The cult of the primitive

Throughout most of the 19th century, Americans idealized nature largely through a "pastoral," or semi-primitive, lens. "Raw" nature was not in itself something to worship, yet its potential under human care was limitless. A perfect setting therefore would be "located in a middle ground somewhere 'between,' yet in a transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature" (Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden, p.23). There was an abundance of land in the ever-expanding country, with no end in sight. Human progress was measured through nature's domestication. The Hudson River School, a group of artists who formed in the 1830's, depicted sweeping landscapes, often with a small group of people mingling at ease in the forest.

By the turn of the century, however, "primitivism" came into vogue, at first in art circles. Novelist Theodore Dreiser was writing about American cities as heartless monsters, sucking the spirit out of its inhabitants. In Europe, Pablo Picasso was discovering African art and infusing elements into his own work. Sigmund Freud was developing theories about primal urges that unconsciously guide human action. American sociologist William Graham Sumner applied Charles Darwin's theories about natural selection to society at large. The luster of a progressively refined civilization had begun to tarnish.

In America, Frederick Jackson Turner's famous declaration of the "closing" of the western frontier in 1893, among other negative social developments associated with urbanization, stirred a more adamant devotion to seeking out the primitive. In addition, the rise of immigration caused many to worry about the preservation of America's cultural purity - specifically, its Anglo-Saxon heritage. In this regard, then, southern Appalachia became a rich store for romantic myth-making. Here, many writers claimed, men and women lived in a condition not unlike those in Elizabethan England. The description is apt, for it fulfilled a twin need for American mythmakers: Anglo-Saxon primitivism. A new interest in Appalachia also was heightened by the popularity of natural health spas, like those in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Hot Springs, Virginia, and Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. Moreover, the mountains contained a healthy segment of Union sympathy - another important positive factor in their incorporation into a national myth.

Like Europe, the repository for this myth began in fiction. From the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, hundreds of American dime store novels romanticized Appalachia, while at the same time revealing a peculiar hesitancy to laud all aspects of its culture. In many ways, this tradition can be summarized through an examination of the little-known work of one woman: Mary Murfree.

Proceed to "Mary Murfree"