Dedicated to Mary Meek Atkeson, Kitty Frazier and Jim Comstock who led the way.


©2002 Phyllis Wilson Moore All Rights Reserved

      In 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.  I 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 surprised.  

      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 state's literature.

      No state needs an awareness of its literary accomplishments more than West Virginia. Without the ammunition provided by a literary and academic record of excellence, it is difficult to reload the literary "cannon," as well as to combat our omnipresent stereotypes a place inhabited by a tribe of poor, illiterate, white, Anglo-shoeless hillbillies (PIWASH).  The rest of the nation believes we can't read or write; therefore, we tend to believe it ourselves.

      Actually, we have an outstanding record of literary achievement. Even a hasty review of our past or current crop of writers proves you can learn to read and write in West Virginia. In fact, writing has proven a successful career for authors of  "best sellers": Stephen Coonts, Homer H. Hickam, Jr., John Knowles, Jean Lee Latham, Catherine Marshall, Walter Dean Myers, Cynthia Rylant, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Eugenia Price.

      The authors of West Virginia vary as much as the multicultural settlers who sired them. Historian Kitty Frazier, author of West Virginia Women Writers 1822-1979, collected information on 240 women writers. Frazier notes that the first poetry published by a female western Virginian was the 1822 work of prominent Irish gentlewoman, Margaret Blennerhassett (Frazier 8); and the first novel written by a western Virginia woman was the 1827 work of Anne Royall, an early feminist from present-day Monroe County.  Royall is also the "first woman journalist of the United States" (Atkeson 42). It is rare to find copies of their work or mention of their relationship to West Virginia.

      Some other firsts? West Virginia can lay claim to the nation's first woman to win both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for Literature, Pearl S. Buck, as well as the winner of the nation's first O. Henry Award for the short story, Margaret Prescott Montague. And that's just for starters.

      In fact, the first western Virginia book of nonfiction, Christian Panoply by R. Watson, rolled off the press at "Shepherd's Town" in 1797 (Wood 28). The first novel with a western Virginia setting, New Hope; or, The Rescue, details life in the pioneer area of Hawk's Nest. Published in 1844, the book bears no author's name, but has been credited to a John Lewis (Wood 29). It has not been reprinted since the mid-nineteenth century and is considered too rare to circulate by any West Virginia library lucky enough to have a copy in its collection.

      The novel portrays life in early western Virginia, complete with a rather aristocratic mountaineer family fallen on hard times, their intelligent, heroic slave named "Uncle Tom," and one of the earliest prototypes for future fictional mountaineers: Ben Bramble, (Williams 397-398).  Ben hunts game to supply the Greenbrier with meat and skins, drinks moonshine he calls "the Raal Critter," names his various rifles, and protects new settlers. The book's refined heroine, Matilda, declares,

    I shall never forget Ben's first appearance among the fashionables at the Springs, and the sensation he produced. See what a striking figure he presents as he comes towards us. He has on the same wolf                skin cap, blue hunting-shirt with white fringe, a buckskin girdle, with that horrid knife sticking out from                its sheath; the otter-skin pouch and powder-horn, breeches of buckskin, and moccasins the colour of the        fallen leaves of the forest. But what is he doing? Did you see how like lightning he leaped behind that            large sycamore?  (Lewis 15-16).
      Unfortunately, the novel is seldom studied or mentioned in scholarly works discussing early Appalachian literature. Rare and out-of-print, it is often overlooked. Thus, our region loses.

      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.

      In 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).  The novel's 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 Appalachia.

      Jones was one of the first in a long line of poets and fiction writers associated with West Virginia to write of the interracial Appalachian experience: poets Louise McNeill Pease and Anne Spencer; playwright Ann Kathryn Flagg; novelists William Demby, Davis Grubb, and John Peale Bishop; children's author Sandra Belton; multi-genre writers Joseph Bundy, Edward J. Cabbell, Julia Davis, Ethel Morgan Smith, John F. Matheus-- these are a few who followed Jones' lead.

      In addition to one of our earliest African-American novelist, Wheeling produced another early, significant writer, Rebecca Harding Davis, whose work had disappeared from the literary scene prior to her death in 1910. Davis' out-of-print works could be compared to a Randolph County natural phenomena known as the Sinks of Gandy Creek. The creek, first described by West Virginia's gifted travel writer and illustrator David Hunter Strother (Port Crayon) in 1872, sinks beneath a spur of the Alleghenies to resurface on the other side. Davis' material resurfaced in 1972 with the help of Guggenheim Fellow Tillie Olsen, who felt it an important and neglected early feminist work.

      Davis, an educated woman of moderate wealth, saw her first publication, Life in the Iron Mills, (note¹) appear anonymously in Atlantic Monthly in April 1861. Read by Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and other significant authors (Olsen 76-78, 117), Life in the Iron Mills "was an instant sensation; . . .a literary landmark" (66). Davis' fame resulted in a visit "North" as the guest of Hawthorne at Wayside to meet his literary circle (78). The trip was not all pleasant. Davis' diary quotes Hawthorne as saying of Bronson Alcott, "Here comes the Sage of Concord. . . . He [Alcott] is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia,"(78) [emphasis mine]. Even then, our image was firmly entrenched as an isolated backwash.

     Olsen says of Life in the Iron Mills, "You are about to give the life of your reading to a forgotten American classic. Without precedent or predecessor, it recorded what no one else had recorded . . ." (48). The story's revelations about barbaric working conditions in the pre-Civil War southern mill town of Wheeling shocked the nation. Davis described Welsh men, women, and children working in what Olsen calls "dark satanic mills" (65) under conditions little better than slavery. One of the saviors of the state's literature, Jim Comstock would later reprint Life in the Iron Mills in his West Virginia Heritage series. (note²)



Children's Literature ~ Honors and Awards ~ Links and Credits ~ Introduction
WVLA Authors ~ WV African-American Authors ~ Essays ~ Book Reviews ~ Home

©2001 MountainLit