Appalachia in the 1920’s
Like all his other novels, poetry and short stories, Serena is set in Appalachia. Rash considers himself as primarily an Appalachian writer even though he aspires to be recognized internationally. Whereas One Foot in Eden (2002) and Saints at the River (2004) are set in Oconee County, South Carolina, Serena is set in the North Carolina mountains28, the same state as The World Made Straight (2006), The Cove (2012) and Above the Waterfall (2016). In 2000, in an interview with Jack Shuler, before writing all his novels, Ron Rash had already said that he “always felt between these two places29”. There are at least three main reasons why all his work is set in the Appalachian Mountains. The first reason is that the geography of his work corresponds to his family geography. In 1999, in an interview with Jeff Daniel Marion, he said that “one of the reasons [his work is deeply grounded in the mountain region] is because [he] spent so much time up there and also just a sense this was [his] families’ territory [my italics]30”. Rash has deep roots in the Appalachian Mountains and his ancestors have lived in the North Carolina mountains since the 18th century. His father’s family settled in Buncombe County in the mid-1700’s and one of his ancestors founded Waynesville. His mother’s family arrived in Watauga County in the 1700’s. Generations have succeeded and Rash still has a strong tie to the region. The second reason is linked to the first one: the mountains are Rash’s “spirit country”. In an interview with Joyce Compton Brown, he said: “I find that I write only rarely about Boiling Springs; instead I write about the mountains, particularly about that farm or the area around it. I would say that that area is my spirit country [my italics]—and always will be.31” From about the time he was twelve, Rash would indeed spend his summers on his grandmother’s farm in Boone, up in the mountains, a time he qualified as “wonderful32” and that gave him his ‘primary landscape33’. He calls the mountains his “spirit country” because even if he was not born there, he has a strong connection with a place that he loves unconditionally. Finally, if Rash perseveres in depicting the Appalachian Mountains in his work it is because he thinks that if one really goes in the depth of a place, one talks about all places. Through the particular, he attempts to find the universal. His motto — that explains his entire.
The ‘Battle Royal’ of the 1920’s
The Pembertons are not the only ones who want to appropriate Appalachia’s hillsides. Serena is also the story of a fierce battle between two distinct visions of the world. On the one hand, greedy entrepreneurs want to continue logging the forests and won’t sell “unless [they] make a good profit132”. On the other hand, state and preservationists, represented by Secretary Albright133 and Horace Kephart134 band together in order to create a National Park. This “battle royal135”, as Snipes calls it, is the backdrop of Serena.
In 1929, at the time the story takes place, Appalachia’s occupation by the timber and the coal industries had long started even though it was relatively late compared to the rest of The United States. In Appalachian Wilderness, Eliot Porter stresses the isolation of Appalachia before 1890, when the industry first came to the place: For over a century [1790’s onwards] the mountaineer settlements were left in cultural and economic isolation, an island or backwater overlooked and forgotten by the managers of the great industrial development which was and still is altering the face of the continent.
The industry would come to Appalachia only at the end of the Gilded Age, once timber resources had become scarce in New England and the Great Lake region. The region opened up after the land had been bought by logging companies. The tracts were cheap for they were remote and escaped human occupation. The clear-cutting started correlatively to the arrival of the railroad, a prerequisite to transport the raw materials outside the region. The timber boom in Appalachia lasted from 1890 to 1920. More precisely, the clear-cutting in the Haywood and Jackson Counties — where Serena takes place —, lasted almost fifty years. As soon as 1883, the two counties respectively possessed thirteen and seven sawmills137, indicating that timber companies were present in the area way before the time of the novel.
Set in 1929, the book marks the end of an era: nature is no longer seen as something to be exploited but something to be preserved. As the character of Harris says in the novel, the land grabs for the park started in 1926138. The idea of the park, however, historically emerged in 1923, when a number of Knoxville businessmen formed the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association139. Among the difficulties for the creation of the park were locational disputes and fundraising but most of all lumber interests which are represented in Serena. Historically, the opposition was as fierce as at it is depicted in the novel. Numerous companies occupied the land and stood in the way of the park’s creation. As John Rehder says in Appalachian Folkways: “before the formation of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park in 1926, there were eighteen logging companies working the lands that later became the park.”140 Even if the Boston Lumber Company is fictional, the monopoly on the land by timber companies is an historical reality. Besides, the “Champion Paper141” Company and “Colonel Townsend142”, at the head of the Little River Railroad and Little River Company, really existed and actually sold their land to the state.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The outcome of the battle between the Pembertons and Secretary Albright and Horace Kephart is the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is a relief for the reader of Serena, who has witnessed the wounding atrocities committed towards the landscape throughout the novel. However, Rash nuances this apparent victory.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the United States. It contains geological exceptions and an outstanding number of plant and animal species. Indeed, it is composed largely of the Ocoee rocks that “are so old that they contain no traces of plant or animal life151”. According to Arthur Stupka, chief park naturalist at the Great Smokies for twenty-five years, the park includes “more than 1300 kinds of flowering plants, almost 350 mosses and liverworts, 230 lichens, and more than 2,000 fungi152”. The beauty of its scenery attracts many tourists.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the result of a local struggle represented in Serena but also a global phenomenon typical of the United States. The origins of national parks are to be found in the origins of the country itself, when the first environmentalist discourse led by transcendentalist writers and thinkers associated essence of humanity and symbiosis with nature. The necessity of national parks was already advocated by Henry David Thoreau in “Walking” in 1862: “Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, or five hundred or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.153” The park is primarily seen as a final barrier in case private property should become the only way of inhabiting the land. Thoreau’s idea of the park is visionary because not that different from the parks we know actually — it is an untouched primal forest enjoyable by all. The idea of a return to nature and thus the necessity of natural parks will be reinstated by John Muir in Our National Parks in 1901 when he says: “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.154”
Table of contents :
Table of Contents
1. The Transformation of a Place
1.1. Local ism
1.1.1. Appalachia in the 1920’s
1.1.2. The Mountain
1.1.3. The Natives
1.2. Translocal Forces
1.2.1. The Robber Barons
1.2.2. The ‘Battle Royal’ of the 1920’s
1.2.3 The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1.3. Endangered Ecosystem
1.3.1. Spoiling the Wilderness
1.3.2. Highlander’s Misery
1.3.3. The Destruction of Both Worlds
2. One Place, Two Worldview s
2.1. The Character of Serena: Modernity
2.1.1. Imperialis tic America
2.1.2. Preying on the Place
2.2. The Character of Rachel: Tradition
2.2.1. Pastoral America
2.2.2. Symbiosis with the Place
2.3. An Impossible Reconciliation
2.3.1. A Clash of Cultures
2.3.2. Distinct Social Classes
2.3.3. Colonialism .
3.Politics of PlacePolitics of Place
3.1.Giving a Voice to the MountainGiving a Voice to the Mountain
3.1.1.A CharacterA Character
3.1.2.The Mountain Fights BackThe Mountain Fights Back
3.2.A Story of ResistanceA Story of Resistance
3.2.1.Individual Resistance Individual Resistance
3.2.2.Collective Resistance Collective Resistance
3.2.3.Jacob and Revenge Jacob and Revenge
3.3.Poetics of Resistance Poetics of Resistance
3.3.1.A Historical NovelA Historical Novel
3.3.2.An Environmentalist PleaAn Environmentalist Plea
3.3.3.A Manifesto in Favor of AppA Manifesto in Favor of Appalachia