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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

October 8, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Murfree’s Mountains

[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On three compelling reasons to read one of Appalachia’s most talented writers.
One of the most successful local color writers of the 1870s and 1880s, the era when such regional fiction dominated the American literary landscape, didn’t quite exist. By 1885 Charles Egbert Craddock had published numerous stories of Appalachian local color in the period’s magazines (as well as two impressive books, on which more momentarily); but in March 1885, as fellow AmericanStudier and blogger Rob Velella highlights in this great post, Craddock was revealed to William Dean Howells and others in the Boston literary scene (by one of the Atlantic Monthly’s editors, Thomas Bailey Alrdich, who had himself only learned of Craddock’s true identity the previous night) to be in fact a woman, Mary Noailles Murfree. Plenty of 19th century women writers wrote under male pseudonyms, but I don’t know of a revelatory moment quite as striking as Murfree’s.
Even without that striking literary moment, however, Murfree’s Appalachian stories would be well worth reading. She was and remains best known for the short story collection In the Tennessee Mountains (1884), considered one of the masterworks of American regionalism. Like much local color writing, Murfree’s stories often straddle the fence between nuanced realism and stereotypical exaggeration, just as her own identity existed both inside (she grew up in Murfreesboro, a town named after her own great-grandfather) and outside (that ancestor was a Revolutionary war Colonel and serious blue blood, and Murfree’s family was wealthy enough to vacation at the Beersheba Springs resort every summer of her childhood) the Tennessee Appalachian community. But of course, we’re all both insiders and outsiders to our childhood communities, much like each community and region bears a complex relationship to the nation as a whole, and Murfree’s collection presents a funny, engaging, thought-provoking way to consider all those questions.
Just as impressive, and far less well-known, is Murfree’s 1884 Civil War/Reconstruction novel Where the Battle Was Fought. In some ways the novel embodies a genre that by 1884 had become an American cliché: the romance of reunion, with former Union and Confederate families brought together by a conventional love story plot. But Murfree’s novel pushes beyond that stereotype, in ways that I would argue embody a far more under-narrated and distinctly Appalachian history: the experiences of a border state, the areas that bore dual and shifting allegiances throughout the Civil War. West Virginia, as I argued in that aforementioned apology post, came into existence as precisely such a state; but Kentucky and Tennessee occupied similar geographical and ideological territory, and Murfree uses her novel’s families and stories to depict those border histories with depth and power. Just another reason to spend some time in her Appalachian mountains.
Next Appalachian text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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