Back to Homepage of Horace Kephart: Revealing an Enigma

Our Southern Highlanders: Discussion Questions
By Nancy P. Coward and George Frizzell

Terra Incognita

In the first chapter, “Something Hidden,” Kephart describes the Southern Appalachians as terra incognita and comments,

Quaintly there came to mind those lines familiar to my boyhood: “Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain; and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein or not.”(p. 14)

These lines which he quotes are Numbers 13: 17-20, but it is necessary to read the whole of Kephart’s chapter to understand the story involved.

Why would this bit of Scripture come to mind as Kephart studied a map which includes the Southern Appalachian region? What analogies could be drawn? Where do analogies fail?



Isolation is a central theme in Our Southern Highlanders. For instance, in Chapter I Kephart provides a description of the geography of the region; implicit is the suggestion that the mountain people suffer from such severe isolation from mainstream trends in the rest of the United States that their way of life remains eighteenth century.

Does Kephart overstate their isolation in the early 1900s and the ignorance of the rest of the United States about them?

He himself refers to well-known authors of the time who wrote of the mountain region. President Frost of Berea College, Kentucky, and John Fox, Jr., are two whom he quotes. He writes of the wide-spread tourist trade but discounts that natives would ever have come in contact with these outsiders. He speaks of the botanists – Asa Gray, John Muir, William Bartram, Andre Michaux – who visited the region and wrote of their findings.

Do you agree with his estimate of the degree of isolation, or do you think he is overstating to make a point?


The “Real Mountaineers”

In Chapter II, “The Back of Beyond,” the picture of Southern Appalachian life is particularly compelling. Kephart is careful to specify his subject, for he indicates he is not talking about the people in towns and prosperous valleys nor in areas frequented by tourists but those of the back country where “dwell a majority of the native people” (pp. 28-29). In fact, throughout the book Kephart reiterates that he is writing about what he calls the “real mountaineers”:

I have been describing an average mountain home. In valleys and coves there are better ones, of course. Along the railroads, and on fertile plateaus between the Blue Ridge and the Unakas, are hundreds of fine farms, cultivated by machinery, and here dwell a class of farmers that are scarcely to be distinguished from people of similar station in the West. But a prosperous and educated few are not the people. When speaking of southern mountaineers I mean the mass, or the average, and the pictures here given are typical of the mass. It is not the well-to-do valley people, but the real mountaineers, who are especially interesting to the reading public; and they are interesting chiefly because they preserve traits and manners that have been transmitted almost unchanged from ancient times . . . . (p. 321-22)

What is Kephart’s definition of “real” mountain people? Do you agree that the mountain people he describes are the “average”?

If there are people in your group who are natives of western North Carolina, ask them to play the “devil’s advocate” should they believe Kephart has painted to dire a picture of their relatives.



In Chapter II Kephart also discusses his reasons for coming to western North Carolina:

When I went south into the mountains I was seeking a Back of Beyond. This for more reasons than one. With an inborn taste for the wild and romantic, I yearned for a strange land and a people that had the charm of originality. Again, I had a passion for early American history; and, in Far Appalachia, it seemed that I might realize the past in the present, seeing with my own eyes what life must have been to my pioneer ancestors of a century or two ago. Besides, I wanted to enjoy a free life in the open air, the thrill of exploring new ground, the joys of the chase, and the man’s game of matching my woodcraft against the forces of nature, with no help from servants or hired guides. (pp. 29-30)

How honest is Kephart when detailing his reasons? What does he emphasize? What does he omit?


Mountain Life and Culture

In Chapters XII – XV and XVII -- (“The Outlander and the Native,” “”The People of the Hills,” “The Land of Do Without,” “Home Folks,” and “The Law of the Wilderness”) -- which deal with mountain life, customs, and manners, Kephart is particularly interested in attitudes of the mountain people toward such things as these listed below:


Personal property
Display of emotion
Pain and death

Government and the courts
Social status


According to Kephart, what are the attitudes the mountain people demonstrate in these areas? How are these different from or similar to those of mainstream America of Kephart’s time? For instance, consider accounts concerning the mountaineer’s reaction to any sense or suggestion of social inferiority:

And any assumption of superiority he will resent with blow or sarcasm. A ragged hobbledehoy stood on the Vanderbilt grounds at Biltmore, mouth open but silent, watching a gardener at work. The latter, annoyed by the boy’s vacuous stare, spoke up sharply: “What do you want?” Like a flash the lad retorted: “Oh, dad sent me down hyur to look at the place -- said if I liked it, he mought buy it for me.”

