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Wednesday, 21 April 2010 17:37

Kephart’s persona was well crafted

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Our consideration of “books and all things related” continues with a look at an instance when a well-known author (and former librarian) chose to disguise his reading so as to create a literary persona.

Horace Kephart was often guarded, sometimes evasive, when giving reasons for choosing the Smokies region as a place of renewal. There was no doubt an element of chance in the decision. It’s probable, however, despite his denials of having done so, that he read travel accounts and studied government documents, many of which were available by the turn of the century.

For someone with Kephart’s areas of interest an easily located source would have been (and perhaps was) Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina: Comprising Its Topography, History, Resources, People, Narratives, Incidents, and Pictures of Travel, Adventures in Hunting and Fishing, and Legends of Its Wilderness (Raleigh, NC: Alfred Williams, and Cleveland, OH: W.W. Williams, 1883). Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth, authors of Seekers of Scenery: Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia (1840-1900), reproduce five magazine articles describing Western North Carolina, post-1875, including Frank O. Carpenter’s “The Great Smoky Mountains and Thunderhead Peak,” which appeared in the June 1890 issue of Appalachia magazine.

The “pub.doc” Kephart managed to unearth in “that dustiest room of a great library” — but absentmindedly fails to provide authors or title for — was Horace B. Ayers and William W. Ashe’s The Southern Appalachian Forests (Washington. DC: Department of Interior and U.S. Geological Survey, 1902), the monumental study that contains descriptions, maps and photos of the Smokies region as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s detailed Letter of Transmittal, in which he observed: “These great mountains are old in the history of the continent which has grown up about them,” and having escaped “the ice on the north” display “that marvelous variety and richness of plant growth which have enabled our ablest business men and scientists to ask for its preservation by the Government for the advancement of science and pleasure of the people of our own and of future generations.”

Kephart had been for over a decade one of the most meticulous librarians in America. For the remainder of his life, he independently maintained the mindset and methodologies of the prototypical librarian. This trait is exemplified by the set of 27 journals — researched, categorized, alphabetized, indexed, and cross-referenced, more than once — he created so as to depict, often in great detail, almost every aspect of Appalachian culture, and more.

He wasn’t the sort who would venture into his own backyard without first taking a look at the relevant literature. By denying that he had access to written materials, the Smokies thereby became for his readers even more of a “terra incognita” — a land of “hidden possibilities” — in which, as his title for the first chapter of Our Southern Highlanders indicates, there is “Something Hidden; Go and Find It.” Via this calculated strategy, Kephart emerges as the somewhat heroic, albeit mild-mannered and curiously attentive, outsider who explores and describes the landscapes and lifestyles of a “mysterious realm.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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