Dancing with the One That Brung YouLee Smith Keynote Address, June 14, 2008, Lincoln Memorial University
Mike Mullins, at the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky, was the first person who ever explained to me that actually I had been “raised to leave” my home town of Grundy, Virginia, which I have always loved. “Raised to leave”……I had never heard this phrase before, and at first, it made me mad. “Raised to leave….” What could Mike possibly mean? My father was a mountain man through and through----his family had been in Buchanan County for generations (why, the first one, old Will Dennis, had lived---famously--- in a giant tree! A tree! Come on, Mike!) There were so many Dennises and Smiths all around when I was a child that I couldn’t even figure out exactly HOW I was related to some of them. I had double first cousins and an uncle younger than I was…..they literally surrounded us, exactly the way the close, perpendicular mountains surrounded Grundy, that pretty little coal town “like a play-pretty cotched in the hand of God,” as an old man was to describe it for me much later.
We had aunts and uncles living on both sides of us and across the road and up the river. The men mostly had stores in town and they were all in business together, one way or another, and they were all in politics and they were all yellow-dog Democrats always running somebody for office or politicking and agitating about something. We all went to the Breaks on holidays for family picnics where each woman in the family brought her signature dish-----my grandmother’s corn pudding, my mother’s spoonbread, my aunt Lyde’s fried chicken. We all had to go visit my grandmother every Sunday, where the men drank a little whiskey out behind the house and after a while they would bet good money on just about anything, even which bird would fly first off the telephone wire, and then everybody stayed out on the porch talking and telling stories until it got dark and we could see the shining multicolored neon marquee of the Morgan Theater over in town reflected in the water of Slate Creek like fairy lights. I often fell asleep on somebody’s lap, looking at those lights and hearing those stories….. so that my sense of a story is still yet very personal. Even today, when I’m writing, stories usually come to me in a human voice, told by somebody that I love.
“Raised to leave…” how could Mike say that?
But then, thinking back, I remembered the first time I ever saw a jogger: my mother and I were sitting on the front porch stringing beans and watching the cars go up and down Route 460 in front of our house when suddenly one of those VISTAs we’d been hearing about, a long-haired boy with great legs, came running right up the road. We both stood up, and watched him out of sight. “Well, for heaven’s sake,” my mother said. “Where do you reckon he’s going, running like that?”
He was going back to where he came from, eventually; but most of us weren’t going anyplace. We were closed in entirely, cut off from the outside world by our ring of mountains. Many of the children I went to school with had never been out of Buchanan County.
Many years later, at my mother’s funeral, a man stood up and said about her, “Like most of yall, I went to school to Miss Gig, and I just want to say that she was always real nice, for a foreigner.”
“Foreigner? What does he mean, a foreigner?” my husband Hal whispered furiously in my ear. For of course it had been over fifty years since Mama had first come there from the eastern shore of Virginia to teach home economics and married my daddy. She’d spent those years trying to civilize him and his whole unruly clan, but it was always a challenge.
So she had started in early with me. Enthusiastically aided and abetted by my father, I should add, since he had always regretted his own lack of a college degree, and was determined, above all things, that I should “get out” and go to college .
So I was not to use double negatives; I was not to say “me and Martha.” I was not to trade my pimiento cheese sandwiches at school for the lunch I really wanted: cornbread and buttermilk in a mason jar, brought by the kids from up in the hollers. Me and Martha were not to play in the black river behind our house, dirty with the coal they were washing upstream. I was to take piano lessons from the terrifying Mrs. Ruth Boyd even though I had no aptitude for it. I was to play “Clair de Lune” at my piano recital, wearing an itchy pink net evening dress. Martha and me would be carted over to the Barter Theater in Abingdon to “get culture,” since there was obviously none in Grundy. I was not to like the mountain music which surrounded us on every side, from the men playing banjo and mandolin on the sidewalk outside my daddy’s dimestore on Saturdays to Martha’s father playing his guitar down on the riverbank after supper to Johnny Cash singing “Ring of Fire” on our brand new radio station, WNRG.
But here, my mother ran into serious trouble, because I loved this music, just as I loved my dobro-playing boyfriend, who had Nashville aspirations. I was born again to “Angel Band,” sung high and sweet at a tent revival that I snuck out to go to, as I would sneak out again and again, and be born again and again until my mother finally put her foot down and said that I absolutely had to stop rededicating my life in this way, that it was mortifying to her personally, and that they would send me away to school if I kept it up.
My mother had aspirations, too.
