A Hard Journey by James J. Lorence. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 344 pages.
Once on a warm, summer afternoon (circa 1957), I met Don West in the Townhouse Restaurant in Cullowhee. He was visiting his daughter, Hedy (a student at WCC) and talked easily about provocative topics: McCarthyism, HUAC, Eugene Debbs and union violence in Georgia. At one point, he indicated a well-dressed coffee-drinker at the counter and said, “See that guy? He is an FBI agent that follows me everywhere I go.” The coffee-drinker nodded and smiled. I was skeptical. Besides, I was 18, and most of my attention was focused on his daughter, Hedy.
When he got up to leave, he gave me a battered copy of Clods of Southern Earth and suggested that I read it; we could talk about it the next time we met, he said. I had no way of knowing that just a few months before our conversation, he had narrowly escaped lynching near Blairsville, Ga. Shortly after visiting Hedy, he would return to his farm in Douglasville to find his livestock poisoned, a KKK cross burning on his property and a government agent on his porch with another HUAC subpoena. I had just met what may well be the most controversial and significant poet, minister, activist and teacher in the last century of Appalachian history.
I found James J. Lorence’s biography to be a dense, difficult but rewarding book. Certainly, it presents a comprehensive portrait of a charismatic, flawed and driven man whose confrontational manner caused him (and his family) considerable hardship. Like an old storytelling friend of mine once observed about her own difficult life: “I have dug my grave with my tongue.” In a pulpit, a classroom or in crafting the lines of a “working man’s poem,” West possessed an astonishing gift: the power to persuade and inspire others. Yet, that same gift provoked his enemies to bring him down.
Born Donald Lee West on June 6, 1906, in Gilmer County, Cartecay, Ga., West’s early beliefs were shaped by his grandfather, Asberry Kimsey Mulkey. From an early age, Don was taught to believe in the inherent wisdom of common people, the equality of all men (anti-slavery) and the concept of Jesus Christ as a revolutionary. Raised in a family with a reverence for the power of words, music and oral tradition, Don learned to use them to promote his grandfather’s principles. These basic precepts remained with West throughout his life.
When West’s family moved to Cobb County and became sharecroppers, Don and his sister were ridiculed for their clothes at school. This experience, in conjunction with an encounter with educational “paternalism,” convinced Don that schools were attempting to eradicate his culture and replace it with middle-class values. Although he received a work scholarship to Berry College, Don quickly found himself expelled when he led a protest against the blatant racism in the film, “Birth of a Nation.”
Gaining admission to Lincoln Memorial University in east Tennessee, West becomes friends with Jesse Stuart and James Still, marries Connie Adams, decides to become a minister and moves to Vanderbilt, where he soon becomes involved in radicalism, strikes, unions and educational reform. A trip to Denmark convinced him that the Danish school system offered the solution to retaining traditional values in education.
At this point, West’s life becomes a striving for ideals that invariably brings him into conflicts with authority. His attempts to launch the Highlander Center (1933) in Monteagle, Tenn., with Miles Horton is successful, but leads to irreconcilable conflicts with Horton. Amid accusations that the Highlander was a “communist training center,” Don leaves and begins a series of erratic journeys (on his beloved Indian motorcycle). West’s nebulous involvement with the Communist Party causes many of his friends (including Jesse Stuart) to distance themselves from him. Eventually, West’s publicized ties with Communist and leftist politics forces him to seek work under an assumed name.
For much of West’s life, his mainstay is his wife Connie. A gifted teacher, she readily finds employment. Even when Don’s notoriety brings her dismissal as well (guilt by association), she frequently travels to Florida and other states to teach. She sends the money home to Don and her family. In time, she also becomes a talented artist.
Time and time again, West succeeds in an astonishing variety of ventures: a beloved superintendent in Hall County, Ga.; three years of teaching at Oglethorpe; a successful newspaper editor in Dalton, Ga.; the creation of the Appalachian Center at Pipestem (modeled after his beloved Danish school system); a series of awards, including Appalachian Writers Association, Berea College and the Lincoln Memorial Hall of Fame — all remarkable achievements.
Yet the majority of his successes turned to dust in his hands. His notoriety and his past involvement in radical activities results in his dismissal from Oglethorpe; the KKK and groups of anti-red organizations (including the American Legion) drove him from Dalton, and his major nemesis, Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, is credited with driving West from Georgia. For a time he lived and taught in New York. Then came a realized dream at Pipestem.
Lorence’s biography gives a detailed account of how a battered and demoralized West retreated, again and again, to his farm in Georgia to seek renewal from the land. Even this final refuge is denied him when his farm is torched and his collection of 10,000 books destroyed — a tragedy that Don later claimed was provoked by Ralph McGill. However, the last decade of Don’s life was relatively peaceful, and was spent fundraising, teaching and promoting the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem. West died at the Charleston Area Medical Center in 1992.
This is what remains: His awards, his poetry and essays and the Appalachian South Folklife Center at Pipestem, West Virginia; the multitudes of students who still speak of him with respect, the lifetime friendship of people like Langston Hughes, Paul Green, Byron Herbert Reece and Arthur Miller; and the music of his daughter, Hedy, an art that owes its authentic beauty to the same forces that shaped her unrepentant father.
It may be that the final judgment of Donald Lee West’s significance is yet to be made. If Communism is finally a harmless scarecrow and if McCarthyism has been defanged, perhaps it is possible that we can finally give this angry, impatient and gifted man a fair hearing. He loved mountain people and honored them in every act that he performed. Let us finally acknowledge that.
(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. His current writings can be found at his blog, http://hollernotes.blogspot.com/.)