Recently I was asked by my cousin James Padgett, long a leading architect in nearby Asheville and now enjoying retirement in our beautiful ancestral homeland of Clay County in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, to participate with him in a tribute to Horace Kephart, who in the early years of the twentieth century abandoned his promising career as a library executive in St. Louis, MO to live a rustic life in a remote section of the Great Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina. Kephart wrote an account of his experiences in what was then still a near-wilderness, as well as a description of that isolated region and of its hardy people, in a book that has since become a classic called Our Southern Highlanders. That work has become recognized over the years as required reading for anyone wishing to learn about our Southern Appalachian environment and heritage. When I left Washington, DC to live and write in rural Yancey County, NC, Our Southern Highlanders was one of the first books I read to reacquaint myself with the mountain culture from which I had severed myself twenty years before.
Jim Padgett is a member of the more than century-old Pen and Plate Club, a consciously old-fashioned, formal and endearing organization composed of many of Asheville's most accomplished professional persons, which meets monthly to share dinner and hear essays presented by members dealing with a variety of subjects having to do with the history, traditions, and folkways of our region. A charming custom of the club is that each paper requires a response by someone chosen by the presenter to comment on his or her offering; this month Jim was the presenter and I was honored to be the respondent. Jim described Kephart's rise to prominence in his chosen profession of library science and then his surprising decision to retreat into the wilderness, leaving his wife and six children to fend for themselves while he immersed himself in woodcraft, wilderness living and learning about the lives of his rustic neighbors.
Something about that abrupt and, some would say, irresponsible decision of Kephart's to turn his back on family and work responsibilities and immure himself in what was then one of the most remote, isolated and backward parts of the United States in order to study and write, made me reflect that I too had done something similar, certainly less physically challenging but equally contrary to practical considerations. As I meditated on this similarity, my response to Jim's paper began to take shape. I was fascinated by the fact that Kephart, by turning away from a conventional life to satisfy what seems to have been an irresistible inner longing, had in one sense answered a profound personal need but in another sense had inflicted unforgivable pain and inconvenience on those who loved and depended on him. The question loomed large for me, for in fact Kephart, though he reveled in his new, primitive and soul-nourishing life, at the same time became a slave to alcohol and, in the end, died in a car crash that may have been caused by drink. While I do not think that I am embarked on a similarly destructive course, I do feel that I understand the troubling questions that may have tormented Kephart and led him to his tragic end. How much is a commitment to art worth? Why is it so hard to maintain such a commitment? Should one follow one's heart when the cost to be paid by loved ones is too great?
This story of spiritual triumph won at the cost of personal and family anguish seemed to me worth examining, not only as a subject of an abstract essay about Kephart but as an exploration of my own motives and regrets as well as the motives and regrets of all of us who pursue the arts at severe costs to ourselves and to those who love and depend on us.
Those costs are harder to calculate and justify when, as in my case, one cannot point to some great accomplishment like Our Southern Highlanders, now acknowledged as a classic of regional literature. One can more easily excuse Kephart for having chosen his passion for the wilderness over his responsibilities as a husband and father because that choice gave birth to a great literary accomplishment. But absent such an accomplishment, what justifies a commitment to art whose costs others must bear? What follows is my meditation on that question.
It is a privilege to have been asked by my distinguished cousin Jim Padgett to respond to his fine paper on the inspiring and tragic life of Horace Kephart, who did so much to acquaint the rest of America with the unique culture and environment of our southern mountains.
I hope it is not too perversely self-referential to remark that I sense in Kephart’s life and work a contour somewhat similar to my own; and that because of that similarity I tend to feel a certain kinship with him. I was fascinated by Jim’s detailed and objective account of how Kephart first succeeded in his chosen, and very traditional, occupation and then abandoned that occupation to pursue a personal passion—a passion which has yielded great benefits over the years to many of us who would never have known of his more traditional professional work. While I can’t claim to have shared the strenuousness and hardihood of the life and labor Kephart took up in the wilderness, I do think that both of us felt, and acted upon, a fascination with the pioneer past and lifeways as they have tended to survive in our highlands longer than they have in many other places in this country.
