- Rebecca Cushman, Mountain Gal
1. Making acute scoops of the words
Several years ago, I was strolling the up-and-down downtown streets of Asheville, looking forward to a local ipa and some good grub in a few hours. As usual, I'd made a literary pilgrimage to the bookshops, just to be sure there wasn't an irresistible new or affordable rare book I might need to own; but there was nothing that I and my wallet couldn't resist.
Then I went into the last and easternmost of those three shops in my hometown, and looked to the left, and saw a dull brown hardback on the "Special" shelf, and for some reason picked it up. "Swing Your Mountain Gal," the title page began, continuing: "Sketches of Life in the Southern Highlands, by Rebecca Cushman. With Illustrations by the Author. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press Cambridge."
Was this a book about square dancing? As a member of the prizewinning smooth-style team at T. C. Roberson High School over four decades earlier, in the southern part of the county in which I now stood, I had a long-standing interest in the subject. Flipping ahead, I saw a foreword datelined "Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1934" and beginning, "I was born and grew up among the mountains of North Carolina"; I saw contents with tasty titles like "Biscuits and Honey," "A Question of Rainbow Trout," and "Ever'body's Orchard"; and I saw that this book was, in fact, poetry, 150 pages of poems, verse "sketches" of highland characters and culture from nearly a century ago.
Only $12? Sold!
2. There is never / Any hurry in the Smokies
Sold. Bought. Shelved. And (as, alas, too often happens) unread, for years, a curiosity buried under stacks of books that seemed more urgent. I might never have picked it up again, and entered what I now think of as The Mystery of Rebecca Cushman, except for two things.
First, I read a fascinating and deeply strange book called The Hawk's Done Gone, by another female Appalachian writer I'd never heard of, Mildred Haun. Bobbs-Merrill marketed it as a novel, when published in 1940, but it's not really a novel or [End Page 37] even a collection of linked short stories. Its thirteen chapters—set in the Tennessee hills of the author's youth, abounding in local superstitions and ballads, and narrated in dialect by a granny-woman—feel more like folk tales than fiction written by a woman who went to Vanderbilt and studied with John Crowe Ransom and Donald Davidson. It took me a while to get used to the vernacular voice of Mary Dorthula White, "born January 6, 1847," but the more I read it, the more convincing it felt, as a piece of writing that made this speaker from a darker, weirder premodern mountain world sound pretty much pitch-perfect on the page.
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Then, shortly after reading The Hawk's Done Gone, I talked about it with a friend who teaches at unc-Asheville. A few days later, he wrote: "Your mention of a long-lost writer from this region sparked a memory of a book of poetry I came across recently in my moonshine research. It's Rebecca Cushman's Swing Your Mountain Gal: Sketches of Life in the Southern Highlands. Houghton Mifflin published it in 1934 but I can't find a reference to her ever publishing before or since. … Thought it might interest you."
Having now read that book, and reread it, and researched the elusive author, and thought about what she and her single peculiar volume might mean, I think it's safe to say: Oh yes. Yes, indeed. It interests me—another Appalachian American writer who landed in Chapel Hill, then mostly wrote about the mountains—very much.
3. Sometimes they'll scrooch up / In a laurel patch
There are twenty-seven poetic sketches in Swing, framed by a prologue and epilogue. Some are as short as a couple of pages, and two are longer than ten; the average length is between five and...