Landmarks of American Nature Writing

16. Modern Fiction

"There is no such thing really as was because the past is." So said William Faulkner during his term as writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia in 1957. What was true for Faulkner was also true for his fellow writers, who found themselves drawn to the presentness of the past, its traces haunting this landscape like a palimpsest.


Ellen Glasgow. Vein of Iron. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935. Barrett Library. Shown: Front endpaper map.

Ellen Anderson Gholson Glasgow was born in Richmond, where she lived all but a few years of her life in the family home at One West Main. One of the most popular and important American novelists of the early twentieth century, Glasgow received the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for In This Our Life. In Vein of Iron (1935), which enjoyed a print-run of 100,000 in its first year, Glasgow tells the story of an emigrant Scots-Presbyterian family in western Virginia, focusing particularly upon the qualities of personal endurance and fortitude celebrated in the book's title.

Ellen Glasgow. Letter to J. J. Murray. Typescript, 14 January 1939.

A member of the Richmond Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) since the year after its founding in 1892, Glasgow became vice president of the society in 1911 and president in 1924. As president she supervised the opening of an animal shelter, protested against the use of mules in construction work, and waged a vigorous battle against vivisection. In this letter to J. J. Murray (who is featured in section one), she thanks Murray for sending her an article and notes that, to her, "the keeping of wild animals in captivity is a relic of barbarism; but, after all, what we call civilization is but a thin veneer over the old savage."

"Green Forest," Rockbridge County, Virginia. Photograph, n.d.

"Green Forest," the Glasgow family homestead in Rockbridge County, was built c. 1780 by Arthur Graham Glasgow, the first American Glasgow, and owned by Ellen Glasgow's grandfather, Robert Glasgow. Glas Gow in Gaelic means "Green Forest."

Willa Cather. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. Presentation inscription from the author. Barrett Library. Shown: Pages 171-72.

Willa Cather. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Manuscript fragment. Barrett Library. Transcription by Sharon O'Brien, with corrections by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Daniel J. Philippon.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, from which her family emigrated to the midwest in 1883. In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the last of her twelve novels, Cather returned to her roots with a story set in antebellum Virginia. The central narrative event of the book is the escape of a slave named Nancy, an escape Cather's grandmother actually arranged in 1856. Included in the Barrett Library is a variant mid-passage section of Book V, in which Nancy and Mrs. Blake go flower-picking. The first portion of the manuscript fragment reads:

a canopy of color sense-subduing, but never dazzling, never strident--no hard paper whites, not hard reds full of blue as if they had just come from a dyer's hand: all soft, dawn-like, every blossom varied, striated, or spotted and the foliage behind them dark and rich enough and luminous (clean) enough to stand guard over this tender dawn drift scattered along the top of their branches.

The printed passage closest in tone to this manuscript fragment begins at the bottom of page 172 and continues on page 173:

There was no underbrush, except such as was prized in kings' gardens: the laurel itself. Even in those days of slow and comfortless travel, people came across the Atlantic to see the Kalmia in bloom; the wayward wild laurel which in June covered the wooded slopes of our mountains with drifts of rose and peach and flesh colour. And in winter, when the tall trees above were grey and leafless, the laurel thickets beneath them spread green and brilliant through the frosty woods.

Richard Edward Beaty. The Mountain Angels: Trials of the Mountaineers of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah Valley. Front Royal, Va.: R. E. Beaty, 1928. Shown: Frontispiece photograph of the author, opposite title page.

Set during the Civil War, The Mountain Angels is a juvenile novel about the adventures of two young boys in the region now occupied by the Shenandoah National Park. A companion work is Beaty's Blue Ridge Boys: Narrations of Early, Actual Mountain Experiences and Humorous Anecdotes of the Shenandoah National Park Section (1938).

Elizabeth Madox Roberts. The Great Meadow. New York: The Viking Press, 1930. Presentation inscription from the author. Barrett Library. Shown: "A Map of Boone's Trace to Kentuck as it appeared in a.d. 1777."

Spanning the years 1774 to 1781, The Great Meadow examines life in Albemarle County during the Revolutionary War, the migration of settlers westward into Kentucky, and their coming to terms with a new life in the wilderness. Like the characters in Mary Johnston's The Great Valley (1926), Roberts's protagonist finds herself enchanted by the vistas of the Blue Ridge during her pilgrimage. Writes Roberts, "She entered each view, thrust forward from within, as if the mind of the Spirit beyond herself were unfolding itself to her continually, as if she went forward to meet each disclosure."

