Fanfare for the common man

“A vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” You may have heard that expression describing the position of North Carolina and its relationship to Virginia and South Carolina. You may even have heard some North Carolinians claiming this “valley of humility” as something we should be very proud of.

And maybe we should be. In fact, a recent book asserts that North Carolina’s “yeoman” traditions and experience, as compared to the aristocratic traditions of Virginia, South Carolina and other Southern states, help explain the distinctiveness of North Carolina literature.

The aptly titled Vale of Humility: Plain Folk in Contemporary North Carolina Fiction—published, ironically, by the University of South Carolina Press—is by George Hovis, a North Carolina native now teaching at the State University of New York at Oneonta. Hovis examines the work of six important North Carolina writers and discusses how their writing exemplifies this special North Carolina yeoman tradition.

Summarizing the work of several respected scholars, Hovis explains how North Carolina’s geography—particularly its lack of a good river system for transportation—kept it from developing the strong plantation economy that dominated neighboring states. Instead of a large “planter class,” North Carolina farmers were typically small, independent, hard-working yeomen.

In the 20th century, as the South shifted from an agricultural to an industrial and commercial base, the region’s writers tended to set their work in the context of an idealized past. But while other Southern writers focused on the “plantation past,” Hovis asserts, “Nearly all of the major writers in [North Carolina’s] literary history are representatives of the plain folk, and often they were staunch partisans.”

And in turn, he maintains, “The absence of an enduring gentrified literary tradition has left its mark on the state’s contemporary writers.”

Asheville native Thomas Wolfe, notes Hovis, came from a working-class background and made a point of it in his fiction. While some other Southern writers of the mid-20th century wrote “convincingly about the yeomanry … none of them identified themselves as closely with the yeomanry as did Wolfe.”

Another North Carolina yeoman author was Paul Green, who wrote the outdoor drama, The Lost Colony. According to professor Laurence Avery of UNC-Chapel Hill, Green imposed on the colonists an anticipated “egalitarian spirit of the yeoman that would successfully colonize the Tar Heel state in the following centuries.”

Hovis presents six contemporary North Carolina writers who identify “the yeoman as a cultural icon”: Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton and Randall Kenan. Hovis compares and contrasts their work.

For instance, Doris Betts and Clyde Edgerton both hail from the Piedmont. Both “investigate the inherent contradiction between … pervasive racism and the spirit of egalitarianism they associate with yeoman heritage.” But their respective approaches to religion take them in different directions. Betts “laments the passing of a genuine religious spirit,” while Edgerton’s novels show religion “all too alive and well” and responsible for “racism, conformity and narrow-mindedness.”

The work of both Chappell and Smith demonstrates “a strong pastoral impulse, identifiable by the frequent tension between an isolated, rural, yeoman past and a present-day Appalachia overcome by consumerism and exploited by technologies imported from the mainstream society outside Appalachia.”

Coming from farther east, both Price and Kenan deal with race more frequently and more deeply. White and black characters interact regularly. But while the other writers celebrate racial integration as the “most positive change” of the 20th century, Kenan—the only African-American of the six—“is never unambivalent about those fruits, which he sees as being largely responsible for the dissolution of autonomous black communities … that were built by the legendary ex-slaves and other black yeomen he celebrates.”

According to professor emeritus Jim Clark of N.C. State, Vale of Humility is the “first book-length account of contemporary North Carolina literature.” And while not everyone will totally agree with Hovis about the importance of the yeoman tradition, all will welcome his informed discussion of the work of these important and popular writers.

[D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch.]

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