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Wednesday, 10 March 2010 16:12

‘Robinson Kephart,’ editor of adventure books

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My weekly deadline is looming. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m fairly sure it’s going to be a rambling essay about Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camping and Woodcraft, and Smoky Mountain Magic. The first two titles were published by the Outing Publishing Company, upon which he exerted considerable influence for a number of years, as we shall see.

Partly, if all goes well, this is going to be about Kephart’s lifelong rather carefully-cultivated self-image as “an earnest and sometimes lonely, yet self-sufficient figure, like ‘dear old Robinson Crusoe;” and partly, about a thankless sort of literary endeavor at which he was better than competent — editing.

I sometimes think of Horace Kephart as “Robinson Kephart.” Hearing that, he would no doubt laugh and nod in agreement. After all, in the “North Carolina Library Bulletin” for June 1922, he published an autobiographical essay (reprinted as a pamphlet in 1922 by the “Bryson City Times”) titled “Horace Kephart by Himself,” in which he recalled his youthful years in rural Iowa in this maner:

“It was before the day of fences ... The elk and buffalo had left, but their bleached antlers and skulls were strewn everywhere over the prairie ... I had no playmates . . my mother taught me to read . . she gave me my first book, dear old ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ... I used to take ‘Robinson’ out to the old boat among the trees ... I made wooden guns, pistols, hatchet, and a thing I called a cutlass ... A fur cap was easily contrived, shaped like the one Crusoe wears in the pictures in my book ... The old boat was my wrecked ship, to which I made frequent trips, swimming out in my imagination, returning on an imaginary raft laden with imaginary seaman’s chests, bottles of rack and cordials, kits of tools, barrels of powder and bags of shot ... [My copy of DeFoe’s book has] ‘been saved through the vicissitudes of a somewhat venturesome life and lies before me now, coverless and stained with age ...’”

(What is apparently Kephart’s “coverless and stained” copy of the novel that reads like reality apparently re-emerged in the Kephart family archives last year.)

Kephart sometimes recalled his early years on Hazel Creek (1904-1907) in the pre-park Smokies in a manner that evoked affinities with the real Robinson Crusoe. Explaining why he wrote at night, he told a newspaper reporter from St. Louis: “Seldom during those three years as a forest exile did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep ... in good cheer.”

A neglected aspect of Kephart’s literary career consists of the series of 11 books he edited for Outing Publishing Company in their Outdoor Adventure Library, starting about 1914. Nine are complete or abridged volumes with historical-biographical-critical introductions.

The titles are indicative of the content: J.D. Borthwick, The Gold Fields: A First-Hand Picture of Life in California Mining Camps in the Early Fifties; Earl of Dunraven [Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin Dunraven], Hunting in Yellowstone: on the Trail of Wapiti with Texas Jack in the Land of Geysers; Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, The Lion Hunter: In the Days when all South Africa was Virgin Hunting Field; Augustus C. Hobart-Hampton, Hobart Pasha: Blockade-Running Slave-Hunting, and War and Sport in Turkey; Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, Adrift in the Artic Ice Pack: From the History of the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin; Major John Wesley Powell, First Through the Grand Canyon: Being the Record of the Pioneer Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869-1870; and three volumes by George F.A. Ruxton, In the Old West; Adventures in Mexico; and Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Several of his editions of these classics have remained in print because of the quality of Kephart’s introductions, in which he obviously invested considerable research and effort. Here is a paragraph from the introduction to Borthwick’s The Gold Fields:

“The popular notion of a miner is that of a rude and reckless fellow who works one day with a tin pan and gets drunk the next. There were, indeed, many of this ilk in the gold-diggings; but in the main, the miners of ‘49 were a picked and superior class of men. It was not as if a bonanza had been struck within easy reach of the riffraff of the nations. California, by the shortest route, was two thousand miles from any well-populated part of America, five thousand from a European port. The journey thither was expensive, and most of the men who undertook it were such as had accumulated, by their own industry, a good ‘stake’ at home. They were adventurers, to be sure; but what is an adventurer? One who hazards a chance, especially a chance of danger. That is the spirit which starts almost any enterprise that demands courage, determination and self-reliance ... Most of them were charged with spontaneous and persistent energy. Immediately, as by an electric shock, the California of dreaming friars and lazy vaqueros was tossed aside and an amazing industry whirred into action.”

Two of the volumes consist of narratives Kephart excerpted from numerous sources and pieced together with prefatory notes: Captives Among the Indians: First-Hand Naratives of Indian Wars, Customs, Tortures, and Habits of Life During Colonial Times; and Castaways and Crusoes: Tales of Survivors of Shipwreck in New Zealand, Patagonia, Tobago, Cuba, Magdalen Islands, South Seas, and the Crozets.

The title Castways and Crusoes caught my eye. Sure enough, as his first entry, Kephart placed a tale titled “A South Sea Crusoe” that Charles Dickens originally published in the 1860s in “All the Year Round,” one of the magazines he edited. In his note, Kephart informs the reader that this is “the narrative of an English missionary who was cast away on an uninhabited islet off the north coast of New Zealand, with no equipment but his pocket-knife, a pair of blankets, a few pieces of broken glass, a ruined boat and its tattered sails. The man was without food, tools, tackle, weapon, or even the means of making a fire. He was no expert in seamanship or in woodcraft. Yet he managed to subsist in this desolate place for nearly six months, without so much as a captured animal to divert his mind from the awful lonesomeness.” The clergyman added that he had “no books to while away the long tedious hours, no means whereon to fix even an account of my sufferings and fate; though perchance they might one day be read in my bones whitening on the beach.” Just the sort of reading matter Dickens and Kephart would enjoy.

I almost forgot to note that the Outing Publishing Company offered in their 1916-1917 catalog a four-volume “Robinson Crusoe Library,” comprised of Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft (volumes I and II), his Camp Cookery, and — just in case something went awry — Charles Moody’s Backwoods Surgery and Medicine. Potential buyers were advised that, “It has been used and approved by mining engineers, travelers and sportsmen from Alaska to Hayti. Four volumes in a box. Pocket size 41/2x7 inches. Bound in flexible leather. $6.00 net. Postage 30c.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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