Friday, January 6, 2017

James R. Gilmore's "Mountain-White Heroine"

After decades perusing nineteenth century documents pertaining to the Southern Appalachians, it is easy for me to assume that I've already found all the "Really Good Stuff."  Of course that's not the case, though the rare gems I still unearth from time to time have been well hidden.

The work of James Roberts Gilmore is a good example.

A prolific and popular author during and after the Civil War, Gilmore deserves to be better known than he is today.  In a prior post, I shared his introduction to Mountain-White Heroine (1889). Gilmore's commentary caught my attention thanks to his early grasp of the threat posed by lax immigration laws and the diffusion of socialist thought in America.  In contrast, Gilmore saw the embodiment of desperately needed "American values" in the mountaineers of Southern Appalachia.

Although his political commentary at the front of Mountain-White Heroine is a somewhat surprising curiosity, I wasn't expecting anything special from the novel that followed.  I've read, or tried to read, other 19th century regional fiction.  Some of it is worth the effort, but much of it is deeply flawed.  Besides if Gilmore was any good, why had I never heard of him?

Born in Boston, James Roberts Gilmore (1823 - 1903) began his career in New York as a businessman involved in the cotton and shipping industries.  During the 1850s, his work took him to the South where he became acquainted with whites and blacks. During the Civil War and the decades that followed, he devoted more of his time to writing, often publishing his work under the pseudonym, Edmund Kirke.  He was a novelist, historian, poet and lecturer, spending time in the South to collect material for his books.  He took particular interest in John Sevier and other pioneers of trans-Appalachian settlement and stayed in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina while conducting research for his historical book series.

As a Civil War story, as a suspenseful tale well-told, Mountain-White Heroine rises well above my low expectations. It warrants a space on the same shelf as similar works by modern writers like Charles Frazier and Robert Morgan.  The novel recounts the hardships endured by Union loyalists in Madison County, NC.  Sons and husbands who refuse to fight for the Confederacy suffer the most dire of consequences. Several historic figures appear in the novel:  Robert Vance (briefly), Daniel Ellis (a Union officer who wrote a popular memoir about his war-time exploits in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina), and Union Colonel George Kirk. More often than not in other novels and histories, Kirk and his "Raiders" are portrayed as cruel bushwhackers, terrorizing North Carolina mountaineers regardless of their allegiances in the war.  Gilmore, though, presents a different perspective on Kirk's Raiders, casting them in an unusually positive light.

Several things ring true in Mountain-White Heroine: Gilmore was intimately familiar with the geographical setting for the story, primarily in Madison County, although action ranged as far as Charleston (Bryson City), Soco, Waynesville and Morganton.  Gilmore also had a sense of the social strata of mountain communities.  His descriptions of some mountain people as ignorant and slovenly verge on stereotype.  On the other hand, he devotes as much or more space to mountaineers who are resolute, principled and brave.  Gilmore introduces us to the best and the worst of society.

The novel opens in April 1861 with the arrival of the circus:

...the monster placard announced that the dancing dogs, the monkey that plays the tambourine, and the half-nude goddess who rides four steeds at once, bare-backed, and at full gallop, would soon be on exhibition in the widely-known village of Asheville. The circus stole into town over night, and when the half-asleep dwellers in the place heard its measured tramp on the highway, they knew that a long procession of Mountain-Whites would follow in the morning. And it did. One unbroken stream of both sexes, and all ages, on foot, on horse-back, mule-back, and "critter back," and in every kind of nondescript vehicle, poured into the town, over all its principal thoroughfares, from early dawn till high-noon...

Gilmore devotes several pages to colorful descriptions of the people travelling to the big show:

The most of the people in this procession had dull, expressionless faces, and only a casual glance was needed to show that they were below the average of our rural population in civilization, and intelligence. A considerable portion had the appearance of well-to-do farmers, the remainder are known, far and wide, as "poor whites;" though they are not poor in the sense of being homeless, and destitute of the necessaries of life. However, their homes are often little better than hovels, and their food is usually a ration of salt pork, hominy, and "corn-dodger," which fails to develop in them a very high order of manhood. But the hovels are their own, and so are the small patches of cleared ground which they cultivate in the rudest and most primitive manner.

During the circus, news of the recent attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston begins to circulate through the crowd:

It is probable that not an individual in the assemblage had any adequate conception of the national bearing of the event, or of its vital relation to his own future; and yet, a feeling of dread and uncertainty, a vague sense of a grave crisis having come into their lives, pervaded the entire gathering, and sent each one back to his home pondering the tidings with more than his accustomed thoughtfulness. By none was the political bearing of this event more fully appreciated than by three youths, aged respectively, fifteen, seventeen, and nineteen years, who occupied one of the upper seats of the immense tent at the beginning of the itinerant performance. They were of a better class than a larger portion of the motley audience. Their clothing was of homespun, like that of the others, but it was neat, cleanly, and well-fitting, and sat upon them with the easy grace which betokens good breeding.

A reference to "good breeding" might chafe the sensitivities of the 21st century reader, but so be it. Gilmore's distinctions bring to mind an interview with Charlotte Young (1879-1985) a poet and educator who taught in remote mountains schools in the early twentieth century.  She had her own way of depicting the range of virtue and vice that she observed among mountain folk:

According to Greek belief, there two groups in the world. Apollo stood for reaching for Divinity for music and poetry. The followers of Bacchus emphasized the physical side of like, and were call Dioninysians. In Western North Carolina you see that as it was then in Greece and Rome, and everywhere, for that matter. You can see it all over the world now; all civilization, or lack of civilization. It was a fight between those two forces. In North Carolina the force for seeking the Divine is rather strong.  Some are followers of Bacchus and some are followers of Apollo, reaching for the Divine in art, in music, in beauty, as Apollo stood for all the finer things of life, as we say. So Bacchus stood only for his wine and women and eat, drink and be merry.  In North Carolina, I don't know if it's more so than in other places, but those who are with the group that reach for Divinity are very strong in it; and just as strong are those who like to shake their feet and dance and drink and run with the Bacchus crowd. I find that in my teaching, and I suppose it's more or less that way everywhere.