And they DID send me away, every summer, to an overnight camp for girls and also down to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit my Aunt Gay Gay, my mother’s sister, for “lady lessons,” my Aunt Gay Gay being, in everybody’s view, the ultimate Southern Lady. And then they sent me away to St. Catherines School in Richmond my junior year of high school, mostly because by that time they were scared I was going to “up and marry” another boyfriend, which I might have, if they hadn’t done it…..
So, Mike was right, I realized. I had been “raised to leave.” And as I thought more about it, I also realized that his pronouncement was not a revelation at all, that I had actually KNOWN this somehow, all along, in my deepest truest heart. For though I loved my family and my life there in that place, I was CONSCIOUS of it in a way that was different, I somehow knew, from the way my friends felt about their lives. I was already treasuring it, I was already storing up every moment of it. (It reminds me of the words to that country song, “How come I miss you when you’re not even gone?”) This consciousness made me feel different--- like a spy, like a secret exile---- even when I was still there, still in the very midst of my childhood.
And because you are writers too, or artists, sitting out there tonight, I have a hunch that many of you were feeling the very same way, in the midst of your own childhoods----but we’ll get to that.
Furthermore, by the time I went, I was actually ready to go---for by that time, as an only child, I felt almost TOO loved, too watched over, too responsible for my parents’ happiness.
Years later, I had a funny moment in which I remembered exactly what this felt like….I was back in Grundy, visiting my parents, when I got a sinus headache and decided to drive downtown to the drugstore and get something for it. Which I did. But imagine my surprise when--- about a half an hour later--- I drove back into the driveway and found the next-door neighbor (also a cousin), June Belcher, standing out in the yard with her hands on her hips, waiting for me. “Well!” she announced. “I hear you’ve been to the Rexall!”
Oh lord, I thought. I’m OUTTA HERE!
I got another look at leaving in 1999, when I was back in Grundy working on an oral history project with my good friend Debbie Raines, who still teaches senior English at Grundy High School, and a group of her students. We had been spurred on to do this by our knowledge that the old stores were soon to be demolished and the town moved to higher ground because of repeated flooding. We published our book, “Sitting On the Courthouse Bench” on Thanksgiving weekend of 2000, with a big book-signing involving all of the students (and we sold 1500 copies right off the bat, in spite of the fact that the town’s dwindling population was well under a thousand.)
Perhaps being published authors helped some of the kids with their college admissions---in any case, they ALL got into colleges. I will never forget one of the girls’ mothers taking me aside later to talk about the fact that her daughter was going to Berea----the first person in their family ever to attend college. But tears were running down this mother’s face. “Why, what’s the matter?” I asked . “I know you must be so happy for her, so proud of her.” At this, the mother burst into open sobs. “I am,” she cried. “But she won’t never be the same, will she? She won’t be like usuns no more.”
All I could do was hug that mother tight. I could not say, “That’s true. Though she will always love you, and she may well appreciate you even more, she WON’T be exactly like you any more, and she will feel guilty, the way we all do, and she will suffer for it, the way we all do, and she will be forever formed b y this extraordinary childhood.”
I had already written a novel named “Fair and Tender Ladies” in which my girl heroine, Ivy Rowe, complains that “Momma gets pitched off iffen I read too much. I have to holp out and I will just fill my head with notions, Momma says it will do me no good in the end.” But Ivy is already dedicated to reading and writing, already an exile in her own family---as is a later heroine of mine, Molly Petree, a self- described “spitfire and a burden,” exiled from her family, her place, and her past by the violent upheavals of the Civil War. Florida Grace Shepherd is another one of my headstrong girls who finds herself on the road looking for some kind of home: “A house will give you a place on the earth. If you know where you live, you know who you are,” she says wistfully.
But my girls “often find themselves torn between clinging to the place that confirms their identity and the gnawing desire that they are meant for more,” as the critic Charles Taylor points out. Grace is amazed when she visits the home of a school friend who lives in town and experiences such exotic treats as coca-colas and Kate Smith singing “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” on TV.
“She sat at the kitchen table with us and smoked Salem cigarettes, which she held at an angle that I admired. I admired the way she blew the smoke out, too, in a thin stream toward the ceiling, pursing her mouth. She had a pixie haircut, which was popular then. Her made-up eyes pointed out at the end, like a cat’s eyes. She wore pale pink lipstick and tight black pants, and her hands were stained with paint because she was an artist.” (from “Saving Grace”)
This mother is a vision of another life, something which my girls are often seeking because their own mothers’ lives have been so hard, a fate which they are trying to escape. In “Fair and Tender Ladies,” Ivy says, “I can see my Momma and Daddy as young, and laughing…My momma was so young and so pretty when she come riding up Sugar Fork, but she does not look pretty now, she looks awful, like her face is hanted, she has had too much on her.” Lizzie Bailey, one of my characters in “The Devil’s Dream,” says, “The very notion of love terrified me, bringing to mind all the old ballads, which show love as a kind of sickness, or a temptation unto death, a temptation which destroys women, even as it destroyed Mama. To me, ‘falling in love’ was like falling in death….”
