In Praise of George Ellison, the Horace Kephart biographer

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Every once in a while I get a phone call from a southern gentleman.  His name is George Ellison, and he has been my great-grandfather's biographer since 1967, when he was asked to write the introduction to Horace Kephart's Appalachian classic, Our Southern Highlanders.

A brilliant librarian, a devoted outdoorsman, a conflicted husband, and the father of the six children pictured here, Kephart had retreated to the Carolinas following a mysterious breakdown.  There he outposted in a cabin, read and reflected, fished and hunted, and began to write about the people he met and the things that happened to him.  He had one blue eye and one brown one.  He was a force behind the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as was recently documented in the newest Ken Burns film.  His life story has inspired and goaded authors, artists, and musicians; brought me unexpected and long-sustained friendships; and been transformed in the service of such novels as Ron Rash's Serena, where Kephart appears (unfortunately) as a mere cartoon version of himself.  Last year, Kephart's own novel, Smoky Mountain Magic, was re-released by the great Smoky Mountains Association, with prefatory material prepared by my cousin, Libby Kephart, as well as George Ellison.  Soon, Kephart's Camping and Woodcraft will be re-released, and once again, George Ellison has been at work on an introduction that incorporates interesting new material about my great-grandfather's time in St. Louis, where he reigned over one of the greatest libraries in the land.

This past week, I was again talking to George, who wanted to share with me an early version of his newest work.  It's beautiful, as it always is—respectful to both the facts and to Kephart himself, and written with more than a touch of poetry.  I wondered how George could keep going, more than forty years on, finding the new and finding new ways to phrase it about a single man who refused, in his own lifetime, to do much explaining about or for himself.  In an e-mail, George wrote the following—words that testify to the kind of man he is, words that make me grateful that one small part of my own history has been entrusted to such a worthy soul:

It's a terrific story from a literary point of view . . . and it has become somewhat personal now that I have grown close to various family members.  My job has always been to help people appreciate the unlikely accomplishments that emerged from what were, at times, chaotic situations: Camping and Woodcraft; Our Southern Highlanders, Smoky Mountain Magic, and a role in the founding of a national park.


Jeannine Atkins said...

Both men sound fascinating. I like the quiet answer to your question about the work becoming more personal as more family members get involved and I expect this applies to many biographers, some of whom work for years, even decades, on one volume. What starts as a quest for knowledge may become a way of broadening a circle of family and friends, some of whom still live on earth. It's noble work.

grete said...

Beth -

“My job has always been to help people appreciate the unlikely accomplishments that emerged from what were, at times, chaotic situations” - what a sentence! A giant!


Bri said...

I don't think there is a single person who understands Horace Kephart quite like George Ellison. I wish I could attend the Kephart event in Bryson City next weekend, but my actual job calls.

bermudaonion said...

This is just fascinating and I love the photo!

Beth F said...

I didn't know there was going to be another edition of "Camping and Woodcraft" -- I will have to look for it. Mr. BFR has an older copy and is a fan of that Kephart. Your name is well known in this house.

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