Jim Cavener spoke about six prominent authors, who lived, loved and wrote here: Thomas Wolfe, William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg, and Wilma Dykeman. Presenter and preservationist, Jim Cavener, is described by those who know him well as a Southern gentleman, tongue in cheek Southern….. Californian, and long time resident and supporter in many ways of his adopted city, Asheville, and the state.
Cavener, of course, noted that Thomas Wolfe had been poorly received in Asheville after his novel, “Look Homeward Angel” was published. He had revealed too many local secrets and scandals known only to a select few. Their identity was thinly veiled in the novel, and the local residents could easily be recognized by Ashevillians. Although he followed with the novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Wolfe did return to Asheville to write in his Oteen cabin. He was later buried in Riverside Cemetery near his parents and siblings. He did indeed return home.
Cavener’s talk was punctuated with many interesting side notes and tidbits of information, such as the origin of Porter’s pen name, O. Henry. The legend is that he frequently called out to the bartender, Henry, for a drink at a pub “Oh Henry! I need a drink!” Thus his pen name came into being. Porter was born in Greensboro–where a hotel is now named after him–imprisoned in the Federal Prison in Columbus, Ohio, for alleged embezzlement of a bank in Texas. In prison for three years he reportedly perfected his writing skills. “The Gift of the Magi” is certainly one of his well known short-story classics with an ironic ending. O. Henry settled in this area after rekindling a friendship with a childhood friend, Sarah Coleman, who had a cottage near Weaverville Highway. They were married in 1907. Their home was shown on a slide but alas has been destroyed by a fire. O. Henry is buried in Riverside Cemetery–where $1.87 in coins is often left at the grave–and a street in Asheville is named after him.
The audience learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. Declining to be known as Francis, he settled on F. Scott. Apparently, he was distantly related to the poet of the lyrics of the US National Anthem “The Star Spangled Banner.” In addition, the audience was reminded of the tragic life of the Fitzgeralds. Both were incredibly talented. F. Scott of “Tender is the Night” and “The Great Gatsby” fame, often stayed at the Grove Park Inn and in Oak Hall in Tryon. There is a room at the Grove Park Inn with a bullet hole in the ceiling, which is said to have been put there by him. Apparently Scott collapsed and died in 1940 while leaning against a fireplace mantel in conversation. Years later in 1948 Zelda, who was also a talented author as well as a painter, died in a horrific fire. Being treated for schizophrenia at the Highland Hospital in the Montford area, she was locked in her room when the fire broke out. Their tempestuous marriage with its risqué and excessive Roaring 20’s lifestyle led to the refusal of the Catholic church to permit burial on a sacred ground, (much later rescinded).
Carl Sandburg’s home and farm, Connemara in Flat Rock, was once the home of C.G. Memminger, secretary of the Confederate Treasury. Carl Sandburg was born in Illinois, one of seven children of Swedish immigrants. He worked from the time he was a young boy. He quit school following his graduation from eighth grade in 1891 and spent a decade working a variety of jobs. He delivered milk, harvested ice, laid bricks, threshed wheat in Kansas, and shined shoes in Galesburg’s Union Hotel before traveling as a hobo in 1897. These contributed greatly to his Pulitzer prize-winning poems. His so heroic tributes to the industrial age in America reminded all of the social changes of that era. Who cannot remember his way with words in “The Fog” (The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.) or “Chicago” ? Two of Sandburg’s daughters, Margaret and Janet Sandburg, had a home in north Asheville. Sandburg’s youngest daughter, Helga S.Crile, just died this January at the age of 95 in Cleveland, Ohio. Through the efforts of Sandburg’s wife, Lilian, Connemara is now an often visited National Historic Site, well maintained, with many events regularly held there.
Wilma Dykeman’s son, Jim Stokely, was in the audience. Dykeman’s first book “The French Broad” is widely acclaimed. Cavener described how the book became a part of the Holt, Rhinehart and Winston “Rivers of America Series,” 65 volumes not by historians but by authors and poets. At first the publisher did not consider “The French Broad” significant enough to be included in the series. Dykeman took strong exception and sent a first chapter to the publisher, which was not accepted but would be reconsidered if she would send a complete book, as her writing was so exceptional. She sent a second chapter so compelling the publisher decided to include the French Broad river in the series. At this presentation Cavener showed slides of Dykeman’s home here in Asheville; he reminded the audience there is an effort to preserve her home and library. For more information contact the Asheville Preservation Society.
This enlightening event about the icons of literature with ties to the Asheville area was part of a series of programs put together each month by the Preservation Society by its education committee. The Preservation Society (psabc.org) presents monthly educational programs about the architecture and history of the region to promote its mission.
On September 13 Jack Thomson, Executive Director of the Preservation Society, will give a guided tour of “Asheville Ghost Signs,” and on October 18 there will be a walking tour of downtown Burnsville with the Yancey History Association. Call Kieta Osteen-Cochrane at 321 243-4593 for more information.
“Through preserving and promoting the unique historic resources of our region, the Preservation Society works to sustain the heritage that is Asheville and Buncombe County.” New members are always welcome. Details at psabc.org.