By Frances Figart, Creative Director
In 2019, George Ellison and Janet McCue won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for their Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography (2019, Great Smoky Mountains Association). They will be interviewed on a Lit Café Zoom meeting hosted by the Western North Carolina Historical Association on October 8.
Long before they met or even knew each other existed, both Ellison and McCue had been living with Horace Kephart for decades. Kephart essentially chose them, bringing them together to write his biography. How it happened is a fascinating tale. But first, a couple of introductions.
George Ellison has been writing the Nature Journal column for the Asheville Citizen Times since 1987. He has been designated one of the 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in 2012 he won the Wild South Roosevelt-Ashe award for Outstanding Journalism in Conservation. Books such as Permanent Camp—illustrated by his artist-wife Elizabeth Ellison—attest to the fact that Ellison is truly a writer’s writer.
And so, it is only natural that much of his life has been devoted to studying another great writer, Horace Kephart, an enigmatic figure who came from St. Louis to live in the Smokies in 1904, and who still inspires admiration and awe, confusion and controversy. In graduate school at the University of South Carolina during the late 1960s, Ellison focused on the tradition of descriptive-humorous-sporting literature that flourished in the Southern states in the 19th and early 20th century. He was intrigued with how Mark Twain took the basic ingredients found in these materials and in 1883 wrote an American classic, Life on the Mississippi. When Ellison discovered that Kephart’s two major publications, Camping and Woodcraft and Our Southern Highlanders, had carried that genre into the next century, he became increasingly curious about Kephart and started looking into his life and work.
At the same time, there was another Kephart scholar—working on her own, not from this region—and her interest was growing in tandem with Ellison’s. Living in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Janet McCue first became interested in Kephart on a backpacking trip to the Smokies in the 1970s. A well-worn copy of Camping and Woodcraft inspired McCue and her husband to find the millstone marking Kephart’s Bryson Place campsite. A few years later, an assignment for a research methods course in graduate school led her to delve into Kephart’s early writings on librarianship.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1979, McCue was offered a position as an academic librarian at Cornell University, where Kephart had been a graduate student one hundred years earlier, in the 1880s. While reading a book about women in librarianship, she noticed a footnote citing a letter from Kephart to a fellow grad student at Cornell, Harry Lyman Koopman, which led her to a trove of letters at Brown University, where she uncovered many previously unknown details about Kephart’s early life.
Separated by 775 miles, Ellison and McCue followed parallel lines of inquiry, unaware of each other’s research in the 1980s and ’90s. Living in Bryson City, Ellison could absorb Kephart’s environment firsthand, mine the archives at Western Carolina University, and interview people such as Wilma McKan Ashe, who witnessed the scene of Kephart’s death. McCue’s initial research centered on Kephart’s professional and family life, his emotional breakdown, and the archives documenting these events at Cornell, Brown, and the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
In 2006, due to following their common obsession, Ellison and McCue both found themselves at the Calhoun House in Bryson City, attending Kephart Days, an event organized by Kephart’s great granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave. Once Ellison realized the extent of McCue’s study and that she had many of the missing puzzle pieces he had long been seeking, he invited her to join him in writing an introduction to Camping and Woodcraft (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2011). Their next joint endeavor would be co-authoring Back of Beyond, which would earn them the coveted Wolfe Award.
“George and Janet’s talents and life experiences mesh perfectly in helping bring Kephart to life,” wrote historian Daniel S. Pierce of UNC–Asheville in the book’s introduction. “George’s long-time immersion in what he calls ‘Kephartiana,’ his skills as a naturalist, writer, and poet, as well as 40-plus years living in the shadow of Kephart in Swain County—combined with Janet’s connections to Cornell and Ithaca, New York, her skills as a researcher and cataloger gleaned from a 34-year career as a librarian, and her love for and immersion in the outdoor life—make them the perfect pair to do a biography on this legendary librarian, outdoorsman, and literary figure.”
During the October 8 Zoom interview, the coauthors will read excerpts from the biography, share behind-the-scenes details about their research, provide insights into their writing process, and disclose mysteries of Kephart’s past still to be discovered. Learn more and register at wnchistory.org/event/lit-cafe-back-of-beyond-a-horace-kephart-biography.
Photos from top: George Ellison, image by Frances Figart; Janet McCue, image by Andrew Kibbee; Ellison and McCue accepting the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award in 2019, image by Quintin Ellison.