Like Kephart, I spent much of my early life in a professional pursuit in urban centers. He was a library executive; I was a newspaper reporter and columnist, then an urban planner and finally a management consultant. He worked in St. Louis; I worked first in Greensboro, NC, then in Birmingham, Alabama; and finally, for twenty years, in Washington, DC. He grew disillusioned with his professional life and ended by disposing of it and of all its appurtenances, including his responsibilities as a husband and father, to immerse himself in the sort of life that spoke to his soul.
I too grew weary of the professional grind and, also in defiance of societal expectations--and at a time in my career when most might have considered themselves established on a path toward accomplishment--removed myself from the hurly-burly of the nation’s capital and a lucrative and demanding profession to assume a quiet life in rural Yancey County, North Carolina, to try my hand at being a writer of regional fiction—wishing, like Kephart, to immerse myself in the traditions and history of the Southern Appalachians.
It was in many ways a daunting choice. I had very little savings, no paying job, and while I had won a contract for a novel with a Chicago publishing house, there was no assurance that anything else I wrote would ever find favor with that, or any other, publisher. Unlike Kephart, I had no family to support and had no practical skills and no abiding passion for living the past or surviving in the wilderness such as he possessed. So perhaps my choice was easier to make than his, though I think it may justly be said that my decision looked equally irresponsible, as measured by traditional expectations, and looked probably even more irresponsible because I had no practical skills to fall back on, as he had.
Naturally I can’t claim to have succeeded in my ambitions on a scale equal to his. But I do sense a commonality in our passions. I too had come to be fascinated by the past, by the magic of our ancestral mountains, and by the hardy spirit of our highland forebears. I too wished to immerse myself in that other world and to turn my back on modernity. I do not know whether he struggled, as I have, with feelings of guilt for having given in to what seemed selfish preoccupations and to have abandoned one’s practical responsibilities.
Jim has mentioned Kephart’s difficulties with alcoholism; perhaps this problem suggests that Kephart did in fact suffer, that he may have sadly reckoned the cost of his choices that others—loved ones—had to pay. Of course, in the largest sense, the pain and disappointment of his loved ones must be judged against Kephart’s accomplishments after he retreated into the fastnesses—his written works which have inspired so many of us. And these kinds of judgments must be made when we look at the lives of all great artists and creators, whose accomplishments have come at great costs to a few, but have been of immeasurable value to many. I imagine that Kephart continually had to balance his satisfaction with his wilderness life and work with his guilt for having abandoned his duties as a husband and father, and that this guilt played a part in his descent into alcoholism. But my imagining may be wrong; it may be nothing more than my own lingering suspicion that I may have done what I suspect him of having done.
Since I took up the life of a full-time writer, the day does not pass that I do not wrestle with two competing obligations—either to fulfill my spiritual dedication to the written word or to carry out my responsibilities as a practical human being. Both are vital; but as soon as I address one, the other assails my conscience with its insistent demands. How to choose? It is the abiding challenge of every moment of existence. Perhaps if I were more famed as a writer, the choice would be easier. But if one is blessed, and cursed, with the powerful urge to create, success, as the world measures it, does not necessarily augment, or dilute, that urge. The urge exists, and in some ways it is as vital an urge as the very will to live itself.
I imagine that Horace Kephart struggled with issues like this. Surely he knew agony as well as satisfaction. And we are the beneficiaries of his determination to obey the dictates of his heart, no matter the cost to others or to himself. And is this not the measure of every creative spirit? The tension between living one’s daily life responsibly and feeding one’s inmost soul with ferocious determination may be the very force that yields the art that speaks to many.
I would be remiss in ending this response without giving grateful mention to my good cousin Jim Padgett and to others of my immediate and extended family who have aided me in my search for myself and for my mountain heritage. Nor would I would so nourish my love for our highland heritage were it not for my late mother Gertrue Ann Greene Price and my late father Edgar Conrad Price, both descendants of long lines of Southern Appalachian forebears, my mother’s clan in what is now Mitchell County and my father’s in Clay County, who imbued me with their fascination with and love for this place and these fine people.
And in addition to the heritage they passed on to me, when as a late-blooming writer I at last turned to seek out my family’s past, Jim Padgett came forward, and so did my cousin, now retired Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Willis P. Whichard, former Dean of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University and now a practicing attorney in Durham. I am honored to have had the friendship and counsel of these distinguished North Carolinians, and to share their heritage. Together they and other kinfolk helped me trace out my lineage and forge a connection across the years to the same Southern Appalachian past that fascinated Horace Kephart to the end of his life.