Eubanks Uses Words of N.C. Authors to Describe Sites in New Guidebook
“My family long ago adopted a rule on vacation,” Georgann Eubanks says, “that no matter where we go, we drift off the interstates, follow two-lane highways and seek out the shops, sites and vintage restaurants that still reveal the history, tastes and culture of a place.”
Her commitment to searching out what makes a destination truly special, what gives it an identity that’s worth visiting, made her the perfect choice by the N.C. Arts Council to create literary tours in the state that take people to actual places written about by writers who lived and worked there.
The assignment has proven to be an enormous undertaking, Eubanks admits. Originally projected as a single guidebook of “N.C. Literary Trails,” it has evolved into a series of three separate volumes: the Mountains, the Piedmont and the East. The first book was published in 2007. The second installment, “Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont,” was just released by UNC Press. It includes 18 tours in 28 Piedmont counties, from Gaston and Mecklenberg in the west, to Montgomery, Richmond and Randolph counties in the east, from the Virginia border to South Carolina. The third book focusing on eastern North Carolina is slated for publication in fall 2012.
On Thursday, Nov. 18, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop on Broad Street in Southern Pines, the series author, Georgann Eubanks, will discuss some of the literary tours through the heartland of the state. In addition to describing locations immortalized in prose and poetry, she will read excerpts from authors’ works, while showing full-color slides taken by photographer Donna Campbell, many of which appear in the book.
“Finding excerpts that speak first to actual places has been my priority more than trying to offer some kind of inventory of all the good works written by every North Carolina writer or visiting author of some note,” Eubanks says. “This series of books is fundamentally about seeing North Carolina places through the eyes of the writers who have documented them. I began with each county in the region, trying to find references to as many writers as I could who had a connection to that county. Then I’d look at the works of the writers, searching for mentions of actual or fictional places.
“It is certainly no secret that we have living in the Piedmont some of the most notable Southern writers of our time,” Eubanks adds. “Reynolds Price, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Randall Kenan, Elizabeth Spencer, Maya Angelou, Fred Chappell and Doris Betts — just to name a few.”
Many Piedmont writers have expressed nostalgia for earlier times, “when summers were slower and the absence of air-conditioning kept people outside on their porches, talking and watching their neighbors come and go.”
In “The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living,” novelist Martin Clark recounts life in Winston-Salem in 1969: “Men in filling-station uniforms still checked your car’s oil, pumped high test gas out of heavy silver nozzles and cleaned your windshield with a spray bottle and a blue, quilted wipe.”
In her novel “Champeen,” Heather Ross Miller wrote of living in Badin, the Alcoa company town, during the early 20th century: “No one ever locked a door, and children could walk downtown to see Roy Rogers at the movies and walk back home in the dark.”
Other important authors spent time in the Piedmont. Margaret Walker Alexander, who was the first African-American woman to win the Yale Younger Poets competition, was teaching at Livingstone College in Salisbury at the time of her award in the 1940s. Alex Haley, the author of “Roots,” discovered a critical link to his African ancestors in Alamance County, which allowed him to finish his book.
In choosing the excerpts of poetry and prose to illustrate any given tour, Eubanks looked for passages that would entice her readers to “go deeper; to see what they may not have seen had they not experienced the voices of these authors.”
In his memoir, “David Played a Harp,” Davidson’s Ralph Johnson described life in the African-American community where Jim Crow laws were in full force. He opened his first barbershop when he was 16 and continued in the business for 50 years. In the late 1960s he became the subject of protests by Davidson students because his barber shop had always exclusively served white customers during regular business hours. White Davidson students demanded that he serve black customers on an equal basis. The ensuing tensions caused Johnson to close his shop for good in 1971. Before his death in 2000, he deeded his real estate holdings to the college to be used as affordable housing for lower income families to counter rising real estate values in town.
Stories and poems are still being inspired by the vanishing cotton mill culture and the failed effort at unionization among mill workers that led to so much historical conflict in the 1920s. Gastonia had more cotton mills than any other place on earth and the largest number of looms and spindles in the South.
“Automatic spoolers were put in,” Grace Lumpkin wrote in her novel “To Make My Bread,” “and when this was done 35 people were used where 160 had been used before. Weavers who had tended eight to 20 looms now had nearly 100 each; but when it was found that people fainted too often the number was reduced a little.”
Six novels were written about the unprecedented period of violence and unrest in the region that ended in the deadly 1929 labor strikes at Gastonia’s Loray Mill.
Lawrence Naumoff’s “docufiction,” “A Southern Tragedy in Crimson and Yellow,” about the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire in Hamlet in 1991, the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina history, led to criminal convictions of the plant managers and has since prompted legislative measures to avoid its repetition.
“The number of larger cities in the Piedmont, particularly in the urban corridor, provides a very different flavor to the literature,” Eubanks says. “The Piedmont is where rural and urban meet up close and often clash. The contrasts are striking.”
In the 1930s, Charlotte novelist Marian Sims pointed out in her novel “Call It Freedom” the curious contradictions created by Charlotte’s big-city ambitions and its thick religious roots: “A church on every corner and more murders than Chicago; prohibition and more speakeasies, I imagine, than New York ever had. The best roads and the worst slums in America. Ministers carting voters to the polls in bootleggers’ cars to uphold the dry law.”
Sixty years later, Tom Earley wrote of the Queen City in “Here We Are in Paradise,” “Everyone in Charlotte is from somewhere else. Everyone in Charlotte tries to be someone they are not.”
Georgann Eubanks, a native Georgian and Duke grad, has worked for 25 years in the nonprofit sector as a writer, educator and communications consultant. She is one of the founders of the N.C. Writers’ Network and is past chair of the N.C. Humanities Council. In 1999, she was recipient of the Sam Ragan Award for sustained contributions to the fine arts in North Carolina.
For information about the Meet the Author event, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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