Virile Strokes of Ink

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‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’
Michelangelo

You’ve heard of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. You know who George Eliot really was. Likely you know about Shirley.

Do you know Charles Egbert Craddock?

‘ON March 4, 1885, the Boston Evening Transcript printed the following paragraph : “Last evening Dr. Holmes and Mr. Howells received a genuine surprise at the hands of the editor of the Atlantic. Mr. Aldrich invited these gentlemen to dine with him, to meet Charles Egbert Craddock, the author of ‘In the Tennessee Mountains,’ ….and the remarkable novel now publishing in the AtlanticThe Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains’. The surprise lay in the fact that Charles Egbert Craddock is a pseudonym which for the past six years has veiled the identity of a very brilliant woman…’

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Mary Noailles Murfree was the ‘very brilliant woman’ to whom they refer. Charles Egbert Craddock was the unlikely nom de plume of this petite young writer, who happened to enjoy writing gritty, masculine depictions of life in the Tennessee mountains. Though delicate in health, slightly crippled, her physical writing style was with a bold hand, using such virile strokes of ink that it was conjectured she went through a bottle of ink per page.

Hardly the usual mode for the cultivated lady novelist of the late nineteenth century.

Or was it? As I’m reading through the sometimes numbing dialogue of the rugged Tennessee mountaineer that Miss Mary Murfree has rendered so abundantly, I’m reminded of other such moments of difficulty; yet these are books I loved:
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton; and That Lass O’Lowrie’s, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I could also mention Huckleberry Finn as having taxed my love for local dialect, but then Mark Twain might take it amiss if I included him in a discussion of ‘feminine authors’. (Huckleberry Finn was published the same year as Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains.)

Likely, Elizabeth Gaskell influenced younger writers such as Murfree and Burnett. In choosing to write of a rugged, dirty city setting rather than the pastoral countryside, and chronicling ordinary lives rather than romantic heroes and maidens, Gaskell expressed her motivations this way, in her prologue to Mary Barton:

‘Living in Manchester, but with a deep relish and fond admiration for the country, my first thought was to find a framework for my story in some rural scene….when I bethought me how deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the care worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives…’

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Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, England—the setting for Gaskell’s stories of working class characters. Burnett later moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in 1865, bringing her memories of the sights and sounds–as well as the pungent speech–of the English north country with her. Where she settled, and wrote her first novel of the Lancashire miners, was, by curious coincidence, not far from where Mary N. Murfree was writing her first stories of the rugged Tennessee mountain people.

That Lass O’ Lowrie’s won Burnett good reviews and a fan following. This novel would be a strange prelude to her later works The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but Burnett was praised for her deft handling of the difficulties of a Lancashire dialect and sympathetic but not sentimental depiction of the care worn Lancashire miners.

What of Mary Noailles Murfree, with her ‘hard-headed and pure-hearted’ mountaineers? Did her characterizations fare as well in the backward glance through time? Did she receive any credit for ‘sympathetic but not sentimental’ depictions?

As with any writer of antiquity, Murfree arrives to our modern and ‘all-knowing’ age with a full complement of both adherents and detractors of her work. One complaint leveled at her work is that she glorified the landscape while trivializing its inhabitants as ignorant and uncouth.

The lyric scenes of mountain beauty are described as a lover might speak of his beloved, then, for many, once the characters open their mouths it breaks the spell.

Later writers and defenders of Appalachian life would complain that Murfree’s use of dialect was not authentic, and too ‘dense’.

‘For a northern audience unfamiliar with the actual dialect, Murfree’s technique may have contributed to a mistaken impression that her representation of speech was more realistic than it actually was. In any given passage of dialogue, Murfree used two or three times as many nonstandard features as writers who portrayed other regional dialects such as James Whitcomb Riley, Hamlin Garland, or Sarah Orne Jewett. Murfree used four to five times as many nonstandard features as Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn, published the same year as In the Tennessee Mountains.’

(Encyclopedia of Appalachia—Appalachian English in Literature)

Murfree had a keen, observant mind and a musician’s ear for capturing the unique patois of her mountain neighbors. There is a euphonious quality to their speech that is strangely haunting; she even describes it as ‘a slow, singing monotone’. It is a lyrical beauty that pairs well with her descriptions of ‘the vaporous shimmer of the distant mountain summits’ and ‘the sea of shining white mists in the valley’.

