The Voice of the Appalachians

I’ll call this Tribute Tuesday, and talk about a powerful writer and local (former) resident who loved this region, it’s people and it’s heritage.

Wilma Dykeman, who passed away at age 86 at her Asheville North Carolina home in December of 2006, has been heralded as “The Voice of Appalachia” for her literary works about the history and people of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Brief Biography

Wilma_Dykeman PHOTO Asheville Citizen-Times
Wilma_Dykeman PHOTO Asheville Citizen-Times

Wilma Dykeman was born on May 20th 1920 to Bonnie Cole Dykeman and Willard Dykeman in the Beaverdam community of Buncombe County, North Carolina, which is now part of Asheville N.C.  Her father was 60 years old when Wilma was born and he passed away when she was 14.  Dykeman would later credit both her parents for instilling a love of reading and her father in particular for arousing in her a love of nature and a curiosity about the world around her.

She attended Biltmore Junior College, graduating in 1938, and Northwestern University, in Chicago where she graduated in 1940 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech.

In August 1940 Dykeman was introduced to her future husband, poet James R. Stokely, Jr. a  Newport, Tennessee resident and a son of the president of Stokely Canning Company which become Stokely-Van Camp Inc. The couple married just two months after they met and produced two sons, Dykeman Stokely and James R. “Rory” Stokely III.  Both sons grew up to become writers as well, co-authoring several books with their mother. 

The family maintained homes in Asheville and Newport.  Dykeman and Stokely wrote several books together.  James Stokely Jr. passed away in 1977 at age 64. After Dykeman died in December of 2006, Appalachian writer Jeff Daniel Marion said the couple’s marriage was a “partnership in every sense of the word,” describing Dykeman and Stokely as “partners in writing, partners in marriage and partners in having similar points of view.”As reported by the Citizen Times of Asheville.

Dykeman is buried in the Beaverdam Baptist Church Cemetery in Asheville, near her childhood home.

Wilma Dykeman tirelessly promoted writers whose works she admired, as well as influencing generations of students as an educator and speaker and she fought for causes she felt were just, including racial and gender equality and protecting the environment.

“She was a personage, not a person,” said George Brosi, editor of the literary magazine Appalachian Heritage, a publication of Berea College in Kentucky. “When she walked into a room, you could tell — that person is somebody.”

The Works of Wilma Dykeman

Among Wilma Dykeman’s first writings were short stories, radio scripts, and articles for periodicals including Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine. She also wrote a total of eighteen books which included both nonfiction and fictional titles.

Her first book, The French Broad, was published in 1955 as part of the Holt Rinehart Rivers of America Series. This book proved prophetic and deeply influential for many Appalachian writers. The French Broad taught a generation of writers to look to their heritage when searching for subject matter.  In this book Dykeman wrote that mountain people (her people) were “at once so maddening and so charming, wrong about so many things and yet fundamentally right so often.”

Dykeman continued to write nonfiction books, including the biographies of Will Alexander, a champion of racial equality, and Edna Rankin McKinnon, an early proponent of birth control.

Her 1975 book Too Many People, Too Little Love is a biography of Edna Rankin McKinnon, a pioneer in family planning.

Dykeman’s Neither Black Nor White, a collaboration with her husband, James Stokely Jr., is a personal reflection on the Brown desegregation decision of 1954. This book won the Hillman Award for its contributions to world peace, race relations, and civil liberties.

Wilma wrote three novels: The Tall Woman (1962), The Far Family (1966), and Return the Innocent Earth (1973).

The main character in The Tall Woman is Lydia McQueen; a strong willed mountain woman (based loosely based on Dykeman’s mother) who works to bring a community together and build a school after the devastation of the Civil War. McQueen is not the portrait of the typical Southern lady as she heroically stares down those who oppose her.

The Far Family picks up the story and tells of Lydia McQueen’s children and grandchildren, opening in the twentieth century when protagonist Ivy Thurston Cortland, Lydia’s granddaughter, is an old woman.   Ivy and her siblings have left their Nantahala home for other areas of the country, but crisis strikes when one of them returns to the valley town.  An African American man is murdered shortly after Clay’s arrival, and Clay is accused of the crime.  The novel’s chapters alternate between past and present to tell the story of the Martha McQueen Thurston’s children as they reunite to help their brother Clay.  Some chapters focus on the current family crisis, while the retrospective chapters relate the family’s beginning. The family ties are tested but prevail.

Return the Innocent Earth recalls the Stokely family’s industrial legacy, examining modern industry through a fictionalized Tennessee canning company. The book portrays the Clayburn family, poor but enterprising, as they go into the canning business in a small mountain town called Churchill around 1900.  The historical details that Dykeman embeds in her novels—the realities of mountain midwifery, for example—also dispute female stereotypes by revealing their basis in misinformation about the leading roles women have played throughout history.

From 1962 to 2000, Dykeman was a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper, where she contributed as many as three columns per week. When introducing her as a new columnist, the newspaper’s editor announced that Dykeman would write under the title “The Simple Life,” which would be “a momentary turning aside, a glimpse down a different path, to see, hear, feel, ponder the common uniqueness of our lives” and would present “the salt of humor, gnarled strength of old ideals, the variety of new ideas and the friendship of people well-known and little-known along the way.”

Two collections of her columns were published in book form: The Simple Life and Explorations (1984).

She also contributed regular columns to The Newport Plain Talk newspaper. Dykeman’s writings also appeared in magazines including the New York Times magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Harper’s, and Reader’s Digest.

“She was a very observant reporter — she had a background as a journalist,” said poet Fred Chappell, a Haywood County NC native and former state poet laureate. “And her fiction was attractive to a wide readership.”

Wilma Dykeman’s Awards

In 1981, Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander named her official state historian, an honorary role that she filled until 2002. In 1985 she was presented with the North Carolina Award for literature. In 1957 she shared the Sidney Hillman Award with husband, James Stokely, for their book Neither Black Nor White which was recognized as the best book of the year on world peace, race relations or civil liberties. In 1994, Dykeman received the Pride of Tennessee Award from Governor Ned Ray McWherter, honoring her commitment to education , community, and advancement of the humanities. McWherter stated, “She has managed to capture and truthfully portray the people, places, and events that make East Tennessee and Appalachia a unique place in world culture.”

Other awards include the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Trophy, a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1956), a National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship, and the Tennessee Conservation Writer of the Year Award. She also received honorary degrees from several colleges and universities.

A Powerful Example

Wilma Dykeman presents anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer of history, culture and humanity with a powerful example of how this is to be done.  Reading her books gives a great pattern that can then be used to chronicle the history and people of your own preferred cultural niche.

9 thoughts on “The Voice of the Appalachians”

  1. Pingback: Bush Brothers Beans | Simple Life Prattle
  2. So, did she inspire you to start Simple Life Prattle?

    She must have been a remarkable woman who did so much with her life. Although I’ve never heard of her, and coming from the other end of the globe probably has a lot to do with that, she seems to have had an influence on you, and a good one at that.

    1. We are kindred spirits in terms of our regard for the region and it’s culture, heritage and ecology. I would not dare to compare myself to Wilma, she was an extra-ordinary woman who was able to effect a lot of positive change through her writing and the doors it opened to her.

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