- 1 “Local color” writing and the market:
- 2 What happens in “The Land of the Sky”?
- 3 Just under the surface: subtexts and meta-themes?
One of a three-part series, best read in order:
2. “The Land of the Sky”: A Brief Guide to the Novel and Its Moment
This post aims to supply a brief (and relatively painless, I promise) précis of Christian Reid’s 1875 novel, “The Land of the Sky”: or, Adventures in Mountain By-Ways. My intent is to give readers a sufficient grasp on the novel to understand my next post. That post will ask why and how “The Land of the Sky” phrase was picked up so quickly, disseminated so widely, proved so durable for nearly 150 years, and has never had a serious competitor as the popular (and commercial) descriptor for Asheville. If you want to read the entire novel, that would be laudable, but I could not (in all honesty) recommend it.
The first thing to understand is that this novel is both based upon and extends assumptions, images, patterns and materials concerning mountaineers and western North Carolina that had long been in evidence. It was also an early example of a genre whose literary and cultural roots reached back at least a century, and which would be copied many times in the coming decades.
“Local color” writing and the market:
The novel was not a dominant form in American writing in the post-Civil War period. Rather it was the new monthly magazines that began to appear in the 1850s and fed reams of travel sketches and short fiction into a middle-class, “genteel” market. Enterprising writers (especially women, it turns out, sent their (quasi-)fictional narratives to The Atlantic Monthly (1857), Scribner’s, The Century, Harper’s, and similar magazines. Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “The French Broad” appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in April, 1875, and the first chapter of Reid’s “The Land of the Sky” followed in Appleton’s Journal in September.
As monthly magazines proliferated and found new markets, other women writers of local color fiction and travel sketches of the South followed Reid (e.g., Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Lodusky in 1877; Mary Noailles Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains in 1884 and The Young Mountaineers in 1897). Local color offered a predictable and very marketable literary template: It focused on a usually remote and exotic locale (topography and natural features, customs, cultural patterns such a dialect and behavior) as observed and interpreted by an observer/narrator from outside the area who mediates between it and the intended audience. Plots–frequently involving genteel romantic dalliances and relationships–were simple. Characters were static, action repetitive.
What happens in “The Land of the Sky”?
So how did this template manifest itself in Reid’s novel? Here are some elements one sees (again and again):
The exotic locale: Asheville and the western North Carolina mountains
Fortunately, Aunt Markam’s “no bands of music” reservations turn out to be ungrounded so far as Asheville itself is concerned. Hotels are full, “edified by a great deal of fashion,” and guests exhibit considerable worldly sophistication in their dress, speech, and tastes in entertainment. And Asheville’s Eagle Hotel pleases them greatly.
Elegant as the hotels may be, the scenic countryside constantly beckons the travelers outside of Asheville. They undertake repeated day-trips by carriage or horseback through Buncombe and adjacent counties (Beaucatcher Mountain, Mt. Mitchell, Caesar’s Head, Bridal Veil Falls). The French Broad, Swannanoa, Davidson, Laurel Run and Mills Rivers appeal especially.
Over-nights, planned or not:
Ostensibly, the travelers go out to feast upon the landscape, but now and then (caught by unanticipated circumstances such as rainstorms) they spend a few nights with local families or in nearby inns at small local “watering places.” Their views on mountaineers were in most respects congruent with those dominant at the time. Early enough to set a background on local culture and lifeways, one of the party appears with “a large stone jug,” prompting a companion to ask (presaging the title of a now-famous song written fifty years later), “Is it mountain-dew?” Mountaineers are presented as a mixed lot (like people everywhere), but “unless approached with some tact,” one traveler cautions, “your mountaineer is apt to prove sulky . . . .” Indeed, Aunt Markham asks rhetorically as they pass near Marshall,
“Wouldn’t you rather sleep in the carriage than in such houses as we have passed?” “If these people had any enterprise,” someone complains while struggling along the bank before crossing the river, “they would have all such places as this accessible by good paths.” The travelers’ reactions to the watering places make it evident that at one level, much as they are fascinated by the landscape and tempted by mountain dew (a phrase dating back to 1810-20) that “flows clear as crystal into the glass,” they pass gratefully through the landscape on their way from one comfortable and civilized oasis to another. Evan Alexander’s, despite the poor river crossing, they find “a delightful hostelry,” quaint and old-fashioned, “comfortable, and thoroughly unpretentious . . . a dreamy,
restful place.” And the valley and hotel of Warm Springs, another “gay watering place,” affords them the “magic of another world.” Its large hotel has “all the appliances of civilization.” “It does not take us long,” they find, “to fall into the groove of watering-place life.”
A sublime landscape:
Wandering as in a magic dream
By shadowy wood and crystal stream,
By mountain-peak and forest-dell,
Where fauns and fairies love to dwell,
We enter the enchanted clime,
Forgotten in the lapse of time,
The golden land of fair idlesse [sic],
Of sylvan sports and joyousness.
[The Land of the Sky, p. 13]
The most frequently repeated (indeed, almost ever-present) feature of the novel is the romantic mountain landscape itself: rock promontories and cliffs like Chimney Rock and Caesar’s Head, individual mountains like Beaucatcher and Pisgah, and whole ranges that present breathtaking scenic vistas. It is also especially important to notice that this landscape is presented in a particular way characteristic of the cultural moment.
In my previous post, the image of the Swannanoa River from this novel juxtaposed with Worthington Whittredge’s The Trout Pool (1870) to represent the Hudson River School of painters evokes a broader frame for that moment: the notion of the sublime.
