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Lost & Found: Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart brings us a tale of Appalachian wanderlust in this Lost & Found on her great grandfather Horace Kephart’s book, Our Southern Highlanders.

Growing up, we understood that we’d been entrusted with a name.  “You go down south to Bryson City and you say ‘Kephart’ and you let them tell you who you are,” our father’s father would instruct us solemnly.  My sister, my brother, and I would sit in stiff obedience on his plastic-protected chairs, watching each other beneath raised eyebrows.  We might have had a storied name, but we could not imagine how it mattered.  We were northerners and not soon headed for a town called Bryson City.

It was my brother, Jeff, who finally honored Kephart, who as an adult went Bryson City way, climbed Mount Kephart, pored through Kephart papers, and assured my sister and me that our great-grandfather Horace really was a local legend, that he really had saved a precious corner of the country by calling for the making of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  And it was Jeff who suggested that we read the notorious book—that we sit in a quiet place with Our Southern Highlanders on our laps.  But I was too busy researching my husband’s Salvadoran past.  I was too caught up decoding the legacy I had married to care much for the one I’d been born into.

And then one winter night in snowy upstate New York, Jeff said he had something for me to hear.  I waited in his living room while he slipped a disc into his music system.  “Listen to this,” he said, as bluegrass riffs started kicking in.  “Listen to the words.”  And soon a nasal voice was twanging the stuff of Kephart legends:

Somebody’s comin’ up the Eagle Creek Branch
Some furriner I ain’t never seen
Tell Quill Rose to larn who he is

Go down and meet ’im at the spring.
It’s Horace Kephart from the tame old West
Coming down to the wild Southeast…

(from “The Outlander Meets the Native,” words and music by Daniel Gore)

“What’s that?” I asked Jeff.

“ ‘Ways That Are Dark,’” he answered.  “A musical companion to our great grandfather’s life.”

“Is it old?” I asked.

“No, it’s new.  It just came out.”

“Someone’s singing about Horace?”  I was incredulous.

My brother wasn’t.  “Someone is.”  He handed me the liner notes, and I squinted hard and read.  Here, it seemed, was an entire cycle of songs inspired by Horace and Our Southern Highlanders.  Here was the good old family name loved into music by somebodies who had not been endowed with Kephart genes.

I got my own copy of Our Southern Highlanders soon after listening to that ricochet of banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  I read it quickly through once then read it slowly again, allowing myself to circle close to all its strange seductions.  It’s full of rhythm, sly and cunning.  It’s scholarship without the snobbery, intelligence without the edge, memoir without the ego, truth set up in counterpoint to fondness.

First published in 1913 and, but for a brief spell, continuously in print since then, Highlanders is the kind of book that perpetually inspires.  Annie Dillard has called it “a wonderful book…a classic.”  Tony Earley says it “told me who I was, or at least where I came from, in a way I had never fully understood.”  Charles Frazier consulted it throughout the writing of Cold Mountain.  It deserves, it seems to me, that overtaxed encomium, original.  It deserves, in other words, to be picked up now and then and read.

Highlanders is the true story of a man, my great-grandfather, who leaves behind all that he knows to set out in search of untainted lands.  It was 1904 when Kephart began his journey.  He was forty-two, married, the father of six young kids.  He had amassed a reputation as one of the country’s great librarians, had worked alongside some of the finest scholars, had traveled across the sea and rummaged about in Petrarch’s papers.  But lately he hadn’t been well.  There’d been binge drinking, a “nervous collapse,” and so, after coming around to himself in his father’s Dayton, Ohio, home, he answered the call of a particular wild:

When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond.  This for more reasons than one.  With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality.  Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago.  Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides.

Highlanders is the tale of who Kephart meets and what he sees as he enters the Appalachian wilds.  It is “narrative adventure” as much as cultural anthropology, a book in which extraordinary historic, topographic, and linguistic details mix up with tales of moonshine, mean-minded pigs, laurel hunts, bear escapades.  It is a study of a way of life written by an academic who refused to sound like one, a story of community by one famous for loneliness, a reflection on families by a husband and a father who had precipitously left his own—and not just to heal but (excepting rare visits and letters home) for forever.

I can’t read Highlanders without thinking of the family Horace Kephart left behind, without thinking of his second son, my grandfather, for whom we sat so quietly and who used his rare, spare words to animate our love and pride for the man who had all but abandoned him.  Reading the book now, hearing the timbre in its voice, noting its gentleness toward all things stomping, fidgety, and alive, I too lately understand how it must have made Grandfather feel.  How it must have felt to be Horace Kephart’s son, and to find your absent father’s heart upon a page.

Beth Kephart is the author of thirteen books; her fourteenth, Small Damages, is due out from Philomel this summer.  The writing partner in an award-winning boutique communications firm and an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kephart has written for publications around the world; her essays are frequently anthologized.  Please visit her writing/photography blog at http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/.

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