July 31, 2014

Death of Murfree: the sun had gone down

When Mary Noailles Murfree died on July 31, 1922, the author Charles Egbert Craddock died with her. Born and raised in Tennessee, she moved to St. Louis with her family after the Civil War. Some sort of childhood illness (usually reported as "lameness") inspired her interest in reading and literature. Nostalgia for her home state likely inspired her to begin writing "local color" stories about Tennessee. These tales and sketches portrayed a frontier, rural south, a mountainous and wild region made up of tough and rugged characters. Murfree made a good marketing decision, then, to write under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock. She maintained her ruse for several years before surprising, if not shocking, New England's literary elite when her true identity was revealed.

In reality, Murfree/Craddock had little contact with the Appalachian mountain men and women that she featured in her work. She came from a well-known and aristocratic family (her home town of Murfreesboro was name after her ancestor, a veteran of the American Revolution) in central Tennessee. She spent her summers with her family in the mountainous regions in the eastern part of the state, among the Appalachian folks. Her family rank, however, as well as her "lameness" prevented her from much direct interaction with those people. She instead relied on those who made their way to do business to the resort hotel where she stayed.

In other words, though Murfree/Craddock presented herself as someone who knew the ins and outs of this cultural group, she was really an outsider. She certainly was sympathetic to that group of people, though her stories are more sentimental than reality. A sample from her chapter "Drifting Down Lost Creek" from In the Tennessee Mountains shows both her commitment to showing the "color" of Tennessee, her romanticism of the mountains, and her use of local dialect:

The sun had gone down, but the light yet lingered. The evening star trembled above Pine Mountain. Massive and darkling it stood against the red west. How far, ah, how far, stretched that mellow crimson glow, all adown Lost Creek Valley, and over the vast mountain solitudes on either hand! Even the eastern ranges were rich with this legacy of the dead and gone day, and purple and splendid they lay beneath the rising moon. She looked at it with full and shining eyes.
 "I dunno how he kin make out ter furgit the mountings," she said; and then she went on, hearing the crisp leaves rustling beneath her tread, and the sharp bark of a fox in the silence of the night-shadowed valley.

*I am indebted for information in this post to Wingless Flights: Appalachian Women in Fiction (1996) by Danny L. Miller

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