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introduction Jeff Biggers In the spring of 1946,the country still emerging from the aftermath of the Second World War, a slender volume of poetry, Clods of Southern Earth, emerged as the featured title of the NewYork publishing house Boni and Gaer.The noted “first-time” author was Don West, an “unknown” Georgia farmer and educator . At the time of their press announcement, the veteran publishers Charles Boni and Joseph Gaer had already received 12,300 prepress orders for the collection ; the Atlanta Constitution would report that the publication set a record for sales of a first book of verse (Hite 1946). Over a thousand copies were sold in one book signing in Atlanta; subsequent newspaper reports hailed the book as a best-selling phenomenon, with nearly a hundred thousand copies sold (Sibley 1952; Graham 1989). Clods of Southern Earth broke ground in more than one way.Written in the simple verse and rhyming quatrains of folk ballads and regional speech, it was a fearless paean to southern Appalachian culture and dispossessed sharecroppers , miners, and mill workers with “callused hands.” The volume was a prophetic call in the South for integration and civil rights; West’s unusual introduction marked the beginnings of an early historical analysis of the “Mountain South” and underscored his defiant efforts to recognize a mountain heritage that had been in the forefront of the American Revolution,the antislavery and Underground Railroad movements,and contemporary struggles for displaced mountaineers, tenant farmers, and union workers. Despite the Boni and Gaer marketing blurbs, Clods of Southern Earth was not Don West’s first book of poetry. Nor was he an unknown Georgia farmer . According to John Egerton in Speak Now against the Day, an epic chronicle of the generation in the South prior to the civil rights movement, West had “gained near-legendary status as a sort of phantom revolutionary who left a trail of radical poems and sermons in his wake” (1994:159). As a poet and an activist, West’s readings and speeches drew large crowds; as a gifted organizer, he had cultivated a faithful following in the southern fields, mines, and mills; publication in leftist newspapers and journals had brought his work to a national audience. By 1946, West had already left his native Georgia mountains to study literature and religion at Lincoln Memorial andVanderbilt Universities,published 00.Ftmtter.i-xlviii/West 12/2/03, 11:47 AM 13 xiv several collections of poetry in the nascent forefront of modern Appalachian literature, traveled across Europe, cofounded the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which would later serve as a leading training center for the civil rights movement,and escaped from Atlanta under a sack in a car,wanted dead or alive for defending a radical African American on trial for leading a hunger march. Blazing his own Appalachian trail on an Indian Chief motorcycle, at times imprisoned and even beaten, reviled by newspaper editors across the South, monitored intensely by the FBI, and soon to be burned out by the Ku Klux Klan, West had organized textile workers in North Carolina and coal miners in Kentucky. He had also served churches in Ohio and Georgia as an ordained Congregational minister,had become a popular figure in Greenwich Village literary circles, and had drawn national attention for his innovations in rural education in Georgia. By the late 1960s, as the founder of the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia and an active pamphleteer in the tradition of his exemplar Thomas Paine, West would serve as one of the inspirations for the folk revival movement. The legacy of this phantom Appalachian revolutionary had strangely disappeared into the Appalachian Mountain fogs by the mid-1980s; West’s several collections of poetry went out of print and became difficult to find. His work was rarely included in anthologies, curriculum lists, or histories of southern or Appalachian literature. Any archives or collections of his personal papers disappeared or were lost to various fires. He died in virtual obscurity in 1992. In his own words, West’s journey had been a long and rocky road, but not a lonesome one. Few figures in Appalachia, the South, or the country had experienced a more daring and extraordinary life. Mountain Boy Born in the shadow of Burnt Mountain in Gilmer County, Georgia, in 1906, the eldest son of a farmer, Don West came from Appalachian mountain families that had celebrated their nonconformity with the antebellum South for over a century.They wore...


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