Dedicated to Mary Meek Atkeson, Kitty Frazier and Jim Comstock who led the way.
WE HAVE AUTHORS: RECLAIMING OUR
MULTICULTURAL LITERARY HISTORY; A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SELECTED GENRES AND AUTHORS, REVISED
©2002 Phyllis Wilson Moore All Rights Reserved
1993 I had an unhappy telephone conversation with an out-of-state
bookstore owner. My telephone call was an attempt to locate
a copy of the first novel with a western Virginia setting. While
discussing my need for the book, I mentioned my long-term project:
researching the multicultural literary history of West Virginia.
hoped the owner could help. "West Virginia authors?" she
said, stunned. "I don't have any listing for West Virginia
authors." I was aggravated and embarrassed, though not
At that time the literary history of West
Virginia was lost, like a car in a mall parking lot. It was out
there. We just couldn't find it. Eight years later the
situation has changed. Information related to selected authors is
now a "click" away in cyberspace on an Internet site
aptly named MountainLit. West Virginia
teachers often use the site as a basis for assignments related to the
Our loss has sometimes been Virginia's gain. According to the geography of the day, our early writers, such as John Lewis and Anne Royall were Virginia writers. We admit former membership in the "Old Dominion," but we have been a separate state since 1863. Many so-called "Virginia writers" wrote within our modern-day boundaries and told our story. We are their heirs. It would especially help dispel our image as illiterates if we could identify, reprint, and publicize these early writers as West Virginia authors.
We can't blame this "Virginia confusion" for all of our literary woes. There is often benign scholarly and institutional neglect within our own borders. Thus, we have no recent recorded comprehensive literary history, and instead of "writing our own dispatch," as encouraged by the late scholar Jim Wayne Miller, we often rely on out-of-state scholars, such as Tillie Olsen and Cratis Williams to document the national contribution of early West Virginia authors.
Williams' unpublished PhD dissertation, The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction, considered by most researchers as the definitive work on the historical development of the Southern mountaineer's portrayal in fiction, devotes consideration to 267 authors of fiction. In addition to Lewis, I could associate only fifteen fiction writers with the "Mountain State." This small rather homogeneous group includes some of our best writers in their depictions of the mountaineers.
Our ethnic diversity, virtually unknown to outsiders, is evident in our literary record. It comes as no surprise Williams did not perhaps find the work of early African American authors associated with West Virginia: J. McHenry Jones, and Martin R. Delany.
Delany, son of a slave father and free woman of color, was born in Charles Town, (then) Virginia in 1812. As the Delany children grew, their mother moved to a free state to avoid retaliation for teaching them to read. Delany's father, known for resisting beatings by his master, soon bought his freedom and joined his family. Delany, obviously extremely intelligent, became an outspoken leader of his people. He practiced as a physician, was the first Black Major in the Civil War, became a journalist, and much more. His novel Blake; or, the Huts of America was serialized beginning in 1859, then disappeared. Rediscovered by editor Floyd J. Miller, it first appeared in book form in 1970 (Miller ix). Miller describes the novel as "...the first novelistic offering of a black writer to be published in the United States" (Miller xii). It is a fiery novel calling for a unified uprising of the enslaved. Blake, the novel's protagonist, does not consider slavery valid. He refuses to submit to mistreatment. A highly moral person, he manages to travel in the United States and Cuba to organize a massive slave revolt. Blake uses biblical texts to convince slaves in the South of their God-given right to revolt. It is thought Delany wrote the novel, at least in part, in opposition to Harriet Beecher Stowe's passive Uncle Tom's Cabin. The length of time for serialization, and the outbreak of the Civil War, consigned the novel to limbo.
1896, an African-American scholar from the Wheeling area, J. McHenry
Jones paid to have his novel, Hearts of Gold, published by the
press of The Wheeling Intelligencer (Bickley 74).
characters are members of the working class, as well as well-educated,
well-to-do African-Americans. They lead interesting and productive
lives complicated by discrimination. The plot incorporates
southern and northern interracial tension and an interracial marriage:
subjects not casually addressed in his day. Jones' story includes
post-Civil War affluent "Afro-Americans" taking river cruises
and becoming doctors, journalists, and teachers. Of the aspirations of
the newly-freed working class in a steel mill town, Jones says,
"The Afro-American, unlike any other people similarly
circumstanced, believes in God and intelligence" (155). Bickley
says of Hearts of Gold, "Jones handles race with his own
concept of dignity. In spite of its being in currency at the time. . .
.the term 'colored' is used less frequently than 'Afro-American'. . . .
Contacts with whites are always from a position of equal status"
(76). Jones' work offers a seldom seen view of post-Civil War
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