But biology conspires against them, as they fall head over heels in love anyway; often, their own sexuality exiles them from their future possibilities and their own communities. After losing her virginity to Lonnie Rash, Ivy looks out the boardinghouse window “and felt so sad, and then all of a sudden I knew why, because I have lost it now, Majestic Virginia which used to be mine. And this room in Geneva hunts boardinghouse is not my own ether, not any more, I have lost it too because of bringing Lonnie up here. I do not understand this Silvaney, but it is true.” When Ivy runs off with Honey Breeding later in the novel, she will be truly ostracized by her community.
Female sexuality is transgressive even today, as I learned first-hand recently when I made a series of community college visits in southwest Virginia right after Thanksgiving when there happened to be a big controversy about banning my books in the public schools of Washington County. Newly-elected school board member Dayton Owens had vowed to rid the schools of “all the works of the literary pornographer Lee Smith,” and these folks meant business.
At the end of my reading at UVA-Wise, for instance, where all freshman had read my novel Oral History, I was horrified when I asked “Are there any questions?” and a man who was obviously NOT a student stood up and said, “I have noticed, Miss Smith, that all the women in your books have no morals at all. Does this reflect your own life?” and then later, in the book-signing line, one woman thrust her book forward, open to a page in the middle of the novel where man is telling an off-color story to another at a hog killing, and said, “Here! I bet you wouldn’t dare to sign it on THIS page, you huzzy!”
For the first time I felt the truth of Thomas Wolfe’s famous phrase---“You cant go home again”--- in a dark and personal way.
In general, it seems to me that this experience of leaving---and changing---provides a major theme of Appalachian literature. One classic definition of regional literature is: “literature in which action and characters cannot be moved geographically without major loss or distortion.” Think about it—this definition fits everything from James Still’s “River of Earth” to Harriet Arnow’s “The Dollmaker” to Fred Chappell’s “I Am One of You Forever” to Bobbie Ann Mason’s homegrown yet college-educated characters returning for a visit. It’s hard to leave, and it’s even harder to come back. Tragedy is involved in both the necessity of exile and the difficulty of return.
Yet we keep trying. We are somehow BOUND to keep trying. Maybe, as a friend of mine argues, there was simply “more THERE there.” There’s more to remember, more to lose. We can’t get over it. We can’t just “move on with our lives,” to use a phrase from contemporary pop psychology. Because the truth is, we will be forever exiles, no matter how happy or well adjusted we may be elsewhere.
My new husband was simply astonished when I burst into tears on a moonlit hilltop in Tuscany, surrounded by the heady aroma of blooming lavender and rosemary, one of the most romantic places in the world. But the dark outlines of the hills reminded me of Ashe County, North Carolina, where I have a cabin. I was homesick for the mountains.
And there’s another thing. We were all brought up to “Dance with the one that brung us.” We were all brought up not to “get above our raising.” How many times have you heard this? So the guilt involved when we seem to have done it is simply immense. Dolly Parton may have handled this particular negotiation better than anybody else---remaining famously, intentionally, COUNTRY while becoming an international phenomenon. Her great line, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap!” contains the entire contradiction we all face----and celebrates it! Though Dolly has clearly got above her raising, she is still dancing with the one that brung her.
As always, country music says it best, providing the clearest window into the culture. Songs of separation from family, place and time, from a way of life---date back to the very beginnings of country music, idealizing home in songs like “”Cabin on the Hill,” “This Ole House,” “Coal Miners Daughter, ” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Rocky Top.” But a country boy is bound to roam, too, which produces that inevitable sense of guilt we have already been talking about. That “Green, Green Grass of Home” may look pretty good from places like Detroit City, but the only way we can get back there is often, as Curly Putnam tells us, in a box.
As usual, Dolly is more honest than anybody else. This is the chorus of her song “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”
No amount of money could buy from me
Memories that I have of then
No amount of money could pay me
To go back and live through it again.
