Archived Reading Room

Cowan’s writing could make you cry

bookWhen Leo Cowan, Jackson County’s noted historian and author, died last February just after his second book was published, I found myself reluctant to write a review of Leo’s last book in conjunction with his obituary. I am an admirer of Leo’s writing and have always felt that his “authorial voice” put him in a special category. Jackson County has a large number of writers who either write about the past and/or record their personal history through storytelling or autobiography (I guess I qualify as part of of that flock!). However, Leo Cowan is head and shoulders above all of us.

In his last book, Leo demonstrates a depth that is far greater than the average local historian/storyteller. I came to feel that Cowan resembled one of those old Roman poets who, having become disillusioned in the world and the antics of his fellow man, withdraws to a rural setting (Tuckasegee) from which he continues to observe his world. Beneath the whimsical stories about his early life, there is a growing disillusionment. 

Like thousands of young men before him, Leo had “left the plow in the field” and had rushed off to stop “Hitler and Tojo.” Now, half a century later, he considers how the world has fared from Stalin to Mao to Hussein and concludes, “I am ashamed as I watch the news .... I watch and wish that I had just kept on plowing.”

When Cowan remembers his early years as a student at Western Carolina Teachers College, he recalls his first encounter with theater. It was a production of the Thornton Wilder play, “Our Town,” directed by Dr. Mabel Tyree (who would also direct my first play, “The Crucible,” over a decade later.) It is evident that Wilder’s depiction of life and death in a small town had a profound effect on Leo. He recalls a scene in which a young couple’s life together is cut short by a young mother’s death. From her grave on the hill above Grover’s Corners, where the dead sit silently watching the daily life of the living, Emily yearns to return and she finally succeeds. Her wish is granted and she is allowed to return and relive an ordinary day in her past: her twelfth birthday.  

Poor Emily is shocked to discover how everyone in Grover’s Corners seems to live in a state of “unawareness,” merely living each day blindly, indifferent to the miracle of their own existence and what a wondrous thing being alive is. “Does no one realize who and what we are?” she asks. She is told that only a few, saints and poets perhaps, are aware.

For Leo Cowan, Sylva is his Grover’s Corners. All of his anecdotes, his marvelous stories about generations of Cowans and Halls are his way of acknowledging that we are all marvelous creatures and that all of us deserve to be immortalized. Not only do we all deserve to have our story told, we deserve to have “our way of living” recorded. Repeatedly, Leo records the names of his friends — people like Dr. Kirchburg, Rat Warren, Little Doc Nichols, Nora Lee Cogdill, Charlie Campbell, etc., are recorded, jerked from oblivion and made immortal for they are recorded  in Leo’s book. 

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In like manner, here are the lost customs (Why the saucer of salt on the stomach of the dead?) and the marvelous tall-tales (the Great Rat Massacre). There are times when Leo’s language is inspired and becomes lyrical. The rest of Jackson County’s scribblers cannot write like that. No, Leo got an extra gene, me thinks.

It is certainly evident that Leo reads.  This is a man that subscribes to the National Geographic and The New Yorker. As he lies sleepless, Cowan discusses literary works that have defined Appalachia. He has read Fox’s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (my grandmother’s favorites), Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and Frazier’s Cold Mountain. He has read (and re-read) Deliverance, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and as he listens to Napoleon trot through the night, he contemplates ox-tail soup and chicken pot pie, meditates on the significance of Inman’s desertion, and catalogues bits of arcane knowledge (I did not know that alpha squirrels castrate other squirrels in an attempt to eliminate competition.) This marvelous mix of folklore and literary criticism convinces me that Leo’s marvelous writing style is the result of his reading extensively. We are what we read.

Near the end of Free-Falling Past the Roarin’ Hole, Leo undertakes the writing of a “true” account of the adventures of his notorious Grandpa (whom he calls “my father thrice removed”), Joshua Kimsey Hall.  According to Cowan, this awesome tale was told at “The Roarin’ Hole,” a place where the Cowans and Halls gathered to cook, tell stories and sleep fitfully on sacks of leaves (a kind of family tradition which takes place near  the “roarin’ hole,” a dark section of river filled with ominous sounds and fact and fiction mingle.  

For Cowan, it is an ideal setting to consume under-cooked meat, drink liquids of doubtful origin and sleep fitfully on sacks filled with leaves. Here, they listened attentively to an epic tale of the Civil War in which Grandpa Joshua (or his elected spokesman) recounted how Joshua came to be at Appomattox on the day the treaty was signed that ended the war. As it turned out, Joshua played a vital role in this historic event. He even provided Gen. Grant with a jar of home brew, negotiated for better terms for the South , got amnesty for Gen. Lee and even signed the treaty for Grant when the general’s hands became palsied.

This concluding story is Leo Cowan at his best. In a mock-tragic vein, he describes the poignant scene complete with the drunken Gen. Grant, the defeated Lee and all of the somber trappings of the scene.  Outside are the defeated soldiers of the South waiting for their leader to lead them away. When Lee emerges, they part to allow him passage and then follow him into the setting sun. It is a touching scene, but one that is totally the creation of Grandpa Joshua. It is a magnificent lie, for Joshua actually deserted two years before the end of the war and fled to East Fork.

The skill with which the scene is written reminded me of an event in my own life at the Storytelling Conference. An ancient storyteller was there and I remember that when a young fellow told a story that caused the audience to cheer and clap, I said to the old storyteller, “Wow! That guy is good! Listen to them cheer.” The old fellow smiled and replied, “Any fool can make you laugh. The real test is, can you make that audience cry? Oh, they may resist you, but in the end they will respect you. Can you describe a scene that contains the sad music of humanity? Can you make them hear it?”

Well, Leo Cowan can.

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