Once, as an experiment, I took a backwoodsman from the Smokies to Knoxville, and put him up at a good hotel. Was he self-conscious, bashful? Not a bit of it. When the waiter brought him a juicy tenderloin, he snapped: “I don’t eat my meat raw!” It was hard to find anything on the long menu that he would eat. On the street he held his head proudly erect, and regarded the crowd with an expression of “Tetch me gin ye dar!” Although the surroundings were as strange to him as a city of Mars would be to us, he showed neither concern nor approval, but rather a fine disdain, like that of Diogenes at the country fair: “Lord, how many things there be in this world of which Diogenes hath no need!” (pp. 328-29)


The Sexes

The mountain society Kephart describes is patriarchal:

The man of the house is lord. He takes no orders from anybody at home or abroad . . . . About family matters he consults with his wife, but in the end his word is law. (p. 330)

In contrast, the mountain woman is “not only a household drudge, but a field hand as well” (p. 331). To the man “she is little more than a sort of superior domestic animal” (p. 332). Yet, Kephart continues, seldom does she complain and there is little bickering in mountain homes (p. 332). Reread this complete passage on pp. 330-333.

Think also of other places all through the book when the relationship between men and women becomes a topic: Bill and Marg (p. 33); Tom Kirby and his wife (p. 113); Fenn and his wife (p. 226); Uncle Mark and Aunt Nance (p. 272). Also reread another description of women on pp. 288-289.

What is the role of a woman in mountain society? Kephart offers plenty of proof that she is recognized as much more than a “domestic animal,” but is her life harder than that of her mate? Why does she accept her role?

Would you agree with his assessment that “the average mountain home is a happy one, as homes go” (p. 330)?


The Mountaineer and Motion Pictures

In the mid-1920s, a motion picture director consulted Kephart for advice as he planned to film the picture Stark Love (released 1927) in western North Carolina. Consider motion pictures you have seen with a Southern Appalachian setting, such as Sergeant York, Thunder Road, Nell, and Cold Mountain. How would you rate history (Our Southern Highlanders) in comparison with Hollywood (the movies)?



Throughout the book Kephart uses mountain dialect, as well as devoting Chapter XVI (“The Mountain Dialect”) to a more detailed examination.

Is the dialect he employs accurate? Is his use of it effective? Consider his neighbor’s reaction to John Fox’s use of dialect:

One day I handed a volume of John Fox’s stories to a neighbor and asked him to read it, being curious to learn how those vivid pictures of mountain life would impress one who was born and bred in the same atmosphere. He scanned a few lines of the dialogue, then suddenly stared at me in amazement.

“What’s the matter with it?” I asked, wondering what he could have found to startle him at the very beginning of a story.

“Why, that feller don’t know how to spell!”

Gravely I explained that dialect must be spelled as it is pronounced, so far as possible, or the life and savor of it would be lost. But it was of no use. My friend was outraged. “That tale-teller then is jest makin’ fun of the mountain people by misspellin’ our talk. You educated folks don’t spell your own words the way you say them.”

A most palpable hit; and it gave me a new point of view. (p. 350)

(If you are especially interested in this topic, you might like to read the book by Karl Nicholas and Harold Farwell, Smoky Mountain Voices, which is based on the research of Kephart.)


The Environment and Regional Geography

Kephart interweaves a description of the physical environment and geography of the region with a description of mountain life and culture.

Do you find one of these descriptions more compelling than the other? Are they complementary?

Is it vital to understand the physical environment in order to understand the culture and, as Kephart describes it, the “character” of the mountain people?



