Long before they met, George Ellison and Janet McCue each became obsessed with the life of Horace Kephart. One in North Carolina, the other in New York, the two researchers followed parallel lines of inquiry, each unaware of the other’s existence throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
You can learn about how they came to write “Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography” on a Lit Café Zoom meeting hosted by the Western North Carolina Historical Association (wnchistory.org) on October 8 at 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.
George Ellison’s “Nature Journal” column has been a fixture in the Asheville Citizen Times since 1987. Winning the Wild South Roosevelt-Ashe award for Outstanding Journalism in Conservation, Ellison is a writer’s writer. So, it is only natural that much of his life has been devoted to studying Kephart, an enigmatic writer who came from St. Louis to live in the Smokies in 1904, and who inspires admiration and awe, confusion and controversy to this day.
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In graduate school at the University of South Carolina during the late 1960s, Ellison focused on the tradition of descriptive-humorous-sporting literature that flourished in the Southern states in the 19th and early 20th century. He was intrigued with how Mark Twain took the basic ingredients found in these materials and in 1883 wrote an American classic, “Life on the Mississippi.” When Ellison discovered that Kephart’s two famous publications—“Camping and Woodcraft” and “Our Southern Highlanders”—had carried that genre into the next century, he became increasingly curious about Kephart and started looking into his life and work.
At the same time, Janet McCue was working on her own in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. She first became interested in Kephart on a backpacking trip to the Smokies in the 1970s when her husband’s tattered edition of “Camping and Woodcraft” inspired the young hikers to locate the millstone marking Kephart’s Bryson Place campsite.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1979, McCue was offered a position as an academic librarian at Cornell University, where Kephart had been a graduate student one hundred years earlier, in the 1880s. While reading a book about women in librarianship, she noticed a footnote citing a letter from Kephart to a fellow grad student at Cornell. This led her to Brown University where she uncovered many previously unknown details about Kephart’s early life.
Having followed their common obsession for more than two decades with nearly 800 miles between them, in 2006 Ellison and McCue both found themselves at the Calhoun House in Bryson City to attend an event called Kephart Days. Once Ellison realized the extent of McCue’s study and that she had many of the missing puzzle pieces he had long been seeking, he invited her to join him in writing an introduction to “Camping and Woodcraft” (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2011). Their next joint endeavor would be co-authoring “Back of Beyond,” published by Great Smoky Mountains Association, which would earn them the coveted Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award in 2019.
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“George and Janet’s talents and life experiences mesh perfectly in helping bring Kephart to life,” wrote historian Daniel S. Pierce of UNC–Asheville in the book’s introduction, “[and make them] the perfect pair to do a biography on this legendary librarian, outdoorsman, and literary figure.”
During the October 8 Zoom interview, the coauthors will read excerpts from the biography, share behind-the-scenes details about their research, provide insights into their writing process, and disclose mysteries of Kephart’s past still to be discovered. Learn more and register at wnchistory.org/event/lit-cafe-back-of-beyond-a-horace-kephart-biography.
Frances Figart is the editor of Smokies Life magazine and the Creative Services Director for the 34,000-member Great Smoky Mountains Association, an educational nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Reach her at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Word from the Smokies: Come explore the controversy, mystery and awe of Kephart’s legacy