New from Clemson University Press, Michael S. Martin’s Appalachian Pastoral is the first book-length study of antebellum travel narratives into the Appalachian Mountains. In this blog post Martin introduces his work to recast Appalachian literature in terms of a ‘lost tradition’ of texts, understanding the history of the region, and its current environmental and cultural challenges.
Nearly 161 years ago, Rebecca Harding Davis published Life in the Iron Mills, a social critique of working conditions for iron workers in Wheeling, (then) Virginia. Twenty-three years later, Mary Murfee published her short story collection In the Tennessee Mountains, a group of stories that includes local colour, regional dialect, and picaresque plotlines. I mention these 19th-century stories, both of which were written by female authors, because both literary works would most likely be the primary choices in response to the question of “What constitutes the first Appalachian writing”? One theory regarding the genesis of Appalachian literature, as argued by Cratis D. Williams in his dissertation on the Appalachian mountaineer, for example, is Murfree helps establish the stereotype of the ‘mountain man’ while using authentic Appalachian dialect – all for the first time in literary form.
But what if regional notions of “Appalachia” and affiliation with the region existed before these late-nineteenth century re-creations of mountain life? My new book, Appalachian Pastoral: Mountain Excursions, Aesthetic Visions, and the Antebellum Travel Narrative rethinks and replots the origins of “Appalachian” literature to at least the early 18th-century. The project isn’t as much an historical one as it is a genealogical one. Two eighteenth-century books serve as foundational texts in early Appalachian literary studies: William Byrd’s The History of the Dividing Line (1728) and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Jefferson’s book was so influential to 19th-century travel writers into the region, from William Gilmore Simms to Caroline Howard Gilman, that many such writers would conflate Jefferson’s portrayal of river confluences and other sublime scenes with their own meditations on encountered, natural phenomena. In the 18th-century and 19th-centuries, the Appalachian landscape was experienced both directly, through pleasure incursions into the settled parts of the Virginia and North Carolina valleys, for example, and vicariously, that is, from the northern reader who would go along imaginatively while reading these travelogues.
Native American orature from the same region predates any colonial writers into the Appalachian Mountains by centuries; their recorded folklore constitutes the earliest form of Appalachian written expression. The first chapter of my book contrasts Cherokee notions of encountered space, with temporal and historical dimensions, with nonfiction from 19th-century European-American travelers into the region, the latter having both a more conceptual and fictionalized literary account of the interior mountains.
In this cultural context, one which includes antebellum mapping of the region, a sizable influx of early-and-mid-19th-century travel writers ventured into and past the spine of the Eastern Divide, re-creating their observations in partly realistic, partly picaresque terms for a Northern and seaboard metropolitan audience. Few of these writers are foregrounded within the field of Appalachian Studies, as the 19th-century may be considered too early for the genesis of the field. The official, national recognition of Appalachia as a region didn’t occur until the Appalachian Regional Commission was formed well into the 20th-century. Yet, I argue in Appalachian Pastoral that regional affiliation with the larger mountain ecosystem, instantiated in literary practice, occurred hundreds of years earlier. Susan Fenimore Cooper in Rural Hours (1850), for example, repeatedly frames the Appalachian region through the synonym “Allegheny.” Wildflowers and other flora are established as being native to her upstate New York village and ecosystem. The affiliative element in her work and other nature writing on the region is through plants and landscape formations local to the Appalachian region.
When composing this book, a process that took years in the making, I didn’t expect to come to the conclusion that writers were negotiating their relationship with the eastern mountain landscapes, in all its varieties, since at least Byrd’s early-18th-century manuscript, one which maps the North Carolina and Virginia borders for the first time. I also didn’t expect to find that antebellum travel writers into the region presumed a sizable reading audience for their accounts into the settled and unsettled mountain environs. The travelogues are often framed as open-ended letters, as with Charles Lanman’s Letters from the Allegheny Mountains (1848), to such an imagined, metropolitan audience. Another surprising find is in regards to women writers who were part of this antebellum travelogue movement. Anne Royall was the earliest one of the three, female writers I include in Appalachian Pastoral, with Susan Fenimore Cooper and Caroline Perkins Howard serving as later, 19th-century exemplars. Most of these women were northern travellers into the Appalachian region; and their cultural commentaries are as interesting as their naturalist observations. This book also couldn’t be written two decades ago, as most of these ‘lost texts’ are out-of-print and only available via Archive.org or other, online digital repositories.
Early American maps, including the 1751 Jefferson-Fry drawing of Virginia, are surely part of the cultural imaginary, broadly speaking, for 18th-century audiences and their culture, and, in turn, surely informed their preconceptions on the region. Some chapters of Appalachian Pastoral, particularly the one on the sublime, a landscape aesthetic associated with whirlpools of water, vast oceans, and massive mountain peaks, counters the ‘preconception thesis,’ though. In this respect, travel writers into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and other interior tourist areas, actually encountered a landscape that confirmed subliminity upon its immanence. Yet, the Jefferson-Fry map, with slanted, parallel lines drawn in western Virginia, projects a blank space, with no iconography, visually-speaking, for much of the interior to the west of the Eastern Continental Divide. Not much may be found past the western branch of “The Allagany Ridge of Mountains,” as designated in the centre-left of the map. Such was the visual corollary for unknown ecosystems, at least to Thomas Jefferson’s father and his co-cartographer, Joshua Fry. Nonetheless, antebellum travellers into the region, including Virginian Philip Pendleton Kenney, tried to compartmentalize and commodify such space through markers and other spatial approximations, namely the legendary Lord Fairfax Stone that Kennedy immortalizes in his comedic travelogue, The Blackwater Chronicles (1853). My new book rethinks the way that early texts that may not be considered “Appalachian” must verily be so while also arguing that this tradition is one worth excavating.
Michael S. Martin is an Associate Professor of English, Modern Languages, and Cultural Studies at Nicholls State University, in Thibodaux, Louisiana.
Appalachian Pastoral: Mountain Excursions, Aesthetic Visions, and the Antebellum Travel Narrative is available to order on our website.