On Mountain Writers…

“…pick up and light out…” ~ Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

I am a keeper of notebooks full of ideas, snippets of conversation, images, poems, bit and pieces of stories, words, songs, and favorite quotes.  I am a pack rat with paper junk I’ve carted around from house to house since elementary school.  I don’t include here any of those “early” musings, but the following quotes are a few favorites plucked from my collection of stuff by mountain writers.

One of my favorites is Jesse Stuart…

“Should it matter where a man is born — a shack, a cottage or a palace?  Does his environment make him or does his blood tell?  This is an old question and we’ll not debate it here.   The only thing is, I pray that it really doesn’t matter.” ~ Beyond Dark Hills


In the mountains the same stories have been told again and again over the generations…

“Men will be telling…/The tales of their fathers retelling, and looking/In prayer to their God.  And softly the cradles be/rocking.”  ~ Elizabeth Madox Roberts


The Scotch-Irish who settled in the Southern Appalachians had come from the Highlands of Scotland.  They were practical, liked to tell tales (often called “Liar’s bench tales”), and had a great sense of humor.  They combined music with story telling…

“‘That,’ Honey Jane declared when the song was done, ‘is almost as good as a story.’

“‘It is a story,’ Father replied.  ‘All the old ballads are stories which have been handed down from far-off times, generation after generation.'” ~ May Justus, Honey Jane


It takes awhile to get into the idiom of the people captured so well by James Still, but sometimes I can hear the old people talking…

“[Jumpup Holler] hit’s so far backside o’ nowhere folks have to use possums for yard dogs and owls for roosters.” ~ On Troublesome Creek


Changes in Appalachia (better roads, for example) have sometimes been welcomed, sometimes not.   It’s not the physical changes/improvements that are important, some say, but rather the uses made of them…

I have gone out to the roads…/To the broad highways, and back again I have come/To the creek-bed roads and narrow winding trails/Worn into ruts by hoofs and steady feet;/I have come back to the long way around,/The far between, the slow arrival.”  ~ James Still,  White Highways


Progress always brings positives and problems.  In Appalachia’s past many people felt the biggest threat of progress was that the ways of mountain life, the traditions and culture, would change.  Harry Harrison Kroll wrote about five generations of the Clinch family who lived near the Cumberland Gap, ending with the big conflict over the building of a dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority…

“Old WPA TVA CCC PDQ Roosevelt and his forty thieves!  It’s a sin and a crime to drown out our valley…They’ll pay me worth the money for this old house…but I’ve lived here all my life, my father was born here, my grandpaw…Where is the worth the money TVA will pay for that?”

*(In my book, To Come and Go Like Magic, Aunt Rose finds it impossible to make a VISTA worker understand that the value of an old quilt can’t be measured in dollars.)


The mysteries of life and death, good luck and misfortune, are always connected to the church.  In this story Lureenie, deserted by her husband, is in the process of giving birth.  She’s being taken care of by Sue Annie, a mid-wife, because the father-in-law (Keg Head) will not get a doctor.   They treat her with herbal remedies, tell her she’s going to last a long time, and Lureenie smiles and responds…

“Me, I don’t want to last a long time.  I think I’d ruther go out like a cedar bush in a brush fire than wear out slow like a doorsill.'”

When Lureenie dies, Keg Heg pities himself and his own bad luck…”that fool Sue Annie claiming a doctor could have saved her, but God’s will was God’s will.”

~ Harriette Arnow, Hunter’s Horn


Jesse Stuart’s church-related scenes are vivid…

“…my father and mother wrestled the Devil.  They won.  The next day a hole was chopped in the ice.  They were baptized.”   ~ Beyond Dark Hills


And from James Still, a child narrator at a summer church meeting…

“The preacher raised a finger.  He plunged it into the Bible, his eyes roving the benches…I used to think a mountain was the standingest object in the sight o’ God.  Hit says here they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling.  These hills are jist durt waves, washing through eternity.”   ~ River of Earth


Hard working, self reliant, proud, aloof, freedom-loving…all of these virtues describe most Appalachian people.  A determination to survive, even to “get ahead” is the rule in the mountains.  But there are always exceptions to the rule.  Consider Jesse Stuart’s Tussies.

Grandpa Tussie and the whole family live on relief.  They don’t like the charity food, but figure it’s better than working. When Gramps  gets word that his son Kim has been killed in WWII, the family goes into a fit of grief.  But when Vittie, Kim’s widow, gets his insurance money, they all go on a crazy spending spree.  They move from the shack to the big house and back again to the shack and relief when the money runs out.  And Kim finally returns from the war unscathed.  His brother, Mott, who wanted to marry Vittie himself, had falsely identified his brother.  It’s hard to find a single virtue in this group.  The story is sad and funny and ridiculous all at the same time — similar to a few great works in which the rascals try to outwit the diligent workers of a society.  (Taps for Private Tussie)


And there are plenty bits and pieces from the greatest of the mountain writers — Thomas Wolfe.  Old words and sayings and phrases…

“You’re not worth the powder to blow you up.”

“Never mind about algebra.  That’s for poor folks.  There’s no need for algebra where two and two make five.”

“Don’t let ’em climb your frame…”

“I think he’s a little off his nut.  But, then, you all are.”

“Fear is a dragon that lives among crowds.”

In talking about Americans…“exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.”  “…Within its hills he had been held a prisoner; upon its plain he walked, alone, a stranger.”

“The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock…”

“He was of them, he was recognizably marked, but he was not with them, nor like them.”

“…going up and down the thousand streets of life and finding no doors.”

“We are a flash of fire — a brain, a heart, a spirit.”

“From the hill we could have put a finger on a star.”

~ Look Homeward, Angel


In the end, perhaps, the preacher in James Still’s novel, River of Earth, was able to put society, past and present, in a nutshell:

“Oh, my children, where air we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying — the living and the dead riding the waters?  Where air it sweeping us?”

Where, indeed…


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