ultimately seemed as overstated as the man himself.
Asheville impresses me as much as Thomas Wolfe doesn't. The city lies at an elevation of twenty-five hundred feet in a protected bowl of the southern Appalachians
between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Great Smokies to the west. It occupies a temperate zone in which rain is more plentiful but the air is generally drier, in which the summers are cooler and the winters milder, than in the areas east and west of the mountains.
The corridor of the French Broad River first became a haven for people of means in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, when South Carolina planters seeking to escape the heat and yellow fever of the coastal lowlands built grand homes at Flat Rock, just over the North Carolina border. Meanwhile, another wealthy enclave developed at Hot Springs, fifty miles north-northwest, toward the Tennessee line. Midway between the two was Asheville, which attained a fame as “America's Magic Mountain” as the privileged escaped to its healthful climate and spectacular views.
Foremost among the Northern bluebloods who came to town was George Washington Vanderbilt, who visited with his mother in 1887. Local legend has it that Vanderbilt was on the south veranda of the Battery Park Hotel when he saw the vista of rolling mountains that inspired him to create the Biltmore Estate. Encompassing a 125,000-acre tract of forest, a 250-room chateau, and a complete support village, it was a private domain unequaled in America. Twenty-six when he began acquiring local property and thirty-threeâand still a bachelorâwhen the chateau was completed in 1895, Vanderbilt never considered that he might have overbuilt, or that Asheville was a backwater, the railroad not having reached town until 1880. He believed that if he did things on a grand-enough scale, the world would come to him.
Aside from its beauty and climate, the area had little to recommend it. Most people were small farmers on difficult ground; they were self-sufficient but cash-strapped. The influx of wealth into what had long been a hardscrabble region brought jobs. It also furthered the tradition by which the best assets of poor places are owned by interlopers.
The juxtaposition of plenty and little was one of the factors that gave rise to a surprisingly rich writing tradition centered on a city that only recently topped fifty thousand inhabitants. Some say literacy came late here, but a rich vein of material awaited those who picked up a pen. Thomas Wolfe is Asheville's favorite son. O. Henry once had an office downtown. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a couple of summers at the Grove Park Inn; Zelda died in an asylum fire in Asheville; Tennessee Williams organized one of his late, failed plays around that fire. Walker Percy summered for many years at nearby Highlands, where he conceived the idea for
The Second Coming,
set in Asheville. Gail Godwin spent her formative years in Asheville's Catholic schools. Charles Frazier was educated here, too; his Cold Mountain lies forty miles west. John Ehle is from West Asheville.
Draw a circle with a radius of thirty miles around the city and you take in these writers: Carl Sandburg lived out his later years in Flat Rock; Fred Chappell is from Haywood County, west of the city; Robert Morgan grew up in Henderson County, to the south; Tony Earley is from Rutherfordton, to the southeast; Lilian Jackson Braun lives half the year at Tryon, to the south; Patricia Cornwell spent part of her youth at Montreat, to the east, where she was mentored by Ruth Bell Graham, the wife of Billy Graham.
The Black Mountain College writers inhabited a strange, culturally significant little campus near Montreat.
Residing under this noble forest canopy is an under-story of genre authors and writers of regional or minor national note.
Beneath that is a ground cover of writers' organizations, critique clubs, and literary retreatsâthe Writers' Workshop, the Asheville Plotters, the Hendersonville Writers Support Group, the Writers' Guild of Western North Carolina, the Transylvania Writers' Alliance, the Burke County Cross Country Wordsmiths, the Cashiers Writers' Group, Mountain Voices, numerous splinter groups, and, no doubt, others unknown to me.
I've traveled here to glean insights from the lives of famous authors in a town with a rich literary tradition. But more than that, I want to examine the writer's urge as manifested in flesh-and-blood scribblers, whether they be great or humble, successful or failed, recognized or frustrated. From the unknown among them, I want to learn what compels people to daily confront the limits of imagination, to continue nursing hopes when the possibility of real success is so slim. I'd like to know why writers think they can take their mostly mundane experiences and ideas and create something of value.
The final event of the Thomas Wolfe Festival is the dedication of the new visitor center at the Wolfe memorial. That facility, located behind the memorial properâthe boardinghouse known as the Old Kentucky Home in Wolfe's day and immortalized as Dixieland in
Look Homeward, Angelâ
contains restrooms, display space, a gift shop, and an auditorium. It's also designed to save wear and tear on the old boardinghouse itself.