West Virginia writers hold their own in literature:

The Writing Life

By Norman Julian
Columnist at large
Dominion Post (Morgantown, WV)
Copyright 2002

West Virginia University English professor Jo Ann Dadisman is as much a part of West Virginia as mountains and valleys.

There is a connection there, born of not only genetics but of childhood steeped in the culture and the landscape.

So it was natural when she was asked to teach a class on American English, it would lead to a course titled West Virginia Short Stories.

The course features not only the works, but often the living authors in her classroom.

Dr. Rudolph Almasy, then chair of English, asked only that the course "have a concentration on Appalachian speech."

"I thought it would be interesting, and he knew I would be interested," Jo Ann recalls.

And that interest would be piqued by the students themselves when they read and met native writers like Belinda Anderson, Mary Lucille DeBerry, Denise Giardina, Phyllis Moore, Barbara Smith, Ethel smith and Meredith Sue Willis.

Those spoke last semester.  Next semester there will be a new crew.

Dadisman felt the course was on track when, as she says, "one of my students added a postscript to his final test.  He said, "You have taught me not to be ashamed of my roots."

The student had grown up in a rural part of the Mountain State.  He had been conditioned to see his culture and its literature from the point of view of outsiders.  And that is a view looking down.

"His message hooked me," says Dadisman.  "That's all it took.  It made me think about myself and about my grandmother whose house (in Preston County) had never had running water or electricity."

"Other family members were isolated from their families in Washington, D. C., and Virginia because of shame about their roots."

"The more I thought about it, I wondered if there was something I could do in a classroom setting to make a difference."

"I looked at our literature that would combat the stereotyping."

Before teaching at the university level, she taught a Newburg High and Masontown School.

Now she has learned to focus on Appalachian stories, among them West Virginia stories, and "the class was a hit."

To sharpen and balance her overview, she met and studied with Judy Byers, director of the West Virginia Folklore Center at Fairmont State, and with Phyllis Moore, the Mountain State's premier literary historian about its native authors.

"To do it right we would need to cover some of the older literature from West Virginia, not just current writing," says Dadisman.

Most of the students who take the course are not English majors.

"Instead of just educating a small group already committed to literature, we are educating people across the broad spectrum," Dadisman says.

"We plant the seed of interest and they take it back with them" to influence their colleagues studying business, history, engineering, whatever.

"It's not a creative writing class," she says, "but they do learn to analyze a short story for the elements of fiction."

"Then the writer of the story they are studying, visits and talks about the moving force in the story."

And that turns on students and writers - and the professor.

"Stories have always been important to me," she says.  "As an only child, I was surrounded by relatives old enough to share tales with a child, for their working days were often behind them and they were home."

And, in turn, now she share stories with youngsters at her own family reunions.

She sees her college students as converts "who tells others what the state is producing."

In our talk, Dadisman and I agree that some West Virginia writers need not take a second place to writers anywhere.

A list might include Richard Currey, known for "Wars of Heaven."  Dadisman hopes to attract him to a future class.

Giardina's "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth," Willis's "In the Mountains of America," and the late Breece Pancake's "Stories," and something from the late Davis Grubb are literature in the finest American and Appalachian tradition.

Read them yourself and compare.                                        

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