No shortage of critics as Kephart play comes home
For a man who has just won the North Carolina Literature Award, writer Gary Carden is quite somber.
At his home in Sylva last week, he rocked in a chair on the front porch, his trusty dog Jack lying nearby. He was recently informed of the award, but it seems bittersweet. His latest creation — and a catalyst for the achievement — is the play “Outlander,” a historical drama about famed writer Horace Kephart who chronicled the lives of hardscrabble Appalachian settlers in the early 1900s.
But the real prize, to Carden, remains elusive.
The real prize would be to present the play at Kephart Days in Bryson City, which, at the moment, was in full-swing. Carden playfully wondered if his invitation was lost in the mail.
But for now, he will have to go at it on his own, offering the play to the public on Sept. 25 at the Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City.
Relocating to the Great Smoky Mountains at the turn of the 20th century, Kephart became enamored with the mountains and its people, which resulted in his national bestseller Our Southern Highlanders. Kephart found criticism for singling out unfavorable characteristics of the isolated mountaineers, stereotyping the region through his colorful descriptions. Regardless, Kephart’s literary exploits in Appalachia eventually helped the effort to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While the self-appointed inner-circle of Kephart experts tend to elevate the man into mythical status, Carden takes a more true-to-form approach.
Carden never intended to rip down the controversial icon of the Great Smoky Mountains. Rather, he wanted to put the raw version of the man he sees — which exposes elements of alcoholism, bitterness and redemption from the Appalachian locals towards Kephart — alongside the re-enactments and celebration currently put on by those looking to preserve his legacy.
Smoky Mountain News: Who was Horace Kephart?
Gary Carden: He was an outlander, which means he was from someplace else. He was a man who was not a product of our culture, but came and became a part of it and was instrumental in preserving it. We wouldn’t have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park if it wasn’t for him. And in the process of it, ironically, he alienated what few friends he had in this region because people lost their homes. I always thought he was a tragic figure. I think he came here with two options, either he was going to die here or change his life in some astonishing way. Kephart found a new life and mission here, to save the wilderness in this region.
SMN: How do you feel about not being invited to the Kephart celebration in Bryson City?
GC: Quite frankly it hurt my feelings, and I’m sure that’s what it was intended to do. I’ve been ignored every year that the event has taken place in Bryson City. I don’t think I wrote the play expecting it to be produced at Kephart Days, but when my play was scheduled to be produced in Bryson City, the Kephart Society not only didn’t invite me, but ignored the play also. No one likes to be ignored, and since my play has been well publicized, the Kephart Society knew it existed.
SMN: Were you ever part of the Kephart Society?
GC: I thought maybe there would be some sort of dialogue, one of these literary things where we would present two different perspectives of one topic and we’d both be there to talk about. I’ve never been a member of the Horace Kephart Society. I was never invited or contacted. I’m like Horace, in that I’m an outlander and in Swain County you can be judged an outlander if you’re from the next town.
SMN: The things you talk about that were part of his character, would Kephart have cared that those controversial things were brought to light?
GC: No, he wouldn’t have cared. He would find my play amusing. He might have even made some corrections. He has a flaw. All humanity has a flaw. You don’t need to produce him as a saint. In drama and in life, remarkable people are often flawed and their greatest success comes from overcoming their flaws. Horace did that.
SMN: What’s the biggest misconception about Kephart?
GC: It’s probably our misconception. Probably the Appalachian people’s misconception because the old school, and they’re dying out now, hated him because their granddaddy lost their land. One time, I went out to get my haircut at a barber. I asked the barber if he remembered Kephart. He said yes and pointed to an old man sitting in the corner. The old man disliked Kephart. The old man said, “I remember once I found him on the street. There was snow on his head. It was the dead of winter and he was passed out on the sidewalk. I drug him into a doorway and got him out of the snow.” After a moment, he said, “I often regret that.”
SMN: It’s like Lance Armstrong. He has these flaws, but then again raised millions of dollars for cancer research. Kephart may have destroyed these towns and families, but also preserved the land.
GC: I have this scene in the play where a bunch of local characters, regulars who moved to town after they lost their land in the park and have a little house somewhere in Bryson City. They’re all sitting down at the Calhoun Inn, watching the tourists drive up to Deep Creek. They’ve had time to ponder what has happened. Belatedly, one of them says, “He was right, you know.” And it’s a long time before anybody says anything, then someone says, “Yes he was.” A small evil of losing our lands to create a greater thing, there will always be that park there forever, because of Horace. He did the right thing.
SMN: What’s the biggest misconception about you?
GC: That I’m his enemy, that I’ve set myself out to destroy him. My writing this play has been going on for ten years. The controversy about Horace has been going on almost a century. I’m disappointed. When all of this is over, I’ll make another attempt to get my play done again in Bryson City. I’ll probably keep doing that until somebody, the Kephart Society or the town of Bryson City, realizes that my play redeems Horace Kephart. That’s right, redeems him.the Arts on Sept. 25.
Want to go?
“Outlander” will be hitting the stage at the Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 25. The event is $5 and is open to the public. There will also be an earlier showing that day for the high school students.