From the 2014 Nov./Dec. issue of Sporting Classics.
The teaser above is intended to garner attention and perhaps even create a bit of irritation. I suspect the immediate reaction of most readers, and certainly those who have delved deeply into the literature of sport, to be something along the lines of “How about Robert Ruark? Are you forgetting Jack O’Connor? Surely Ray Bergman had a larger following? Does the columnist know nothing about individuals such as Elmer Keith, Gordon MacQuarrie, Charlie Elliott, Russell Annabel, Burton Spiller, Aldo Leopold, or Roderick Haig-Brown? How can the outdoor writings of literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner be overlooked? ”
Along with such excursions into mental outrage, a fair number of folks will go one step further and react to the effect: “I never even heard of this fellow. How could he possibly be the most popular sporting scribe of the last century?”
Allow me to make my case, to dig beneath the surface a bit and touch on some highlights of Horace Sowers Kephart’s literary career while noting at the outset that my views of the man are decidedly mixed.
The suggestion that “Kep,” as he was frequently known to a small circle of close friends, ranks as our most popular outdoor writer from yesteryear rests almost exclusively on a single book, Camping and Woodcraft. The book had its origins in a series of articles Kephart wrote for Field & Stream between 1904 and 1906, although contributions to other magazines, including Outing, Forest & Stream, All Outdoors, Recreation, and Sports Afield, also figured prominently in the crafting of the work.
First released in 1906 by Outing Publishing Company, its original title was The Book of Camping and Woodcraft. It enjoyed immediate success and would, over the ensuing decade, go through at least seven American editions, along with a British one, with constant revisions and expansion along the way. Then, in 1916-17, still under the auspices of the original publisher, the work appeared in two volumes under the title Camping and Woodcraft.
In 1921 the two-volume format switched back to a single one, with the original 335 pages now totaling just shy of 900. In his Preface to the much larger edition, Kephart wrote: “The present work is based upon my Book of Camping and Woodcraft, which appeared in 1906. All of the original material here retained has been revised, and so much new matter has been added that this is virtually a new book.”
Shortly thereafter the Macmillan Company purchased rights to the book, and beginning with its initial appearance under that imprint, Camping and Woodcraft became the famed New York publisher’s outdoor standard-bearer for an incredible span of better than a half-century. The work was widely known as “the Bible of outdoorsmen,” and scout troops all across the country used it. By the mid-1970s it had gone through more than 30 printings, and Camping and Woodcraft remains in print right up to this day. That’s probably more bibliographical information than most folks want to know, but it goes straight to the heart of the claim presented in the column’s title. Dozens of printings, most of them coming from major publishers and likely representing print runs of 5,000 to 10,000 copies, translate into total sales of many hundreds of thousands of copies.
I don’t think you will find another work on any aspect of the outdoors that has risen to such rarified sale heights, and that includes Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy and Jack O’Connor’s The Rifle Book.
Even in the 21st century the book’s popularity continues to be surprisingly strong. Back in 1988 I wrote a lengthy new introduction for a version of the book published by the University of Tennessee Press in both hardbound and paperbound formats. The paperback went through eight printings over the ensuing 20 years. Based on that information and a collective total of more than 50 printings of the book, I rest my case. Search as you will, I don’t think you will find another work on any aspect of the outdoors that has risen to such rarified sale heights, and that includes Ruark’s The Old Man and the Boy andJack O’Connor’s The Rifle Book.
Kephart (1862-1931) also wrote widely on other outdoor-related subjects, and works such as Camp Cookery, The Camper’s Manual, and Sporting Firearms sold well. He was unquestionably an authority on almost all aspects of camping and woodscraft, but he also had detailed knowledge of guns. Indeed, he was well ahead of his time when it came to rifle performance, bullet configuration, and ballistics, and he invented a number of bullet designs.
Today, though, Kephart’s best-remembered book deals only tangentially with the outdoors. Our Southern Highlanders has been described on the one hand as the seminal treatment on the people and folkways of the southern Appalachians and, from the opposite perspective, as “the nadir of Appalachian stereotypes” and a work “which completely distorted and misrepresented mountain life and customs.”
A contemporary of Kephart who knew him quite well said the book “looked upon our mountaineers as freaks and curiosities.”
You can place me squarely in the camp of the latter commentators, and I have solid reasons for my negative perspective of Our Southern Highlanders. They come from having grown up in the little town of Bryson City, North Carolina, the place where Kephart spent virtually all of the final 27 years of his life, and from having had the opportunity to interview many individuals (including my father) who knew the man.