One of Kephart’s great strengths as a writer is to make a character come alive in just a few lines: consider how he succeeds in portraying the McGill University man (Chapter III, pp. 62-66); the bear hunters – Little John Cable, Bill Cope, Granville Calhoun, “Doc” Jones, Matt Hyde, and Quill Rose – (Chapter IV); the Snake-Stick Man (Chapter IX); Finn (Chapter X, pp. 234-36).

How is Kephart able to capture a person’s character in so few lines? Do you have a favorite character that Kephart describes and, if so, why?



Three new chapters (IX, X, XI) in the revised edition of Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1922, make one-third of the book devoted to moonshining activities.

What reasons might have prompted him to include these new chapters on moonshining? Do his accounts of moonshining provide the dynamics of a good story? How valid are the reasons Kephart gives for moonshining, such as the economics of the activity?

How might mountain moonshine operations be compared to those in an urban setting, such as 1920s Chicago with its American folk mythology about Al Capone and other gangsters?

In talking to mountain men about the manufacture of illegal liquor, Kephart indicates considerable interest, if not fascination, for the overall enterprise. He describes the activities in depth, the friction that at times arose among neighbors, as well as the encounters between blockaders and law-enforcement agents.

How appropriate is the amount of space he gives to moonshining activities in a book about “our southern highlanders”?

In Chapter IX, “The Snake-Stick Man,” Kephart introduces us to Mr. Quick and tells how he and Mr. Quick, who share several common interests, become acquainted. Later it is revealed that Mr. Quick is a secret agent of the Indian Bureau sent to investigate blockading activities. Kephart says this:

I have a pent-up thought or two that I will get off my system. For the average run of detectives and their business, I have little respect. There may be a larger proportion of decent fellows among them than I know of; but I have met some sorry specimens.

I cordially detest the public policy that has quartered an army of Federal spies upon the American people and that was at this time authorizing them to invade homes and to search individuals on mere suspicion. I believe such a policy to be wholly and thoroughly bad.

But here was a different case, and a different sort of man. No common spy, no bluffing rough-neck, no graduate of the penitentiary turned renegade to his own people, could have done what he did. No plausible rogue playing the part of a gentleman could have done it, either. . . .

Think back a bit. He had been posted about me, as one who had written a good deal about the mountain moonshiners and who evidently knew what he was talking about. He wanted to make my acquaintance at the start and yet circumstances did not permit him to tell me frankly who and what he was. How did he go about it? . . . .

Here was a detective who actually used brains in his business. Here was a detective who had the instincts of a gentleman, instead of those of a sneak. (pp. 203-04)

Do you agree that Mr. Quick’s actions are not like those who “spy” but rather constitute a “different case”? Is this an accurate assessment?

Does Kephart rationalize Mr. Quick’s actions? If so, how can you explain Kephart’s loss of objectivity?


The “Character” of the Mountain People

In considering the whole book, what characteristics of mountain people as Kephart knew them does he most admire? What are his criticisms, or critiques, of their character?


The Future of the Mountain People

In the book Kephart offers conflicting statements as to what he would like the future of Southern Appalachian mountaineers to be. He notes that changes are coming to the region:

Away down in the rear I heard the snort of a locomotive, one of those cog-wheel affairs that are specially built for mountain climbing. With a steam-loader and three camps of a hundred men each, it was despoiling the Tennessee forest. Slowly, but inexorably, a leviathan was crawling into the wilderness and was soon to consume it.

“All this,” I apostrophized, “shall be swept away, tree and plant, beast and fish. Fire will blacken the earth; flood will swallow and spew forth the soil. The simple-hearted native men and women will scatter and disappear. In their stead will come slaves speaking strange tongues, to toil in the darkness under the rocks. Soot will arise, and foul gases; the streams will run murky death. Let me not see it! (p. 104)

However, in speaking of mountain feuds, he has this to say:

This isolated and belated people who still carry on the blood-feud are not half so much to blame for such a savage survival as the rich, powerful, educated, twentieth-century nation that abandons them as if they were hopelessly derelict or wrecked. It took but a few decades to civilize Scotland. How much swifter and surer and easier are our means of enlightenment to-day! Let us not forget that these highlanders are blood of our blood and bone of our bone; for they are old-time Americans to a man, proud of their nationality, and passionately loyal to the flag that they, more than any other of us, according to their strength, have fought and suffered for. (p. 426-27)