Bill Rice also writes from a position of permanent exile :
As I think about my childhood and my old hometown
I don’t really miss them like before
It’s nice to think about it, maybe even visit
But I wonder could I live there anymore?
Well, some of us do, and some us don’t, but exile is a theme we all find ourselves struggling with. In fact, it’s inevitable----for exile, even alienation---is the traditional position of the writer and the artist. The very act of writing distances us from the family or community we are writing about---all our precious little hometowns of the heart. But you’ve got to have a certain crucial aesthetic distance in order to see the whole picture, to hear the real story. You’ll never know what it is if you’re right in the middle of it. A certain amount of conflict is necessary, too---if everything is okay in Harrogate, Tennessee, then there’s no story in Harrogate, Tennessee. Conflict and exile combine to form the very crucible of art.
And finally, I would like to suggest that this theme of exile which we find so often in our literature goes to the very heart of Appalachian experience, of our deepest sense of ourselves. The sociologist John Shelton Reed has said that “The Appalachian South is to the rest of the South as the South is to the rest of the nation”----that is, different from; lesser than; culturally, economically, and geographically set apart. “ In many ways, “Appalachia has always been the South’s South.” (Reed) We know this from the stereotypes we have grown up with and still deal with today. We know this from the simplest exchanges: from that teacher who told us we’d better get rid of our accent if we wanted to interview for the job in Atlanta, or that girl at the party who suddenly looked past our shoulder to the door when she heard where we were from. We often find ourselves feeling like outsiders, exiles in America.
Our history explains this perception. For so long we have not owned our mountains, our minerals, our water. We have allowed other people to dispossess us, as Silas pointed out in his recent keynote address, “A Conscious Heart,” written for the Appalachian Studies Assocation. We have not felt a true part of this place or what is happening to it. Powerlessness has led to passivity and apathy, Silas argues. We have become exiled from our own homes, our own land, our own country—Silas is using that term in the old Appalachian way. His theory gives us a radical and useful way to look at our own culture, and offers a rallying cry to take it back. Writers such as Silas, Ron Rash, Ann Pancake, Kaye Byer, Denise Giardina, Wendell Berry—and many others here today—are giving strong voice to this aim. The current national movement toward multiculturalism and regional pride is a kind of corrective, too.
Perhaps exile can be a crucible of creativity and change, as well as art.
I will close my remarks with two readings:
The first is from the beginning of my novel “The Devil’s Dream,” where country music star Katie Cocker is being interviewed by the BBC:
“That’s a pretty complicated question for me to answer,” she says now, slowly, to the woman from the BBC. “I have to admit, there was a time when all I wanted was to get out of that valley. I was just dying to get away from home. What I didn’t understand, all those years when I was waiting for my life to start, was that it had already started. I was already living it! Those were the most important years, and I didn’t even know it. But I was real young, and foolish, like we all are. I wanted to be somebody different, I wanted to be me, and I thought that the way to do this was to put as much distance as possible between me and Grassy Branch. So I did that. And I took some chances, and I got knocked down flat a couple of times---I guess I’m Phi Beta Kappa at the School of Hard Knocks!----but I’d get right back up, and keep on going. I made a lot of mistakes. I thought I had to do it all by myself, see. It took me a long time to understand that not a one of us lives alone, outside of our family or our time, and that who we are depends on who we were, and who our people were. There’s a lot of folks in this business that don’t believe that, of course. They think you can just make yourself up as you go along. The trick is to keep on moving. But I can’t do this. I come from a singing family, we go way back. I know where we’re from. I know who we are. The hard part has been figuring out who I am, because I’m not like any of them, and yet they are bone of my bone…..”
And the second is from “Agate hill,” when Molly is leaving Plain View, the mountain where she lived with Jacky, her own true love, after his death:
“As we left, I twisted around on the carriage seat to look back just before we disappeared into the trees, for I have always fancied that I could see the whole wide curve of the earth at that moment, stretching across the bald. There it was. It was enough. I thought of my stone babies upon their mountain, and Jackie in his grave. The family would buy a stone for Jacky later, I knew, though I doubted it would keep him put, for he was a traveling man. I had to smile. I remembered how, as a girl, I thought that I could not leave Agate Hill, that I could not leave my ghosts. Now I understand that love does not reside in places, neither in the Capulets’ tomb nor the dales of Arcady nor the Kingdom by the Sea nor in any of those other poems that Mary White and I read so long ago, love lives not in places nor even bodies but in the spaces between them, the long and lovely sweep of air and sky, and in the living heart and memory until that is gone, too, and we are all of us wanderers, as we have always been, upon the earth. I was free to go.”