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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,301


This is the grave of Wilma Dykeman.

Born in 1920 in Beaverdam, North Carolina, Dykeman grew up in and around Asheville. Her background was a bit different than a lot of the people she grew up with. Her father was actually from New York and had moved to the area with his daughters from his first marriage when he met her mother. This almost automatically gave her wider horizons than the average person from rural western North Carolina in the early 20th century. Her parents really pushed her toward a lot of reading and also a lot of nature study. She would combine these into quite a career.

Dykeman attended what is today the University of North Carolina-Asheville, but was then a community college, graduating in 1938. She then transferred to Northwestern to complete her bachelor’s degree in 1940. Being a literary type of the southern Appalachians, she knew Thomas Wolfe and soon after she returned from Northwestern, his wife introduced Dykeman to James Stokely, who was the son of a canning capitalist in Tennessee. They married and stayed together for the rest of their lives.

Living mostly in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dykeman became an important literary figure, writing a ton of non-fiction and three novels as well. She had a column in Knoxville News-Sentinel for a mere 38 years, from 1962 to 2000. She was a legend in the community. A lot of this stuff seems to have been mostly kind of cute stories and self-help pablum, at least by the end. I was living in Knoxville during the end of her tenure and even worked at the News-Sentinel for a year in there, but I really have no memory of reading any of this. I probably just ignored it.

Far more important was her regional fiction and non-fiction, written from the perspective of a moderate liberal in a very conservative place. She and her husband became relatively well-known as southern liberals when they won the prestigious Sidney Hillman Prize in 1957 for Neither Black Nor White, a sort of white liberal manifesto about southern race relations and the need for integration.

She was a big time local conservationist, big enough that she became nationally known. Her 1955 book The French Broad, which is about the river, not some French woman, was part of the Rivers of America series that was popular at the time.

Dykeman wrote a good bit of fiction as well, much of it around the complicated world of east Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Civil War, which was a genuinely nasty version of civil war, neighbor against neighbor, murder followed by murder. Why that should be nastier than Gettysburg and Shiloh, I don’t know, but it seems to feel that way to me. Something about the impersonal nature of mass battle versus just shooting your neighbor in the head I guess. The Tall Woman in 1962 was the most well-known of these, following a woman and her family in the war. The sequel, The Far Family, from 1966, followed that family into the near present. She also wrote a biography of the early family planning and birth control expert Edna Rankin McKinnon. She wrote another biography, published in 1966, of W.D. Weatherford, another southern liberal from the past who was relatively progressive on race relations. Later, in 1976, she wrote Seeds of Southern Change, another reflection on the progress of civil rights.

By 1975, she was a big enough deal that she was chosen to write the volume on Tennessee in the The States and the Nation series to celebrate the bicentennial. In 1981, Governor LAMAR!!!!! Alexander named her state historian. She had lots of other awards in the Appalachian literary world over the years. In short, Dykeman was one of these locally oriented writers who may not have changed the literary world but who added significantly to it. Regional literature is so, so important to understanding America. Moreover, the entire idea of regional literature is basically a slap in the face to those regions, since what is more regional than Updike writing about suburban Connecticut or Roth writing about Newark. Anyway, good writer.

Dykeman died in 2006, after a fall and a broken hip. She was 86 years old.

Wilma Dykeman is buried in Beaverdam Baptist Church Cemetery, Asheville, North Carolina.

Sorry for the break in grave posts. I was down in Georgia continuing this series thanks to your donations. Managed to pick up a solid 26 graves last weekend. Thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Appalachian writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Noailles Murfree, who wrote under the pen name of Charles Egbert Craddock, is in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Anne W. Armstrong is in Bristol, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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