To the Editor:
I was surprised to find my views somewhat misstated in Quintin Ellison’s column, “Kephart, Transplants and the Debate over Legitimacy” (http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/2789-kephart-transplants-and-the-debate-over-legitimacy) in the Nov. 24 edition. After thinking about it over the weekend, I decided to comment on some of the worst distortions.
In my view, the heart of the current controversy is not the fact that Horace Kephart drank (and therefore represented a flawed and undependable source of information), but that Kephart’s fervent admirers steadfastly denied that he drank at all.
Now, Ms. Ellison acknowledges that Kephart “was a drunk” and concludes “So What?” In my opinion, we would not be having this controversy if someone had made that frank admission from the beginning. When I first began to run into the distinction between the way Horace was characterized by his neighbors in Swain County, and the reputation he acquired as a skilled and eloquent spokesman for the culture and tradition of Appalachian people, it quickly became evident that Kephart’s character was being augmented and enriched.
I heartily agree that the fact that the man had a fondness for moonshine has absolutely nothing to do with his contributions — not only in preserving our language and traditions, but in being the driving force for creating the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
However, in their enthusiasm to present the man in a favorable light, “someone” decided that he didn’t drink at all.
A decade ago, a talented young musician named Daniel Gore, who is based in Oregon, came to see me. In essence, he wanted me to write a play about Kephart. Quite frankly, I was delighted. At the time, Gore had an album, “Ways That are Dark” that was based on Our Southern Highlanders (one song for each chapter in the book). He gave me an advance and I started writing, but before I could finish the first act, we were at odds.
I had mentioned the fact that Kephart met Granville Calhoun at the Medlin depot “drunk as a skunk.” Gore told me that Kephart’s family would not tolerate any mention of his drinking since they believed such accusations were totally false. Wow! There was a conclusion that was contrary to local history.
I made a half-hearted attempt to write a version that Gore would accept, but I failed. I explained to Gore that, in my opinion, a man’s flaws gave him a richness of character, and that by overcoming his alcoholism (which was just one of his flaws, mind you), Kephart was more deserving of praise than had he been a teetotaler. Ah, but no, a stuffed and proper Kephart was already being ushered on stage.
Now, here is the sad thing about this issue. Buried somewhere in all of those distortions was a marvelous man. A drunken and bawdy Kephart sitting before a roaring fire with Quill Rose and a half-dozen bear-hunters and ballad-singers and moonshiners is a vibrant and exciting person. A man smelling of moonshine and sweat among his friends is far more appealing than this solemn and pompous fellow that is being celebrated now. Methinks I detect a faint smell of sanctity and b.s.
I can’t respond to much that I find in Ms. Ellison’s “setting the record straight.” I certainly never denied that Kephart could write, nor was I so foolish as to conclude that he could not write about mountain folks since “he was not from here.” I do feel that apt as his conclusions frequently were, he sometimes missed the point, and yes, it is because he was not a product of the culture that he attempts to define. His desire to “entertain” his readers often lead him into exaggerations and unfounded conclusions. On occasion, he was just plain wrong. He was a “discerning outsider” .... a quality that he shares with many of his most ardent fans.
I heartily concur with Ms. Ellison’s recommendation that the best source to determine Kephart’s gifts and flaws is Our Southern Highlanders.