William Faulkner was undoubtedly thinking of Asheville when he penned his widely quoted aphorism about the past not being past. Thanks to a handful of wealthy investors and a frenzy of borrowing early in the last century, Asheville blossomed. Then, a busted real-estate bubble followed by the Great Depression set the blossom in amber. As long as no would-be developer could afford to tear down old buildings and no speculator would loan money for new ones, downtown’s architectural glories were preserved.
Two new histories of Asheville have been released this fall, presenting an opportunity to examine not only the past, but also how stories about the past are told. Asheville: A History by Nan K. Chase (McFarland, 2007) takes a below-the-surface look at how the modern city came to be. Asheville: Mountain Majesty by Lou Harshaw (Bright Mountain Books, 2007) offers a more traditional look backward, weighted toward identifying the principal players in the city’s history.
But where Harshaw explicitly shies away from closely examining the recent past, declaring that “History cannot be written while it is happening,” Chase tackles both the present and future head-on. “Because many of my interviews were leading me to wonder about Asheville’s future, I decided to extend this story as well,” she writes, “to include the hopes and fears of various Asheville activists for the next decade or two and to see how close reality comes.”
The difference between the two volumes is nowhere more clearly evident than in their respective discussions of race relations. Harshaw is upbeat in her limited treatment, emphasizing notable black leaders and general progress and cooperation. “Asheville black and white leaders have often met together through the years to talk over problems,” she notes, observing that groups addressing prejudice are “hopeful, dedicated, constant and diligent.”
Chase, on the other hand, begins a full chapter on the subject by stating, “Asheville’s sorry race relations date from the earliest days of the settlement, with increasingly separate black and white communities waxing and waning over the next two centuries in their tolerance of each other.” She goes on to explore the lingering trauma inflicted on the city’s black population by slavery, segregation and urban renewal. Race-based disparities in wealth and power, she maintains, remain very much in evidence today.
In a similar vein, Chase offers a piece of Vanderbilt history that isn’t emphasized in guidebooks. “A disastrous investment decision around 1901 reportedly left George Vanderbilt in a precarious financial position,” she writes, before proceeding to quote the estate’s forester, Carl A. Schenck, on the troubles. “He had lost, by one single investment, a great part of his inherited fortune,” Schenck wrote in his memoir, Cradle of Forestry in America: The Biltmore Forest School, 1898-1913. “Biltmore House became a white elephant. … The Vanderbilts spent the entire year of 1903 in Europe, evidently with a view to economies.” For the owners of the largest private residence in America, staying home was not the way to save money.
Harshaw, in turn, dishes other sorts of dirt, reporting on Thomas Wolfe’s long-running affair with Aline Bernstein, who was both his patron and his lover. And while many Asheville residents are probably aware of the shocked reaction Look Homeward, Angel triggered hereabouts, the historian turns to Tom’s sister Mabel Wheaton for a more personal view. Wheaton, who was the secretary of the Asheville Women’s Club when the book came out, recalled: “When I got up to the door … they were standing around in groups. … And if you’ve ever heard about the locusts coming and the great noise they make in coming from a distance … [but] as soon as they saw me, everything stopped. You could have heard a pin drop.” Her saving grace was that the novelist was as hard on his own family as he was on the rest of the city’s inhabitants. “That was the reason we could stand it,” wrote Mabel.
In one photo caption, Harshaw makes note of one of Asheville’s less-esteemed residents, William Dudley Pelley, who arrived here in 1932 with a printing press and a mission—to advocate in favor of the Nazis and against communists, Jews and Franklin D. Roosevelt while advancing the cause of his own organization, the Silver Shirts Legion. “Both the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation worked to arrest Pelley,” Harshaw notes. “In 1942, he was tried, sent to prison, and his organization largely diminished.”
The two historians’ differences in outlook may be traceable to their roots. Harshaw, an Asheville native, is a former director of publicity for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has written numerous books about the southern Appalachians. Chase, on the other hand, literally peers down on the metropolis from her hometown, Boone. A freelance writer, her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Our State, Southern Living and The News & Observer of Raleigh.
Asked about her approach to history, Chase said: “I was an investigative reporter for the Watauga Democrat for about 10 years, and I got used to the idea that everything had to be nailed down. It was a little hard to shake that when I found that so much of the written history is contradictory.” In her writing, Chase notes conflicting dates and spellings, offering another window into the vagaries of historical knowledge. While both writers mentioned the Rhododendron Festival, a midcentury precursor to Bele Chere, Chase observed that, in its day, it was a much more important event than the modern weekend fair. The Rhododendron Festival rolled on for a week or more, with multiple parades and a king and queen who ruled the city. “That festival was fascinating,” said Chase. “It was huge. I had no idea until I stumbled on a box of old, crumbling scrapbooks in the basement of the old Chamber of Commerce building, just before they moved.”
Harshaw, asked what she’d found most difficult in writing Asheville’s history, said: “The part of it that I lived came pretty easily. I was based in city hall during the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the Chamber of Commerce was located there. I can’t tell you that any of it was really difficult.” Teaching the city’s history, said Harshaw, was more of a challenge. “I found out I didn’t have time allotted to teach all of the things I wanted to convey,” she said, noting that she wrote an earlier history of Asheville in 1980 and that the current volume was principally an effort to bring that work up to date. “So much happened in that period,” she explained.
Asheville: Mountain Majesty relies heavily on photographs to illustrate a story weighted toward the early and middle years of the city’s past. While both volumes identify the movers and shakers who shaped Asheville, this is the book for those interested in images of those captains of industry and portraits of politicos, along with the monuments they built to themselves and for the public. Harshaw also casts a wider net, including tourist attractions in the surrounding region.
Asheville: A History contains fewer photos, and the ones it does have are more narrowly focused, both geographically and thematically. As in her writing, Chase’s theme seems to be development: what and why. Both books take advantage of recently digitized images from Pack Memorial Library, the UNCA Special Collections and the state archives, which leads to much clearer reproduction of old photos.
In a sense, these histories offer a tale of two cities: one seen through the telescope of its builders and the other through the periscope of its denizens. And while both are valid and informative, they represent decidedly different worldviews.
Harshaw will be on hand to sign her book at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe, Saturday, Sept. 29, at 3 p.m. Case will conduct readings at Malaprop’s, Saturday, Oct. 6, at 2 p.m. and at UNCA’s Ramsey Library, Special Collections Department, Monday, Oct. 22, from 5 to 7 p.m.