In this telling passage from her short story, The Star in the Valley, Chevis, in spite of himself, continues to find himself drawn to the lovely mountain girl, Clarie.

’Truly the ethereal woodland flower seemed strangely incongruous with the brutal and uncouth conditions of her life, as she stood at a little distance from this group, spinning at her wheel. Chevis felt a sudden sharp pang of pity for her when he glanced toward her; the next instant he had forgotten it in his interest in her work…’

This would seem to echo the sentiments of Elizabeth Gaskell, quoted earlier, who ‘felt a deep sympathy with the care worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives.’

Murfree does not flatter the Tennessee mountaineer by any means, but neither does she despise them. She describes them—as a class, or culture—as being ‘scrupulously clean’, honest, noble, and unfailingly hospitable. This is often in contrast with the city born outsider, who is cast in the role as the ‘superior [read: small-minded] observer’, to the quaint ways of the mountaineers. There are many instances throughout Murfree’s writing where it appears she is questioning her own ‘lofty’ viewpoint of culture and education. Thus, again in the words of her character Chevis, we sense her conflict:

‘Chevis flattered himself that he entertained a broader view. He had not even a subacute idea that he looked upon these people and their inner life only as picturesque bits of the mental and moral landscape; that it was an aesthetic and theoretical pleasure their contemplation afforded him; that he was as far as ever from the basis of common humanity.

And this curious comment from Murfree in The Romance of Sunrise Rock:

‘In this day of over-education, when every man is fitted for any noble sphere of intellectual achievement and only inborn talent survives, might it not be that he had mistaken a cultivated aspiration for latent power?…There is something so ludicrously contemptible in a great personal ambition and a puny capacity. Ambition is the only grand passion that does not ennoble. We do not care that a low thing should lift its eyes. And if it does, we laugh.’

Mary Noailles Murfrees admired this ‘latent power’ in the Tennessee mountaineer. Perhaps she, like Michelangelo, saw the angel in the marble.

The Charles Egbert Craddock stories endure, even if no one actually reads them today except as a social document. I cannot read them as a critic might. I find them fascinating, even poignant at times, because some of my ‘people’, shall we say, inhabited the land around Murfreesboro, and lived at the base of those very same mountains Murfree wrote of. I grew up on the West coast, but thanks to my grandparents, I heard a slow, deliberate, graceful pattern of speech that came from a similar world to the one immortalized in Murfree’s books. (My grandfather was born in Tennessee in 1872)

My wise and witty grandma Josie had many colorful expressions; it wasn’t until I read Murfree’s works that I actually saw them in print. This was strangely moving to me, to see my grandma’s odd little homey expressions in the pages of a book; spoken by a lithe,’slip o’ willow’ girl with large, dreamy eyes, all ‘wild and gentle’.

Little wonder then, when reading passages such as the following that I felt a sense of kinship, not only with the writer, but with the people she wrote about.

‘When Evander was half-way up the steep slope, he turned and looked down at the
embowered little house, that itself turned its face upward, looking as it were to the mountain’s summit. How it nestled there in the gorge! He had seen it often and often before, but whenever he thought of it afterward it was as it appeared to him now: the darkling valley below it, the mountains behind it, the sunset sky still flaring above it, though stars had blossomed out here and there, and the sweet June night seemed full of their fragrance. He could distinguish for a good while the gate, the rickety fence, the path beneath the trees. The vista ended in the open door, with the broad flare of the fire illumining the puncheon floor and the group of boisterous tow-headed children; in the midst was the girl, with her bright hair and light figure, with her round arms bare, and her deft hand stirring the batter for bread in a wooden bowl. She looked the very genius of home, and so he long remembered her.’

‘The vista ended in the open door’….and we long to enter. Here Murfree merges landscape, cabin, and inhabitants into one lyrical passage, into one moment in time; inviting us in to share the beauty of the ‘darkling valley, the sweet June night, and the girl with the bright hair’.

It is a beautiful piece of writing that resonates, in a particular way, with my own heart and heritage. Perhaps I shouldn’t try for eloquence but I can certainly tell you what my grandma would have said:

“It ‘peart me up quite considerable”.

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