The three brothers in Gilmore's novel have never been so far from their home across the Ivy River in Madison County.  Growing weary of the circus, they leave early to share the news of Fort Sumter with their widowed mother, Mrs. Nancy Hawkins, a saintly woman and the central character of Mountain-White Heroine, a Charlotte Young Apollonian if there ever was one.

Mrs. Hawkins' relationship with a mountain "wild-woman" named Sukey is remarkably similar to the Ada and Ruby friendship in Frazier's Cold Mountain.  For anyone steeped in 19th century mountain narratives, Frazier's "borrowings" from that pool of literature are obvious.  Frazier acknowledges as much in an afterword to his novel, listing a dozen books that he found particularly helpful.  Nothing by James R. Gilmore is listed.  So, the parallels between Nancy-Sukey and Ada-Ruby could be sheer coincidence...or not: was not Sukey's "gift."  She preferred to roam the woods, rifle or shot-gun in hand, in pursuit of the deer or wild rabbit. With these she kept their larder well stocked, and sometimes she brought down game that would have been regarded as a trophy by a male sportsman — on two or three occasions, a bear, and once a panther, which had stretched itself along the limb of a tree, and was about to spring down upon her.  

Sukey faces ongoing difficulties with her neer-do-well common law husband, the "Parson:"

"He's just loike what they say uv his farder and gran'ther — lazy as one, an' as big a thief as t'other. Why, he steals game thet I gits by all-day hunting; and swops hit off for bacon. He'd ruther pay twenty cents a pound for greasy swine-flesh, nor eat my best venison for nothin'. An' the swine ar' got inter his blood — made him just loike the porkers, an' thet's the trouble with all the folks round yere. They'se lived on swine so long that they'se got to be swine tharselves."

Yes, some of the dialect might be an issue for today's reader, but isn't as extreme or pervasive as that found in other Appalachian literature from the same time period, Mary Noailles Murfree (aka Charles Egbert Craddock) being a prime example.  Gilmore is also more moderate than Murfree with another common device from that time, florid descriptions of mountain scenery.  I happen to enjoy over-the-top word pictures like those painted by Murfree, including this one from The Frontiersmen:

The mockingbirds were singing in the woods outside. The sun was in the trees. The leafage had progressed beyond the bourgeoning period and the branches flung broad green splendors of verdure to the breeze. The Great Smoky Mountains were hardly less blue than the sky as the distant summits deployed against the fair horizon; only the nearest, close at hand, were sombre, and showed dark luxuriant foliage and massive craggy steeps, and their austere, silent, magnificent domes looked over the scene with solemn uplifting meanings.

It is worth remembering that most readers in the mid to late 19th century had no access to full-color, high resolution images of the Smokies.  Perhaps they had seen a few black-and-white lithographs in popular magazines, but they relied on their own imaginations to form a mental image of the mountains.  Compared to other writers of his time, Gilmore exercises restraint with his depictions of the landscape, and this passage is about as extravagant as it gets:

...the horsemen set off at a brisk gallop down the road to Waynesville, until they came opposite the point where the Oconolufta joins the Tuckasege. There in Indian file, each horseman treading as nearly as possible in the tracks of the one preceding him — they forded the Tuckasege, and striking a north-east course entered, at the distance of a few miles, the wooded ravine bordered by steep mountain ranges, a mile or more in height, through which flows the picturesque Oconolufta.  They were now in a magnificent region of mighty woods, majestic mountains, and noisy cascades, which leap over precipitous cliffs, and rush in sheeted foam down steep declivities. Here and there a grassy cove indents the side of the ravine, or a quiet, tree-sprinkled valley, where the mountains had receded farther from the river, and left some luxuriant nook to be one day the abode of man. As yet, however, no human habitation can be found in all the forest-covered region, and a stillness unbroken save by the noisy rush of the river, the startled cry of some bird, or the occasional bleat of a deer, or growl of a bear, reigns over all the leafy solitude.  

I'll reveal nothing more about the plot of Gilmore's novel.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the literary license he takes with historic facts, he gives us an engaging and valuable perspective on a tragic episode of Appalachian life.  The author's obscurity, 130 years after his hey-day, is revealed by googling "James Roberts Gilmore."  After reading his novel about the people of Madison County, I would say he deserves to be rediscovered.

Among his other books was the historic work, Advance Guard of Western Civilization, focused on James Robertson and the pioneer settlers of Middle Tennessee's Cumberland Region. Though Gilmore's contemporaries were underwhelmed by the depth of his scholarship.  With a lengthy footnote in the The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt skewered Gilmore for shoddy research about John Sevier.  Even so, and even if Gilmore's version of history might have its shortcomings, Advance Guard is an entertaining read. Until finding Gilmore's book, I knew nothing about Spanish intrique among the trans-Appalachian pioneers in the 1780s, and I was unaware of James Wilkinson, a man who challenges Benedict Arnold for the title of "America's Worst Traitor...Ever."

With a little digging, one can find some unusual items from and about James R. Gilmore.  It would seem that President Abraham Lincoln sought his advice, if we are to believe the dialogues in Gilmore's Personal Recollections Of Abraham Lincoln And The Civil War.

Indeed, the New York Times reported on Gilmore's July 1864 mission to Richmond where he intended to convince Rebel leader Jefferson Davis to surrender.  Had Gilmore's mission been a success, no doubt his name would be better known today.