Strange Music in the Blue Shadow’d Hills

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‘There was an audible stir breaking upon the silence of the solemn woods, the leaves were rustling together, and drops of moisture began to patter down…the clouds were falling apart, the mist had broken into thousands of fleecy white wreaths, clinging to the fantastically tinted foliage, and the sunlight was striking deep into the valley.’  Charles Egbert Craddock

The rains abated, so out the door we went. Our destination? The Columbia River Gorge, for color gawking, wine tasting, cider sipping, apple sampling, geese-spotting, and even to walk a bit in the moccasin-ed tracks of Lewis and Clark, laid down around 1805. A tall order for one day….

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Literary destination for this trip? Charles Egbert Craddock. It’s not a name that rings with magic, certainly, but for the owner of this vigorously masculine nom de plume, it was deliberate; chosen to mask the fact that the author was actually a frail, crippled young woman.

There was nothing frail about the incisive mind of Mary Noailles Murfree. I’ve written about her before, in Virile Strokes of Ink. She is a subject I will return to now and again, as I do with other favorite authors. But for now…the poetic richness of a fine autumn day and clear vistas down the gorge had me longing for just a bit of what I call impassioned ‘Murfree-prose’.

 

‘High up, the mountain, shielded by the shadow of its own crags from this reflection of the west, showed a dark green shade of an indescribable depth and richness of tone, never merging into dusky indefiniteness. Through a gap in the range to the east were visible the infinite blue distances of the Great Smoky peaks, their color here and there idealized by the far-away glamours of sunset to an exquisite roseate hue, or a crystalline and perfect amethyst against the amber horizon. Down the clifty gorge—its walls of solid sandstone, cloven to the bare heart of the range by the fierce momentum of the waters—the bounding river came. One mad leap presented the glittering splendors of a glassy-green cataract, and in its elastic spray an elusive rainbow lurked.’ Charles Egbert Craddock [Murfree]: In the Stranger People’s Country.

Since my recent post focused on John Muir, and his tireless treks through wilderness regions, I have been thinking about the contrast offered by Mary Noailles Murfree.

Like Muir, she wrote passionately of the mountains she loved—though ‘her’ mountains were the Cumberlands of Tennessee and the distant blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains. She was a novelist, not a nature writer or activist. But in an ironic contrast to John Muir, Murfree’s delicate health and partial paralysis kept her from being able to ramble about freely in her beloved mountains. She rarely left the small sphere of her family life, and the close confines of four protective walls.

The second home of Mary N. Murfree was in Beersheba Springs of east/central Tennessee. Here was a source of natural hot springs that likely offered Murfree much needed relief from her muscular pain, and perhaps a pathetic hope of a cure for her paralysis. It is in Beersheba Springs, in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, where Murfree ‘observed’ the life of the Tennessee mountaineers, and then wrote of it with an air of authentic experience.

Her clever ear picked up the nuances of their curious speech, and she attempted to render it faithfully. It is this generous helping of ‘local color’ dialogue that can make her novels, at times, slow going. But it is also part of what makes the stories linger, as though a strange, insistent music keeps playing in the mind, long after the book has been put down.

Fitz doesn't like it if I get too far ahead...then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Fitz doesn’t like it if I get too far ahead…then again, he may have just spotted a squirrel.

Readers of the time—no doubt slightly beguiled by the vigorous moniker of Charles Egbert Craddock— thought this new author strode in the same paths as the sturdy mountaineers they thrilled to discover; or that the fearless author had scrambled down the steep ravines of Lost Creek Valley as did wispy-haired, heroic Clarsie Giles in her thin homespun gown, on a night when ‘Pine Mountain stood solemn, majestic, mysterious, masked by its impenetrable growth.’

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It is rather amusing, that, based on a reading of Murfree’s first published work In The Tennessee Mountains, (published 1884) she is praised by one starstruck reviewer as:

‘an active, fearless man accustomed to every phase of a wild, out-of-door life.’

Obviously this reviewer had a sort of John Muir character pictured in his mind. Or perhaps a Bret Harte. This well illustrates how none of Murfree’s physical frailties were hinted at in the vigor of her writing. For many years no one even suspected she was a woman. The reading public was enthralled by the word pictures she drew of a rugged, mystical landscape, and the world she now brought into popular view of an enigmatic society—that of the Tennessee mountaineers.

We’ll return to Murfree’s story—and stories she created—in the winter. Then I’ll be less distracted by pure pine essence wafting up from ‘the clifty gorge‘, or left with no opportunities to explore the abandoned orchards by the water’s edge, where the air is perfumed with the fragrance of apples and mint.

‘Overhead she heard the faint, weird cry of wild geese winging southward.’ Craddock

 

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”.