Emerson Waldman. Beckoning Ridge. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1940. Presentation inscription from the author. Shown: "Beckoning Ridge and the Country Near It."

Set in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains, Emerson Waldman's Beckoning Ridge is especially sensitive to the interaction of natural and cultural forces during the Civil War. "[N]ot until the war was gone off would there again be life in the fields of the Valley," writes Waldman; "ribbons of smoke rising from the distant chimneys in the Valley to the hills; dots of men here and there moving beside their animals in the cleared spaces; the sharp, easy sound of their voices coming up the mountains, mixed at times with the ringing sound of an ax, busy in the woodlot."

Minnie Hite Moodie. Long Meadows. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1941. Signed by the author.

Born in Ohio, Minnie Hite Moodie is a descendant of Jost Hite, an early settler of the Shenandoah Valley and one of the leading land speculators and developers in Frederick County. Long Meadows, a portrait of her ancestral family, covers the century and a half between 1705 and the Civil War. Moodie explains her purpose for writing in her foreword: "The western frontiersman who died unsung at Point Pleasant, at Blue Licks or the Thames left his roots farther east--and his name on a monument more often a picknickers' rendezvous than a shrine to the body of modern Americans."

Murrell Edmunds. Red, White and Black: Twelve Stories of the South. New York: B. Ackerman, 1945. Presentation inscription from the author.

A native of Virginia, Murrell Edmunds studied law at the University of Virginia and practiced in Lynchburg before becoming Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney. In 1926 he abandoned law to devote himself to writing, including this collection of "Twelve Stories of the South." In "Home to Our Mountains," the final story, the narrator travels to the Blue Ridge Mountains for an encounter with his past.

Katie Letcher Lyle. Finders Weepers. Draft copy, 16 March 1981. Shown: Chapter 6.

The summary of Katie Letcher Lyle's Finders Weepers (1982) included in the novel claims that "[d]uring a visit to the home of her dying grandmother in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lee happens on a famous lost treasure which may prove unlucky for herself as well as for others." The stated treasure is the Beale Treasure--thousands of pounds of gold and silver said to have been buried near the Blue Ridge Mountains by Thomas Jefferson Beale in the early nineteenth century. Another treasure in Finders Weepers is the importance of place, including Paradise Cave, described in Chapter 6, shown here.

Earl Hamner. Spencer's Mountain. New York: The Dial Press, 1961. Uncorrected galley proof. Shown: Chapter 1.

Novelist and scriptwriter Earl Hamner was born in Schuyler, on the Rockfish River in Nelson County, Virginia. "When I was growing up in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in the thirties," Hamner recalls, "I was certain that no one on earth had quite so good a life." Hamner's romanticized portrait of rural Virginia gained a wide audience with Spencer's Mountain (1961), the story of a mountain boy's efforts to attend the University of Richmond. The importance of the landscape to the novel can be seen on the first page of this uncorrected galley proof, in which Hamner writes: "In the west the taller ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains were rimmed with a fading autumn silver, but in the foothills, in the Spencer's back yard, all was in darkness when the ninth and last car stopped at the back gate."

Earl Hamner. "The Homecoming": A Television Film. Final shooting script, 16 September 1971. Presentation inscription from the author. Shown: Page 34.

First published as a novel in 1970, the television film version of The Homecoming became the basis for the tremendously popular television series "The Waltons," which ran on CBS from September 1972 to August 1981, and was set in fictional Jefferson County, Virginia, during the 1930s. As co-executive producer and executive story editor of the show, Hamner won an Emmy Award for best program in 1974. In the stage directions for the novel's memorable Christmas-tree scene, Hamner describes the setting: "The mountain--eternal, magnificent, covered with snow. The boy and the old man make their way upward through open fields, wood roads, pine forests, and grazing lands. The purpose of this sequence is to combine the physical beauty of the landscape and the historical meaning of the mountain to the family."

Alyson Carol Hagy. Hardware River Stories. New York: Poseidon Press, 1991.

Although she now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband and son, Alyson Hagy was raised in rural Virginia, and her Hardware River Stories are suffused with a sense of place similar to that found in the work of Earl Hamner. "Now I know the Hardware River ain't much more than a creek, hardly a spit trough compared to the James or the Rivanna," says the narrator of the title story. "Yet . . . even the smallest streams will have their say."


| Exhibit Home Page | Comments | Special Collections | Library Home Page | UVa Home Page |