Kephart moved to the heart of the Great Smokies in 1904 after having abandoned his wife and six children in St. Louis, where he was one of the country’s leading librarians. He was in search of what he described as a “back of beyond.” In seeking remoteness he hoped to escape his chronic alcoholism, some type of recurrent mental problem, and the stark realities of responsibilities associated with a large family.
Although Kephart and his wife, Laura, never divorced, the claim of modern-day descendants that theirs was a true love match is sheer poppycock. Every time he received a letter from Laura importuning him for financial support, he would go on an extended drunken binge. That hardly suggests, as one of his great-great granddaughters has stated, that his estranged wife was a “literary inspiration.”
Obsessed with alcohol and its production (some 40 percent of Our Southern Highlanders is devoted to coverage of moonshining, raids on stills, and related matters), one has to wonder whether the material Kephart provided was in part an exercise in what is today known as projection.
Much of the rest of the work involves sensationalism designed to sell books not set forth facts. In a single chapter he describes residents of the Smokies who lived outside the region’s scattered towns as “lowly branch-water people” and unleashes a breathtaking list of negative adjectives. He describes mountain folks as feral, primitive, crafty, strange, intermarried, slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, sinister, vindictive, sullen, hateful, suspicious, listless, shiftless, defective, inbred, half-wits, indifferent, unsanitary, gross, and touchy. I’ve got to admit that after making my way through that plethora of pejoratives, tetchiness decidedly understates my outlook.
There is considerable irony in Our Southern Highlanders being considered by many as his finest work, although portions of it, such as his coverage of regional dialect, his comments on local flora and fauna, and a story of a traditional mountain bear hunt are handled adroitly.
On the whole though, far from being a treasure, substantial portions of the book are a travesty. Like the man who wrote it, the book remains controversial. He was slippery as a speckled trout, problematic as the existence of panthers in his adopted highland homeland. He was, in the view of one astute critic, “an intoxicating wordsmith who was also an oft-intoxicated mythmaker.”
Kephart’s later years did see him emerge on the national scene as an advocate for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and building of the Appalachian Trail. Even here though, his role as a progenitor of the nation’s most-visited park is greatly exaggerated in Ken Burns’ series on our national parks. He did live to see a summit in the proposed park, Mount Kephart, be named after him, and posthumously he has rightly been recognized as one of America’s greatest authorities on camping and seeking closeness with the natural world. Kephart was an inductee, along with Theodore Roosevelt, in the inaugural class of the American Camping Hall of Fame, and maybe the fact that this writer nominated him will attest to the fact that I recognize his strengths even as I deplore his literary shortcomings.
Kephart died on April 2, 1931, in a car accident just a few miles outside of Bryson City. He and a novelist from Georgia, Fiswoode Tarleton (who was also killed), had hired a local taxi driver to convey them to the premises of a nearby bootlegger. Unfortunately, they permitted the driver to sample the peartin’ juice as well. The driver survived, only to die eerily on the same curve under the same circumstances a decade later.
More recently, an anonymous source has suggested his death came while he was “performing anthropological fieldwork on moonshiners.”
In death and well beyond, controversy continued to surround Kephart. Years later local residents, aware of his strained relationship with his wife, refused to let her be buried alongside him. More recently, an anonymous source has suggested his death came while he was “performing anthropological fieldwork on moonshiners,” and a few years ago a nationally prominent outdoor magazine even went so far as to suggest that folks regularly visit his gravesite and pour illicit liquid corn on the ground in tribute. Perhaps so, although rest assured no local residents are among their ranks, either thanks to their dismay at the way he portrayed their forebears or simply because they aren’t about to waste a perfectly good dram of what is known in the local vernacular as tanglefoot.
One can only conclude that Horace Kephart was and remains an enigma—arguably the bestselling outdoor writer of the 20th century, yet someone who is seldom recognized in that context; the author of what is often styled a regional classic yet in reality is a work that grossly misrepresents historical reality; and a man who journeyed to the high country seeking surcease from demons, which plagued his troubled soul while he sought unsuccessfully to find his highly romanticized back of beyond. But don’t rely on my perspective; never mind that it comes from upwards of a half-century of reading his works and studying his decidedly mixed legacy. Delve into his books and decide for yourself. I suspect you’ll be entertained, exasperated, and in the case of woodscraft, educated. +++
Note: Copies of Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft with Jim Casada’s 26-page introduction are available for $20 plus $5 for shipping and handling. Visit jimcasadaoutdoors.com or write him at 1250 Yorkdale Drive, Rock Hill, SC 29730.