He seems to want the mountain people to change, but then again he does not want to see them change. He reaches the conclusion that perhaps limited change for people with limits is the answer:

The great need of our mountaineers to-day is trained leaders of their own. The future of Appalachia lies mostly in the hands of those resolute native boys and girls who win the education fitting them for such leadership. Here is where the nation at large is summoned by a solemn duty. And it should act quickly, because commercialism exploits and debauches quickly. But the schools needed here are not ordinary graded schools. They should be vocational schools that will turn out good farmers, good mechanics, good housewives. Meantime let a model farm be established in every mountain county showing how to get the most out of mountain land. Such object lessons would speedily work an economic revolution. It is an economic problem, fundamentally, that the mountaineer has to face. (p. 468-69)

What do you think of Kephart’s solution? Was it reasonable at the time? Looking back, we might say he made an error in judgment. Why?

Does the first excerpt quoted above (from p. 104) perhaps explain his passion for establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?



In 1906 Kephart published a series of articles in the magazine Forest and Stream entitled “The Mountain Moonshiner.” The second installment of that series, “Ways that are Dark,” formed the basis of Chapter VI by the same title in Our Southern Highlanders. However, Kephart made some changes in the text. Compare these two excerpts:

1906 Forest and Stream article

The terms moonshining and moonshine are seldom used in the Carolina mountains. Here, an illicit distiller is called a “blockader,” his business is “blockading,” and the product is blockade whiskey, or simply plain “blockade.”
There are, or used to be, two kinds of blockaders, big and little. The big blockader makes unlicensed whiskey on a fairly large scale. He may have several stills, operating alternately in different places, so as to avert suspicion. In any case, the still is large and the output is quite profitable. The owner himself may not actively engage in the work but merely furnish the capital and hire confederates to do the distilling for him, so that personally he may shun the appearance of evil. These big fellows are rare, if, indeed, they be not quite extinct. In past times they were the ones who sought collusion with the small-fry of Government officialdom, or, failing in that, instructed their minions to “kill on sight.”

Our Southern Highlanders (1922 edition, pp. 126-127)

Our terms moonshiner and moonshining are not used in the mountains. Here an illicit distiller is called a blockader, his business is blockading, and the product is blockade liquor. . . .
There are two kinds of blockaders, big and little. The big blockader makes unlicensed whiskey on a fairly large scale. He may have several stills, operating alternately in different places, so as to avert suspicion. In any case, the still is large and the output is quite profitable. The owner himself may not actively engage in the work but may furnish the capital and hire confederates to do the distilling for him, so that personally he shuns the appearance of evil. These big fellows are rare. They are the ones who seek collusion with the small-fry of Government officialdom, or, failing in that, instruct their minions to “kill on sight.”

Portions of the two excerpts have been underlined to highlight differences. Compare changes in the two texts, paying particular attention to verb tense and deletions. Are these significant or merely editorial changes? Why might have Kephart have made these changes? What changes in the situation might have been brought about by national prohibition, which began in January 1920, as authorized by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution?


Enduring Value

In the Wilmington Star-News (March 19, 2000), there appeared an article by Ben Steelman entitled “The Essential N.C. Reading List,” an attempt to compile the best of North Carolina literary works. Speaking of the difficulty of the effort, he chose a western North Carolina writer as an example:

For one thing, many books and authors are out of print and hard to find. For example, Frances Christine Tiernan, who wrote under the pen name “Christian Reid,” earned best-seller status in the Victorian era for her romances set in the North Carolina mountains. “Land of the Sky,” the title of one of her novels, became a tourist slogan for the whole Asheville area. Yet few people read her today, and her books are hard to find.

John Fox, Jr. (1863? - 1919), one we know Kephart read, and Sarah Barnwell Elliott (1848-1928) are two others who wrote of the mountain people and had great popularity in their time but have simply passed from the scene.

How is it, then, that Kephart endures? Why has Our Southern Highlanders remained available in print? Why are we sitting here discussing it? How do you account for the continuing popularity of the book?