One of a three-part series, best read in order:
1. Asheville as “The Land of the Sky”: The Novel, and a Phrase That Stuck
As my home page explains, I intend to cast my family narrative upon the canvas of the western North Carolina city of Asheville, now well into its third century. For close to 150 years, the popular label on that canvas has been “The Land of the Sky.”
Some readers of this blog might already know that the phrase came originally from a novel by Christian Reid [pseud.]. “The Land of the Sky,” or, Adventures in Mountain By-ways appeared in 1875 and remained in print for more than thirty years. Almost immediately it was taken up in the media and by numerous commercial entities, and has remained current and central to nearly all references to Asheville for nearly 150 years.
This book has been on my list to read for decades, but when I started this blog, I knew the time had finally come. I knew the many random references and brief descriptions I had read over the years would not suffice.
My questions before reading . . .
Who was “Christian Reid,” and what brought her to write this book? What sort of story does she put together about some low-country travelers who in the early 1870s have decided to “turn our faces westward and, crossing the Blue Ridge, explore as far as possible the comparatively unknown country which lies beyond.” What do they expect to encounter (and why), and what do they do when they get there? What sort of town do they find Asheville to be?
Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan, or: Christian Reid
Frances Christine Fisher was born in Salisbury NC in 1840, the daughter of Charles F. Fisher (1816-1861), who before his death at First Manassas had served as president of the North Carolina Railroad and later director of the scandal-plagued Western North Carolina Railroad (historical images at WNCRR). During her entire life Fisher maintained her commitment to the Lost Cause. She began to tell stories before she could write, and lived long enough to publish thirty novels as well as short stories, poems, and plays. . Several novels preceded The Land of the Sky, which early North Carolina historian Archibald Henderson says was “a perfect and accurate description of a trip through the western North Carolina mountains.” Late in life (1887) Fisher married Marylander James Tiernan and moved to Mexico, where she continued to write.
And why might Reid have chosen this topic for a novel? Perhaps partly because of her father’s antebellum involvement in the Western North Carolina Railroad, which was pushing (however sporadically) westward to the mountains, themselves an early magnet for tourists, and during the early 1870s in the midst of a post-Civil War boom. Also, no doubt, because the new “genteel monthly magazines” were open to”local color” stories of travel to exotic places.
Indeed, the same September 4, 1875 issue of Appleton’s Journal in which The Land of the Sky began to be serialized before it appeared as a book also readers with the first installment of “Three Weeks of Savage Life,” which opens with this borderline salacious tease (full disclosure: written by a man, unless “Maurice Thompson” was a pseudonym for a woman writer):
Imagine a great, square-shouldered, half-nude savage, whose features betokened stolidity, cruelty, cunning, and dishonesty. . . . . [T]hen think of a little slim shell of a canoe, the gunwales of which were already nearly on a line with the water surface; then . . . connect all with the idea of stepping off a staunch sail-craft plump into the canoe along-side of the Indian, knowing that from that moment you would not see a white man for a week at the very least! I felt my flesh make a movement as if preliminary to disintegration, and for a moment I was not wholly myself. In fact, my first impulse was to utterly refuse to trust my precious body to the mercy of wind and wave and all the sharks in San Lucie Sound.
Reid chose a much tamer (and more genteel) subject, but she infused it with the requisite local color attention to perilous travel to little-known places, hair’s-breadth escapes from potential disasters, chance encounters with exotic strangers, peculiar local manners (and the travelers’ own normative genteel ones).
At the Outset: “Nights of Which to Dream”
The travelers who are to undertake this venture into Asheville and the country around it for some “adventures in mountain by-ways” do not take it lightly.
They are rather self-consciously cultured young people, except for the diva-like Aunt Markham, who is skeptical. She tells the girls they will be bored because they will find “no fashionable hotels, no bands of music.” Her eldest son Eric fears he is headed for the wilderness (Asheville was home to only about 1500 people, after all), but his younger cousin Charley, having been to Asheville the summer before, insists that “that country has been a resort for fifty years, perhaps longer, and Asheville is decidedly a civilized place” where companions Sylvia and Alice will definitely need their silk dresses.
So Aunt Markham and Eric reluctantly consent to go along. “Buncombe nights are delicious in their coolness,” the younger ones urge,” nights of which to dream in the heat-parched, musquito-haunted low country.”
Some things I expected:
Having just finished reading the novel, I am aware that in some ways I found it to be more or less as I expected from many brief descriptions I had read. But in others I did not.
Whatever else one might say about this novel, path-breaking it was not. As David Hsiung (and numerous other scholars) have shown, stereotypes of mountaineers were already in evidence during the revolutionary period, and in the 19th century they became even more numerous, varied, widespread and predictable. This novel is replete with such images: industrious (and long-suffering and work-worn) women at spinning wheels, ragged hillbilly young ‘uns standing forlornly in front of a log cabin, in front of which “two or three stout men were lazily smoking and gossiping.”
And borderline hillbilly boys goin’ fishin’ (“Unless approached with some tact, your mountaineer is apt to prove sulky and non-commital,” the travelers are warned):
Echoing the usual complaints about mountain backwardness, the travelers judge that “If these people had any enterprise,” the travelers opine as they walk some rough terrain, “they would have all such places as this made accessible by good paths.”
And, yes, since the focus is heavily upon landscape (in the 1870s), one might expect that images of that landscape might echo the Hudson River School (towhich I will return in my next post):
. . . and a few attractive mountaineers I didn’t expect:
The rather handsome mountaineer coachman John Pence, a dapper mountaineer guide, a Negro (the novel’s term) fiddler–a surprise even though African American fiddlers were much in evidence in pre-Revolutionary times and every Appalachian county had slaves.
Well, this gets us started, but . . .
Or “Don’t touch that dial!,” as they used to say on Asheville’s premier radio station WWNC (Wonderful Western North Carolina) before the advent of WLOS (Wonderful Land of the Sky, of course).
In my next post, I will (briefly) sketch the novel’s narrative, focusing on its main (rather repetitious, actually) features and then scratch a bit below the surface to identify some subtexts and the like. That post will be followed by another that will examine why and how the “Land of the Sky” phrase “took” so quickly and got disseminated so widely. That post will conclude attention to the novel itself.
The next post after that will be the first (tentative) installment in the story of my grandfather, who was born in Golden Valley NC (not far from Tiernan/Reid’s low-country), three years before The Land of the Sky appeared, and set out for Asheville in 1900–probably taking the train from Morganton (where he had worked for a few years at the state mental hospital).
It seems likely that he would have taken the train up the mountain from Old Fort, and through the Swannanoa Tunnel into an Asheville Junction that Christian Reid’s adventuresome young travelers could not have imagined twenty-five or so years earlier.
Archibald Henderson, “Christian Reid,” The Sewanee Review 18 (April 1910), 223-232; David E. Hsiung, Two Worlds in the Tennessee Mountains: Exploring the Origins of Appalachian Stereotypes (1997); John Inscoe, Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina (1989); Christian Reid, “”The Land of the Sky,” or, Adventures in Mountain By-ways,” Appletons’ Journal XIV (September 4, 1875), 289-294; Maurice Thompson, “Three Weeks of Savage Life,” Appletons’ Journal XIV (September 4, 1875), 303-305; as well as the excellent work of colleagues too numerous to mention here, and other stuff lodged in my head after all these years.