This writing is coming to you from Asheville, where my sister Marie and I are participants in a literary conference titled “Blue Ridge, Biltmore, & Blooms with Professor Elliot Engel,” occurring at the Renaissance Hotel near Asheville’s downtown and neighboring Thomas Wolfe House and Museum.
From Sunday to Tuesday, we heard five lectures about authors, environs, and poetry, and we visited the Biltmore House and Gardens in addition.
The hotel reeks of writerly influences: the carpets lining the corridors and portions of walls have script writing on them, the dining area is called The Writer’s Bistro, the lobby décor consists of bookcases and book-related objects like a book press, the mirrors in the rooms have upper-and-lower case typed letters, and even the bar has a mural that in part has books on it.
When I inquired of the hotel manager what the script writing meant (imagining that they were words from Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel”), he said the words were gibberish that the designers at corporate headquarters made up. Dr. Engel told us that Thomas Wolfe, the subject of the first lecture, “Asheville’s Native Genius: Looking Homeward with Thomas Wolfe,” had illegible handwriting, so I thought that was the reason words in the carpet were hard to decipher. Not so. Soon we stopped attempting to make sense of the words on the carpet, saving ourselves a collision with other inveterate readers.
MOUNTAINSThe first two lectures were already in my collection of CDs of Dr. Engel’s offerings, but I hadn’t listened to them in a while, so the speeches on Wolfe and the Vanderbilts (before our visit to Biltmore House) seemed fresh. What I looked forward to were two new lectures on Tuesday: “The Majesty and Mysteries of Mountains” and “Exploring the Bounty and Beauty of North Carolina Poetry.”
As a child native to Norfolk, Virginia, where the ocean is king, I didn’t see my first mountain until fifth grade or thereabouts when my elementary school made a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, to see Monticello. Then I married a native West Virginian who showed me real mountains, helping me understand the distinction Dr. Engel made for us in the lecture. Engel defined mountain as an elevation of “more than 2,000 feet and two or more climate zones” while hills have fewer than 2,000 feet. But he proved the misnomer in mountain and hills when he pointed out that the Black Hills of South Dakota boast of Mount Rushmore, rising 5,725 above sea level.
What I had not considered before this lecture is what Dr. Engel revealed: Mountains affect transportation, settlement, and communications — marking them as barriers in ways that rivers and other geographic structures are not. Using Switzerland as an example of mountains’ effect on communication, he said Switzerland has three languages but 380 dialects. People in isolation from each other because of physical barriers fail to achieve a common parlance.
Also, Engel told us that mountains gained a positive, even romantic, appeal only in the 1800s. Early writers and painters were interested in the “fecundity of nature,” the bounty of agriculture, the beauty of trees and rivers, and not in what one writer labeled mountains: “boils on the earth’s complexion.” Mountains were not thought of as beautiful or unique but instead as dangerous because of “avalanches, rockfalls, the potential to freeze to death or starve, and attitude sickness.” Engel gave some unsettling statistics: 105 have died climbing the Alps, 430 deaths on Mount Everest, and 158 dead in attempts to scale Annapurna in the Himalayas.
With the conquest of Mount Blanc, which has 11 major independent summits, in the Alps, and the Matterhorn, also in the Alps, people decided mountains had features they could celebrate and incorporate into their home gardens — lichen, a wild appearance — a symbolic conquering of a mountain’s terrain and features. People also enjoyed the sporting pleasures mountains offer — skiing, snowboarding, hiking, camping, etc.
THE APPALACHIANSRelevant to the conference theme of the Blue Ridge, Engel focused our attention to the mountain range we were in the midst of — the Appalachians, which stretch 1,500 miles from Alabama to Newfoundland, including seven other states — Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and New York. Mount Mitchell is the highest summit at 6,684 feet.
Engel contrasted the Appalachians to the Rockies, which cover 3,001 miles and nine provinces and states, among them New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Alberta and British Columbia. Engel then set about dispelling stereotypes that have colored a specific state, West Virginia. Revenooers versus moonshiners, Hatfields versus McCoys, loggers versus environmentalists — all negative images contrasted with the positive: the noble mountaineer, the pioneer, people unspoiled and uncorrupted.
The best gift from Appalachia to American culture, Engel said, is music, whether it be clogging, mountain country music, bluegrass, riddle songs, or the ballad, which has two major themes: the rising of the blood (passion) and the spilling of blood (murder). Engel gave “Barbara Allen” as an example of the first theme and “Tom Dooley” for the second.
JOHNNY MATHIS AND THE BALLADEngel pointed to famous balladeer Johnny Mathis, of African American and Native American heritage, as a singer whom Appalachian music influenced. Mathis studied with voice teacher Connie Cox from ages 13-19. He excelled in track and basketball as a high school student, and at San Francisco State College, where he intended to major in English and physical education, he set records in high jump. Eventually, he was faced with a dilemma — nurture his Olympic-quality skills in track or pursue a musical career.
A surprise for us who never knew Dr. Engel could sing came when he crooned in best Johnny Mathis-fashion, “The Twelfth of Never” after first singing the riddle song, “I Gave My Love a Cherry.” Most of us were amazed to realize they are the same tune with different lyrics.
Next week, I’ll share the fourth lecture, “Exploring the Bounty and Beauty of North Carolina Poetry.” It will not shock those of us who know Dr. Engel’s wit that the emphasis will be on comic verse.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.