In the wake of Charles Frazier’s hugely successful novel Cold Mountain, several regional books, both fiction and nonfiction, emerged or re-emerged.
One of the brightest stars to reappear has been The Travels of William Bartram. First published in Philadelphia in 1791, it quickly became an American classic.
Together with his father, John, William Bartram cataloged more than 200 native plants, merging scientific illustrations with compositional elements to capture the essence of the natural, undisturbed environments he encountered on his 18th-century journey through southern North America.
Bartram’s poetic imagery inspired a style of nature writing that influenced everyone from early Romantics such as Emerson, Carlyle, Wordsworth and Coleridge to 20th-century novelist Ernest Hemingway and naturalists like Aldo Leopold; Frazier’s narrative integrates passages from Bartram throughout.
Closer to home, Bartram’s influence finds its way into UNCA history professor Dan Pierce’s recent book, The Great Smokies from Natural Habitat to National Park.
According to David K. Smith, associate professor of botany at the University of Tennessee, Pierce’s book deserves a place on the shelf next to three other classic works about the Smokies: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913), Carlos Campbell’s Birth of a National Park in the Great Smoky Mountains (1960), and Michael Frome’s Strangers in High Places (1966).
Xpress recently sat down with Pierce to talk about both Frazier’s novel and the naturalist who inspired it.
Mountain Xpress: Bartram’s Travels seems to have experienced a resurgence of interest since [the publication of] Cold Mountain. Do you think it was a good fit with Frazier’s historical fiction?
Dan Pierce: “Most definitely, yes! Bartram’s keen observations and scientific documentation provide a significant insight into the way things probably looked … about the 18th-century American landscape, and how Native Americans shaped the landscape. And yes, I was impressed how accurately Frazier depicted the landscape of 19th-century Appalachia.
“We tend to have this notion that Native Americans walked softly with moccasins and with very little impact. Indigenous people of the area had sizable parties who traveled extensive paths and roads. Bartram described areas near Franklin, Cashiers and Wayah Bald as having high plains, cleared meadows, cultivated valleys and open forests.”
MX: Frazier seems to have a keen knowledge of both natural and cultural history, expressed through several of his characters. Would you agree?
DP: “Yeah, it seemed like firsthand knowledge. Probably from Frazier’s experience of [returning] to the mountains. It was pretty easy identifying with a lot of the places he described. The bear scene, I could easily imagine the landscape. I thought of the area near Craggy Gardens.
“I heard Frazier speak during his book tour in Asheville. He spoke of going to specific places to envision the action, the scenery, the landscape. While working on Great Smokies, I went to the Cataloochee Valley in the Smokies to find my way through my concluding chapter.
“I had walked nearly a mile along the trail and sat down with a notepad on the porch of the Woody cabin. A doe came up within 10 feet and stared right at me. Being in direct contact with the landscape really helped me along with my final chapter.”
MX: Frazier’s landscapes, so vividly portrayed in Cold Mountain, appear primitive, almost unforgiving. Yet through his character Inman, he identifies the landscape as home. Today, as Americans become more transient, moving frequently from one region to another, it seems like we’re losing that time-honored sense of place. Here in the Southern Appalachians, however, we still have an identifiable culture. Would you agree?
DP: “It’s becoming more difficult to identify with our environment, to develop a sense of place. In some ways … there is a certain tragedy within our culture.
“Increasingly, it is becoming more difficult to make a living here. For some, the future lies outside the region.
“Personally, I feel fortunate to live here with my family in the mountains. … My wife grew up in Nashville, but she cherishes her memories of visiting the area during her summers at Ridgecrest. I left the region for 13 years. It feels really good to work my way back here.”
— Sammy Cox