This notion (say those who know a lot more about it than I do) goes way back, but for our purposes we can situate it within eighteenth century philosophy and painting, and English Romantic poets of the nineteenth century (Wordsworth andColeridge primarily) who thought of sublime nature as an awe-inspiring realm of experience beyond reason
that one’s mind could approach but not ever really get to–endlessly worthy of contemplation and frequently evoking a transcendent idea (e.g., infinity). The notion of the sublime underlay and shaped the work of the Hudson River School of American painters,
and in turn Christian Reed’s literary style and presentation of the western North Carolina mountains, as well as the visual ideas of the unknown (to me, at least) artist who made the drawings for The Land of the Sky.
Thus the sublime lies always either on, or only slightly beneath, the surface of the novel. Buncombe County air has “a stimulating quality . . . unlike the languid heat we left below, a cloudless sky, a flood of sunshine, a sparkling mist draping the distant azure mountains.” “Look at the green hills on which the town is built,” the travelers exclaim, “rising with gentle, undulating swell in every direction, while afar lie the blue mountains . . . . Why have we never come here before? Why have we gone everywhere else, and neglected this Arcadia lying at our very door?”
Looking outward from Asheville, “Mountains rise behind mountains . . . [and the] view is so boundless and so beautiful, that the imagination is for a time over-whelmed.” Riding their horses toward mountains early in the morning, they feel themselves in no less than a sacred space: “It was as if the world was being newly created, and we saw the water divided from the land.” The “wide breast of the French Broad is painted by . . . . magical splendor,” and the paths through the balsams near the top of Mt. Mitchell seem like “an Eden in the sky.”
As night falls on the mountaintop, they are thrilled–in a way that would have gladdened the heart of Wordsworth or Coleridge (perhaps read by young Frances Fisher in school)–“by the greatness of the silent scene, by the solemnity of the glorious night . . . [which] fills us with a sense of exaltation and awe.” They wander in their own Arcadia (as they themselves call it) through the “enchanted” days that follow, “on the hills, like gods together, careless of mankind.” When it comes time for the travelers to bid farewell to the sublime landscape, even the initially skeptical and reluctant Eric declares regretfully, “Today we shall cross the Blue Ridge, and go down to the lower world again.”
Scaling the heights: imperiled damsels and gallant rescues
These landscapes, dramatic and awe-inspiring as they are, also present our travelers with some risks. Fortunately the images need little comment:
Disaster is averted by the gallantry of their gentlemen
companions, and in any case, the ever-present threat adds a bit of life and excitement to an otherwise contrived and predictable plot. And whatever the risks, the heights are exhilarating, as they find from the top of Paint Rock, site of prehistoric paintings that had been attracting travelers since before 1800.
Moments of flirtation and genteel dalliance also enliven the narrative, but most are rendered in words rather than images. One or two images will perhaps suffice:
Just under the surface: subtexts and meta-themes?
In preparation for the next post, which will look at the world into which this novel was launched and through what mechanisms its main title phrase moved so fast and so far, it is helpful to scratch a bit below the surface of the novel’s explicit text and graphic images. In what way(s) and to what extent is the future of the phrase prefigured?
One cannot read more than a few pages into the novel without noticing that part of the narrator’s aim is to lay the self-conscious cultural sophistication of the travelers upon the Asheville/mountain screen.
When she does that, it is inescapably evident that their sophistication is ratified in two ways: They are clearly more urbane, sophisticated and worldly than the local mountaineers they encounter on their day-trips, But (more importantly?) they can also comfortably hold their own with the most elegant and cosmopolitan sojourners they meet in Asheville’s hotels.
Interacting with mountaineers in the countryside, they think it only fitting that they “gave us their best, and seemed honestly anxious to do all in their power to please us.” And when now and then they meet a really attractive one, like the famous hunter Dan Burnet, a “stalwart, broad-shouldered man . . . a suggestion of a soldier as well as a hunter,” he gets their seal of approval as “a thorough type of the mountain man.” Nevertheless, they think “a Tyrolean hat” would be the final touch for such an admirable “brigand of the opera” they find him to resemble.
Back in Asheville hotel society, their own clothing proves sufficiently fashionable. Their language is sprinkled with elegant, culturally allusive phrases (verdure-clad, panegryic, roseate tints, pastoral). And they ask the Eagle Hotel pianist to treat them to some Mendelsohn, and they recognize and appreciate the “dreamy nocturnes” he offers as well.
One result of these features is that long-held stereotypes of mountaineers, though not excluded completely, are toned down, and overlaid with more attractive–even enviable–images of the mountains’ offerings. Positive observations by the travelers, projected upon the Asheville screen, not only ratify the culture of the characters themselves, but also make them attractive actors in a cultural document intended to be cast upon the waters of the emerging genteel monthly magazine literary market and the local color enterprise.
Whatever the novel’s lacks, then, we have here a cultural statement that Ashevillians and the area’s emerging local boosters and promoters had reason to feel positive and hopeful about–to embrace as a promotional logo. Go easy on mountaineers and hillbillies, so as not to tar all of us with that brush. Let the world see Asheville and its better-off citizens as attractive and worthy of taking a train trip and paying a hotel bill to visit: Arcadia. An aura of sublimity. Swiss town upon green hills. Watering place gayety. Be gods together in an Eden where one might glimpse a tantalizingly Tyrolean hat-able gentleman or catch of whiff of crystal-clear mountain dew.
And will this validation/ratification happen? Will the hotels continue to fill in the years ahead? Easy: “The railway will bring them,” says Sylvia, “beginning to hum a Strauss waltz.”
References: Nan Chase, Asheville: A History (2007); Henry D. Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920) (1978).