Mary Noailles Murfree. Ed. Bill Hardwig. In the Tennessee Mountains. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008. Pp. xlviii +167. $24.95 paper.
The main body of this text was originally published in 1884 by Mary Noailles Murfree under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock. This collection of eight tales in the popular American local-color style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is well known to scholars interested in regional studies of the United States, most specifically in the Appalachian region that is treated in Murfree’s sketches. Murfree came from a wealthy, flatland Tennessee family and spent summers in the mountains interacting with the locals and becoming familiar with Appalachian culture, which was the alleged inspiration for this collection of stories. Even though these stories were popular with her middle-class readership at the time of publication, In the Tennessee Mountains has come to be regarded as an unfair, stereotypical portrayal of mountain people by the vast majority of scholars in more recent years. This new edition, though, provides an intriguing introduction to the collection written by Egbert Craddock that makes the book more appropriately contextualized and thus more informative. Hardwig firmly places Murfree in the social and academic milieu of her time, thus showing both the value of her scholarship in its time period and its shortcomings. Hardwig gives the reader important biographical information on the writer that give the modern reader a deeper understanding of her reasons for writing about mountain culture.
In his compelling introduction, Hardwig complicates the issue of how fairly Murfree represents the mountain people—both in relation to her own time and to our contemporary age. Hardwig writes: “Murfree’s writing in this collection resists totalizing readings, and defies most attempts to pigeonhole the stories into a prefashioned school of thought” (xxix). With information provided about Murfree’s literary background and her experience with the publishing world of late-19th century America, Hardwig saves Murfree’s tales from being completely disregarded by present day scholars by pointing out the valuable aspects of her writing. Hardwig shows how Murfree’s writing about the mountain people, as well as her choice of writing under a male pseudonym, challenged gender stereotypes of her day, thus contributing in a more significant way to the literary community than in only this corpus of tales.
Hardwig’s even-handed introduction serves as an excellent starting point from which to read Murfree’s collection of tales, whether or not the reader comes to the book with preconceived notions about this particular set of stories. The eight stories that follow do include many stereotypical Appalachian themes, such as traditional dance, feuding, and mountain storytelling, yet the reader has been encouraged by Hardwig not to swiftly dismiss these simplistic views of the mountain people. Likewise, the reader of this edition does not simply buy into the stereotypical views embedded in these stock types after having been told by Hardwig in the introduction that there is much more to these texts. Rather, the reader is better able to situate the writings of Murfree within her historical time period, and to see that many of her stories tacitly give agency to the mountaineers that was not supplied by most of her contemporaries.
In each of the stories contained in this volume, Murfree thrusts the reader into the action of the particular mountain scene that she is portraying. The stories, written for a Northern upper-middle class reading public, paint the picture of “typical” mountain scenes that readers would have already imagined before reading the vignettes. Murfree uses thick I-dialect throughout the stories and generally reinforces the stereotypical views of mountaineers that her readership would already hold. As an outsider herself, it is no surprise that she does not come across as especially sympathetic to her characters but instead highlights their curious traits and lifestyles in order to entertain her Northern, urban readers. Although there are many shortcomings in Murfree’s original text, the stories can be useful to scholars today who are able to look past the negative portraits of mountain-dwelling simpletons and glean the potentially useful descriptive content.
If a person interested in the field had previously read another stand-alone printing of In the Tennessee Mountains, he or she would benefit greatly from reading Hardwig’s introduction to this text. People who would be particularly interested in this book include Appalachian studies scholars, those studying travel and local-color writing of turn-of-the-century America, and those interested in gender issues in both the publishing industry of Murfree’s time period and in American society at large. Even though many contemporary readers of Murfree’s In the Tennessee Mountains have been instilled with the idea that this book is a demonizing view of the mountain people, Hardwig’s introduction to this printing of the book reinvigorates it with value that raises the text above the stigma that has come to surround it for the past several decades. As a result, this new edition helps the modern reader recognize Murfree’s contribution to the literary world of day, and of ours.