Mary Murfree and the mountain novel

Carvel Collins, in "The Literary Tradition of the Southern Mountaineer, 1824-1900" wrote that mountain novelists of the late 19th and early 20th century "described the hill people as quaint and isolated, living peculiar lives in the shadow of awe-inspiring peaks." This tradition was first begun by Mary Murfree, who wrote under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock. Her novel In the Tennessee Mountains, published in 1884, was the first full-length fiction work to deal explicity with southern Appalachia. The themes she highlighted in this book would be similar to the hundreds of novels that would be published during the next few decades.

Murfree greatly admired "local color" writers, who proliferated after Bret Harte's "The Luck of the Roaring Camp" appeared in 1868. She was much more interested in the mountains, however, than New Orleans or Arkansas. As a young girl she spent her summers at Beersheba Springs in the Cumberland Mountains, southwest of Nashville - experiences she largely depended upon for her later writing. In the Tennessee Mountains represents the outgrowth of the local color movement. Her characters are stylized in a way that glosses over individuality and produces gross stereotypes, usually for melodramatic and sentimental effect, concludes University of Tennessee scholar Nathalia Wright. These include: "the lovelorn young girl, self-sacrificing, dying early; the coquette and the calculating maiden; the careless and the rejected lover; the long-suffering wife; the outlaw; the avenger." Physically, meanwhile, the mountain folk are almost always tall and thin - the young men described as "gawky" and the girls described as "lithe."

Murfree also set out some common mental and cultural characteristics of the mountain folk as well, which repeated themselves through legion other writers. She calls them, in a patronizing manner, "ignorant," "untutored" and "primitive," as well as "superstitious." Most of their activity is made up of drinking, gambling and feuding. Little constructive work is done. Murfree's negative portrayals of these aspects of mountain life, however, is mitigated by her positive depiction of the folk's moral stature. In this regard they are "loyal, hospitable and independent" - true "noblemen and noblewomen of nature," as Wright describes.

What may be Murfree's most significant achievement, in Wright's view, is joining together the mountains and the mountaineers into a singular cultural phenomenon. The character of the mountaineers, in other words, is directly related to the environment in which they live. The environment, rugged and impassable, creates a hardy, independent individual - an American icon. Yet the environment also breeds a lack of industriousness, and a form of tribalism - incompatible with the American devotion to technology and progress.

Proceed to "Rejecting the hillfolk"