Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Little Better than Barbarians

For the past twenty years I’ve collected accounts written by nineteenth century travelers through these mountains. By this point, I figured I had read all the really good ones. But just this month I found a classic: an engaging story, vivid description, skillful writing, and something more. That something more was a respect and fondness for the mountain people that the writer encountered along the way. And it was obvious that those feelings were reciprocated.

It was a sharp contrast to much of the other literature turned out by magazine writers and newspaper correspondents of the day. Consider the example of R. H. Graves who submitted a story to the New York Times from Springdale, (Haywood County) N.C., July 6, 1901. You don’t have to read far to detect Mr. Graves’ disdain for mountain folks. In fact, he outlines what amounts to a caste system, with three "classes" of mountaineers:

Many of these people cannot read and write, but there are communities in which the better classes of natives outnumber the lowest class and exert themselves to educate the latter. Taken throughout, the roughest mountaineer class gets little out of the public schools scattered among the valleys and settlements.

Should an expert psychologist go to live among the cabin dwellers of Western North Carolina, he would doubtless find much food for thought in studying the mental life of the "rugged mountaineer." Many queer stories are told about the way these folks think and act, about the curious names they give to places and people, about their superstitions and their myths.

As Graves builds up to his rousing closing argument, he sounds uncannily similar to some current leaders who would deliver us from our present-day barbarism:

On the whole, the educated, prosperous agriculturist of the mountains of Western North Carolina, with his big cultured home and his modern farm buildings, is the man one likes to meet. Doubtless no countryman anywhere in the world is more congenial to the visitor from town, who enjoys, without fully realizing it, a companion who knows as much as he does about the world in general and a great deal more about that part which is not contained in municipal limits; whose home, though surrounded by the wildest mountains, is as comfortable as though its only view were one of bricks and mortar; whose personality is strong enough, despite uncivilized environments, to laugh at the influences of a wildness which makes the less tutored natives little better than barbarians.

Mr. Graves was born a hundred years too early. He would fit right in with today's cheerleaders for "Charlanta," who think these mountains are "improved" by paving over any traces of rugged wildness and eradicating the barbarians.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for this insight. seems the commissioners race will again be a struggle between those who see and those who want to make this place be civilized like the rest of "florida". keep on writing!