Wilma Dykeman of Asheville, North Carolina, was a major Appalachian author. Her novels “The Tall Woman,” “The Far Family,” and “Return the Innocent Earth” vividly evoke life in the region as it experienced rapid change between the Civil War and the 20th century. They reflect her desire to counteract negative stereotypes and present Appalachian culture in a positive light. Her book about western North Carolina’s major river, “The French Broad,” has been praised as an early warning about the consequences of environmental degradation. She was a passionate advocate of Appalachia’s history and culture. She taught occasionally at the University of Tennessee and was an active public speaker. She won many awards and honors for her writing, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.
At Wilma Dykeman’s funeral in 2006, attendees were transfixed by David Holt’s steel guitar rendition of “Amazing Grace” and Laura Boosinger’s stirring vocal delivery of “What Wondrous Love.” However, those gathered were not merely mourning, reflecting, and saying farewell; they were also celebrating a life filled with production and passion. For them and many others, Dykeman was much more than an accomplished author. As one of the 20th century’s most dedicated servants of social justice, environmental activism, education, and community history, she represented the true, outspoken spirit of the Appalachian region.
Wilma Dykeman was born in the Beaverdam section of Buncombe County, NC on May 20, 1920. Her mountain roots were deep; her mother’s family having settled in the region in the eighteenth century. There she graduated from Biltmore Junior College (now the University of North Carolina-Asheville) before moving on to Northwestern University where she graduated in 1940 with a degree in Speech. The following summer, Mabel Wolfe, the sister of author Thomas Wolfe, introduced Dykeman to James Stokely Jr. After only two months, Dykeman and Stokely wed and settled in Newport, TN where Stokely continued his involvement in the family business, the canning empire whose name he bore. Eventually the couple set up a second residence at Dykeman’s childhood homestead near Asheville, maintaining both it and their home in Newport throughout their lives.
Dykeman is recognized primarily as an author. With her husband she wrote several books, the most famous being the 1957 work, Neither Black Nor White. The book earned Dykeman and Stokely the Sidney Hillman Award for the year’s best book on world peace, race relations, or civil liberties. Appalachian writer, Jeff Daniel Marion, described the couple as “partners in writing, partners in marriage, and partners in having similar points of view.”
However, throughout both Appalachia and the nation, Dykeman is acclaimed and best known for her first book, The French Broad, published in 1955. Once described as a “love poem” to the region and its citizens, it is a combination of folklore, environmentalism, and history. The book contains a handful of interesting narratives such as the search for Elisha Mitchell’s body (lost on the mountain that now bears his name), the carving of the train tunnel in Swannanoa, and the Vanderbilt’s trek to western North Carolina. Published seven years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, The French Broad, named for the prominent river that runs through western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, was an early and daring work of activism. In fact, a prospective publisher requested that Dykeman cut the entire chapter revealing the pollution in the French Broad. The author refused and ultimately the chapter was included, complete with its now famous ringing warning, “Filth is the price we pay for apathy.”
Dykeman also penned many works of fiction, including the widely-read novels, The Tall Woman and its sequel, The Far Family. They are examples of the social range of Dykeman’s works, focusing on the random and inaccurate depictions of Southern, especially Appalachian, women. Other social themes, in addition to women’s rights, regularly surface in Dykeman’s books. They include class bias and economic imbalance, racial inequality, regional stereotyping, education rights, and of course, environmentalism.
Dykeman is recognized as a pioneer and lifetime advocate of Appalachian Studies and Appalachian Literature. In order to sufficiently recognize her influence, it is valuable to note both her activities and achievements. The list is as impressive as it is extensive. She authored nearly two dozen books. For almost forty years, from 1962 to 2000, she was a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel, contributing as many as three columns a week. She wrote for her hometown paper, The Newport Plain Talk, and was published in numerous periodicals including the New York Times, Harper’s, and Reader’s Digest. She taught classes at both Berea College (where she was on the Board of Trustees) and at the University of Tennessee.
Dykeman was a popular and busy public speaker, delivering over 50 lectures in many years. Those that attended her talks left both humbled by her social consciousness and charged by her social challenges. Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander named her State Historian in 1981, a position she held until 2002. When she won the Pride of Tennessee Award in 1994, then-governor Ned McWhirter praised, “(Dykeman) has managed to capture and truthfully portray the people, places, and events that make Appalachia [a] unique place in world culture.” The East Tennessee Historical Society and the Appalachian Writers Guild both present an annual Wilma Dykeman Award for excellence in regional literature. During her lifetime, Dykeman received a Thomas Wolfe Memorial Trophy, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Senior Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was enshrined in the North Carolina Hall of Fame, and was presented several honorary degrees.
Regardless of her accomplishments, notoriety, and travels, Wilma Dykeman remained close, in body and spirit, to her heritage. Retiring in Asheville after her husband’s 1977 death she commented of her roots, “Growing up on this little stream, hearing it one night in flood, makes me know that you can start at any little place and go out into the world,” “This is my home, no matter where else I might be. The streams, the rocks, are the 15 acres of my childhood imagination and discovery.” Dykeman had a simple answer for those (primarily New Yorkers) who inquired, “Do you still live down there?” “It is where I belong,” she would softly reply.
Up until her death in 2006, Dykeman enjoyed recalling an especially odd opportunity she had been afforded. When the Houston Oilers professional football team moved to Nashville a committee was formed to decide on a name. The group was comprised of an assortment of football men (including NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue) and one woman – Wilma Dykeman Stokely, the official state historian of Tennessee. In one early meeting it was Dykeman who, observing the full-scale copy of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park, proposed a name out of Greek mythology: the Titans.
Dykeman’s life and her writings were inspired by Appalachian history and culture. She wrote about mountain people with mountain ways that communicated with a mountain dialect. Her themes, however, were neither partial nor unique to the region she both described and personified. She chose to confront the most serious issues that challenge modern societies everywhere. With her pen, Dykeman exposed and examined the ugly truths that accompany social apathy and injustice. She recognized our responsibility to be active stewards of the world in which we live, not just for the benefit of future generations, but also to honor those of the past. Wilma Dykeman, through both exclamation and example, reminded us to acknowledge, appreciate, and preserve the rich rewards found in our Appalachian heritage.
The text was written primarily with help from, and additional information is available at, the following sources:
Appalachia in Context: Wilma Dykeman’s Search for the Souths by Patricia M. Gantt, 1992.
“Wilma Dykeman Issue.” Iron Mountain Review 5 (Spring 1989).
“A MELUS Interview: Wilma Dykeman.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 9 (Winter 1982).
“Tributes to Wilma Dykeman.” Pembroke Magazine 25 (1992).
“The Appalachian Personality.” [Interviews with Wilma Dykeman and Harry M. Caudill.] Appalachian Heritage 11 (Winter 1983).
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture.
The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.
See also Wilma Dykeman Legacy