Ron Rash, Serena, and the Horace Kephart Legacy, continued

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I have just finished reading Ron Rash's novel, Serena, a book I referenced yesterday in this blog, and I feel less anxious about the whole matter now. To begin with, as a few other critics have noted, it's not entirely clear what Rash is up to here, for this is a book full of extreme and, therefore, nearly one-dimensional characters.

Take the title character, Serena, a Lady MacBeth (save that she suffers no guilt), who rides a white Arabian horse with a snake-fetching eagle perched on one arm and a one-handed ruffian at her side; she's married Pemberton following a three-month courtship and now rules, with him, his logging lands in the Great Smoky Mountains. Pemberton, for his part, climbs off a train in the first pages of the book and slays the father of the young teen he impregnated before marrying Serena. Thinks nothing of it. Never looks back. Next plot point. Next murder.

Against this backdrop is the making of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and hence the introduction of my great-grandfather, who is referred to, by Rash's characters, as "a Harvard man turned Natty Bumppo," as "stubborn and cranky," as "overly fond of the bottle and not nearly the saint the newspapers and politicians make of him," as "the hermit fellow," and in one scene, "Kephart sat beside the newspaperman, looking badly hungover, his eyes bloodshot, hair uncombed. He huddled inside a frayed mackinaw, a pair of soggy boots in his lap. Kephart stared straight ahead, no doubt envying his companion's expensive wool Ultser overcoat."

Kephart's work on behalf of the making of the national park is also cited here, and toward the end of Rash's novel, there's a touching scene in which Kephart reaches out to the young teen who has given birth to Pemberton's son. But Kephart as a person, even a fictional one, never fully emerges, and having read Rash's book through, I'm not sure that it was the author's intention to create the sort of nuanced personalities that Waugh, for example, enlivens in Brideshead. Perhaps Rash's intention was to write more in the manner of myth, while using people who actually lived, on land that stands today, as integral to his tale.

(In his acknowledgments, Rash writes: "Although some of the minor characters in this novel actually existed historically, they are fictional representations." Which I squinted at, didn't entirely comprehend.)

When one sees one's ancestor in a book, the hope, of course, is for a fully nuanced account, even if that character is, as Kephart is here, a secondary one. It's a hope fueled by ego, perhaps, or for a desire to set things right on the page, for Kephart was so many things to so many people, and I've often struggled to understand him myself in essays on, for example, his book, Our Southern Highlanders (a book Rash clearly draws from but never cites in the acknowledgments). For those of you who may be reading Rash's book and may be wondering about this enigmatic man, Kephart, I'd like to share with you this passage from the writings of one Karl Brown, who interviewed Kephart during the course of a movie shot in 1927 in Graham County:

“He was a small man, something below medium height, but chunky and intrinsically formidable. But the one feature that distinguished him from all other human beings I have ever met was that one of his eyes was a bright blue while the other was a deep brown. …

Kephart leaned back in his creaky-springed swivel chair and said, as a sort of cue, ‘Well?’ … I decided then and there that this was no man to fool with. There was something so direct and honest in his bearing that he reminded me of others of his kind … and so, even though I knew in advance it would be an uphill job, I decided to be as honest as I could manage, considering that I was somewhat out of practice …

Kephart advised Brown, “to be a gentleman and you’ll be treated like one” and that “honesty is not only the best policy: it is the only one.”

And here, for the record, is Kephart himself, in his own melodious, soulful, fully three-dimensional voice:

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.


Anna Lefler said...

I can so clearly hear the voice in that last quote, Beth. I love it.

I'm glad you are feeling less unsettled now that you've read the entire book. I was hoping that would be the case.

I'm also glad you blogged about it and, in your own gracious, articulate way, "stood up" for your least to the extent that you felt it was necessary...lending another, more authentic representation of this man to the world without needing to tear anyone else down in the process.

Very gracious, indeed.

Beth Kephart said...

(((((( anna lefler )))))))

Sherry said...

Your great-grandfather's personality, this yearning and the what he is yearning for is beautiful. And you have inherited this same gusto for life - just blows me away how similar your voices are.

You have much to be proud of in your great-grandfather.

  © Blogger templates Newspaper II by 2008

Back to TOP