North Carolina's mountains are well known for pristine lakes, world-class golf courses, and scenic hiking trails. But less visible is the rich literary underbelly known to the lucky readers among us.
Perhaps it's the isolation of life in the mountains, or the spirit of hundreds and hundreds of ancestors and their stories that seem to come alive in the quiet of the woods. Whatever the source, the mountains of North Carolina abound in literary history.
Thomas Wolfe, arguably the most famous of North Carolina writers, grew up in Asheville, the son of a stonecutter, before beginning his writer's life in New York City. The locals knew him to be an able wordsmith...he had, after all, edited the Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina's student paper. But when Look Homeward, Angel was released to enthusiastic reviews and sales, it caused an uproar among the town, as apparently some of the characters in the best-seller seemed all too familiar. Wolfe called the town “Altamont” and says in the book, “The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life...They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”
Those mountains, of course, have been the setting for countless significant events in our country's history, most notably the Civil War and the institution of the “Trail of Tears” by which native Americans were banished to Oklahoma.
Charles Frazier's award-winning fiction is firmly planted in the local mountains. Did you realize there really is a Cold Mountain for which his novel Cold Mountain is named? Just southwest of Asheville, the 6,000-foot peak is the tallest in the wilderness area and was the home of the protagonist Inman's wife, to whom he struggles to return after serving in the Confederate Army. Inman's character is based on stories handed down—in true mountain tradition—by Frazier's father about his great-granduncle named Inman.
His second novel, Thirteen Moons, is also set in the North Carolina mountains and tells the story of a man's experience with the Cherokees during their removal from the area.
Kaye Gibbons, who grew up in rural North Carolina, is a prolific contemporary writer mostly about complex women with layered emotions. She draws on her hardscrabble upbringing in Nash County and many of her characters have similar struggles, especially as they attempt to push back against a restraining Southern culture. Her voice apparently rings true, as evidenced by her best-selling status, innumerable awards, and selection for Oprah's book club.
Ron Rash, who has been hailed by New York Times' Janet Maslin as an “elegantly fine-tuned voice”, grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and received a master's degree from Clemson University. A former professor and part-time resident of Sapphire Valley, Hallman Bryant, regrets that “Clemson let him get away.” Seems he applied for a teaching job there but was turned down because he didn't have a doctorate but only an “ABT” (all but thesis). He concedes it was their loss and Western Carolina University's gain, as Rash spent years on WCU's faculty.
Rash went on to become a prolific novelist and short-story writer. He is perhaps best known for his 2008 novel Serena, which was a finalist for the famed PEN/Faulkner award and was eventually made into a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Wiley Cash, who made his debut with A Land More Kind Than Home, has more recently published The Last Ballad, a critically acclaimed story of a single mother's fight for rights in a North Carolina textile mill. Based on a true story, Cash, who has been called by Vanity Fair magazine “a charming North Carolinian”, illuminates a dark period in Appalachian history and breathes life into it through his rich, intriguing characters. He was the writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2018.
Perhaps it is the incomparable scenery that stirs the creative soul.
Laura Lane McNeal sought solace in Cashiers, where her parents lived, following the 2005 upheaval of Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans. The quiet winter in the mountains was a useful backdrop as she spent the time here writing Dollbaby, a Southern take on coming of age, which was published to enthusiastic reviews.
“I spent countless hours with my dog Max taking hikes in the fiercely beautiful landscape of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says. “The gorges and waterfalls, the hidden streams, the fresh smell of cedar and hemlock, the way the earth and sky came alive after the rain, the ethereal sunsets that reminded me there would be light after the dark...”
Though she and her family did eventually rebuild in New Orleans, the mountains had claimed them, and they now own property in the Cashiers area and spend some of the season here. And, Laura has written two more novels following the best-seller success of her Cashiers-inspired debut.
Deanna Klingel is one of the more prolific writers to set up shop in these mountains. She didn't seriously get down to fiction until she had raised seven children. Her stories, which she describes as being for the young and the young at heart, include civil war historical fiction and another called Blue-Eyed Doll which is based on a doll exchange that her elementary school class conducted with students in Japan at a time when there existed a deep mistrust of all things Japanese. Not surprisingly, she is a frequent guest at schools throughout the country, where her stories are enthusiastically received. “Maturity,” she says, “is a blessing when it comes to writing.”
But best-seller status is not required to take a stab at creative writing.
That many local residents are inspired by the environs is supported by the popularity of the Highlands Writers Group, a collection of short story writers, memoirists, novelists, poets and journalists who gather each Tuesday at the Bascom Center for the Arts to engage in writing exercises, readings, and critiques. Highlands has always beckoned writers to visit the area...Walker Percy, Cassandra King, Pat Conroy, and Sandra Brown are examples...and the local literary culture even spawned a Writers Group anthology.
Even if you're just a passionate reader, you can indulge in a bit of literary sightseeing in this part of the world. Start in Asheville, at the Thomas Wolfe House, located in downtown Asheville. It was actually a boarding house, run by Wolfe's mother, and the setting for Look Homeward, Angel. Built-in 1883 in the Queen Anne style, the 29-room home is now a National Historic Landmark, and offers visitors an introductory film and guided tour. Meticulously curated, with many of the furnishings from Wolfe's time there, the museum even displays each holiday season a copy of his original handwritten letter to Santa Claus.
The Grove Park Inn, also in Asheville, has been the backdrop for lots of literary action. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent summers there in the 1930s and each year on a weekend near his September birthday, the Inn hosts an “F. Scott Fitzgerald Weekend” whereby visitors are taken on a tour of the author's favored suite and treated to insights of noted literary critics. Sadly, Fitzgerald's wife Zelda died in a tragic fire at a nearby psychiatric hospital.
Another literary road trip could be made to Carl Sandburg's farm in Flat Rock, near Hendersonville. Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life in the bucolic setting where his wife was known for the cows she raised. Visitors may tour the farmhouse, visit the dairy barn where some descendants of Mrs. Sandburg's herd reside and hike over five miles of trails. In the summertime, visitors may enjoy live performances of Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and other adaptations of his work at the farm's amphitheater.
But perhaps the best place to celebrate the literary culture of these mountains is from your favorite chair on your private porch with a book in hand. Let everyone else rush to make their tee times!
Which begs the question: Have you had a chance yet to pick up Charles Frazier's latest novel? Varina is the story of Jefferson Davis' wife and the reviews, so far, are excellent. •