Front Porch Blog

The Appalachian Word

Loving Men, Loving Mountains (Ethnicity and Gender in Appalachia)
JEFF MANN
Ohio University Press, $19.95
ISBN 0-8214-1650-2

Strangely enough, despite the supposed mainstream popularity of the film version of Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, nonfiction memoirs and portraits of gay love affairs in rural areas are still searching for a foothold in the publishing world. It makes you wonder if fiction will become the new closet for gay stories to transcend.

Jeff Mann’s endearing and amazingly unaffected new memoir, Loving Men, Loving Mountains, is a major step forward in this direction. An aching reminder of the still hard time of growing up gay in America, Mann’s story unveils not so much the stifling provincialism of a rural community, but the one-way dominance of the heterosexual macho icon in our society at large. From a shy student to forester to leather-wearing dude, Mann doesn’t submit or retreat but subverts this machismo in his own wonderful way.

As the title proclaims, Mann’s memoir deals with two peaks to climb: men and mountains. Based in his native Appalachia, he goes in search of the beauty of mountains and the beauty of men: “What I want is unity, however briefly achieved.” When spurned by one, his simply takes up with the other.

In many respects, Mann’s work is similar to fellow Southern writer Randall Kenan, who has dealt with being a Southern African American in search of some sort of balance with his gay identity. While Kenan has put his prodigious talent to work as a novelist, Mann has turned to poetry, including a sizeable collection at the end of this memoir.

A student of both forestry and literature, and a mountaineer saunterer who would have enjoyed moments among Thoreau and his compatriots, Mann is frequently more compelling as a nature writer; his love of the mountains, and his acute eye for its nuances and complexities often puts into perspective his need to chronicle his sexuality. If anything, nature comes into play in Mann’s daily trials. When dealing with a lover’s illness in the hospital, Mann “stared out the window at the tiny white crosses of a pauper’s graveyard across the valley. Soon the spring equinox would arrive, and the first coltsfoot blooms would spring up along the country roads of Monongalia County.”

While coming-of-age memoirs of gay life, even in rural areas, are nothing new, Mann’s series of essays and stories remind us that mainstream society has yet to accept them. His youth was one of agonizing moments of discrimination, and threats, and delicious moments of passionate longing and dreaming. Interestingly, it is a lesbian teacher, and other lesbians, who provided much of his support network and outlet of expression.

While Mann recounts his numerous love affairs, from a mustache moist with manna, to his transformation into an urban leather dweller, his writing remains wonderfully honest and unpretentious; the prose are always engaging. Mann’s anger is evident, though always tempered with humor; still, he calls into question the double-standard of flirting among other so-called liberal Appalachian writers at a conference—and in effect, his readers—when his own yearning to flirt with a male author is suppressed. “Why, I wondered at Hindman, could I not live in a world where a straight man would take my polite appreciation of his looks as a compliment?”

Back home, Mann remains a mountain boy. In “Love Made Solid,” he recalls making biscuits with his grandmother, and the painful moment of silence when she notes his retreat to a cold farmhouse: “Son, are you in love?” Deeply in love, Mann is unable to respond or disclose his circumstances.

He writes a very poignant story of mother first refusing to accept his sexual preference, and then her phone call during the TV viewing of “An Early Frost” in the mid-1980s, the first drama that dealt with AIDS and her own concern for her son. “We wouldn’t turn our backs on you,” she tells him on the phone.

The second part of the book includes poems. “Bluestone Reservoir” recalls his first motorcycle ride and the erotic joy of youth camaraderie:

“His belly was lean and wet and bare beneath my hands, he yelled into the wind
“Hold tight!” and I was grateful for any excuse to clutch.”

In the poem, “Allen,” Mann brings together his two loves in a fitting tribute of his way of life in lesson for all:

“How to love mountains fiercer than any marriage.”

Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell
SHARON HATFIELD
University of Illinois Press, $21.95
ISBN 0-252-03003-6

How refreshing to read a page-turning true crime chronicle that refuses to pander to the morbid curiosity of the commercial market, and instead, seeks to explore the greater mystery of why and how crimes are committed and why and how our society measures them. Written by a journalist who cut her teeth on local courtroom news in the same Wise County, Virginia crime scene, Never Seen the Moon is an important book about a crime committed in the 1930s that still remains a mystery, and a disturbing morality tale, for our times.

This is the scene: on a summer night in Pound, Virginia, a small community in the Appalachian Mountains, a young schoolteacher named Edith Maxwell returns to her family’s home after their proscribed curfew. A conflict with her father ensues; neighbors hear a ruckus. Her father eventually falls dead with a head injury. While Edith claims she has acted in self defense, she and her mother are taken to trial for murder and judged not only on the facts of their case, but the variance of her rebellious behavior as a single woman, turning her into a cause celebre for a floundering (and largely urban) women’s movement in search of martyrs and a cause, and a lightning rod for the yellow media in search of sensational headlines and hillbilly caricatures that will entertain a national readership.

In Hatfield’s deliberate narrative, Maxwell’s story—and the stories about her—transcend the fiction and legends that have surrounded the case for decades and reveals the true crime at play. Deeply rooted in the mountain communities that were razed by the publicity and trial, Hatfield goes to great length in describing and showing how Maxwell’s unfortunate circumstances became a defining moment “in the collective life of a community.”

The outside media circus—a sad reminder that today’s obsession with sordid crimes is not a new one—had other ideas. Heroine or villain, Maxwell became the “curfew slayer.” Her trial dominated the headlines for ages. Through an exhaustive amount of research, Hatfield shows that how the crime and trial often fell secondary to the outside media’s perception of the area and their preconceived verdict of the mountain community– an otherworldly area that was backwards, poorly dressed, anti-education, and scared of “furriners” They became obsessed with the image of a cow ambling down the main street. Journalists (and activists) who had never set foot in Wise County—or the South—conjured up an world for outside readers where Edith Maxwell had been unjustly tried by a nefarious mountain code outside the bounds of law.

Hatfield’s narrative is balanced and detailed, and fails to fall into any demonization of its own; along with the outside media, she shows how Maxwell and her own family sold the exclusive rights to their story to the god-awful Hearst Press. She also notes how some reporters, such as Ernie Pyle, who would go on to regale Americans with his war-time reports, were exceptions to the quick and dirty yellow journalism. Noting his own disdain for the exaggerated portraits of the mountain town, Pyle wrote: “There are people here with Master’s degrees, who think and speak better than we do, who have been all over the world, who have polish and city personalities, who drink cocktails instead of moonshine…I believe some reporters have confused rural poverty with quaintness. If I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell you from looking whether Wise was in Vermont or Iowa.”

In the end, Maxwell was convicted for murder in November, 1935, and ended up serving five years in prison. Warner Brothers made a movie loosely based on her life; popular songs were written about her; feminist and women rights advocates around the nation took up her cause, while celebrities in New York City and Washington, DC (including the beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt), rallied to Maxwell’s side. James Thurber, covering the case for The New Yorker, called it “one of the most interesting trials since the Scopes case.” The key word there, of course, refers to the bizarre behavior of rural and backwards-thinking rubes unfit to stand trial in modern times.

While Maxwell was eventually pardoned by a departing Virginian governor in 1941, and moved to Indiana where she changed her name, married and attempted to live a normal life, the infamy of her case lived in the mountains, and in the eyes of the media. So did the mystery—to this day, we still don’t know if Maxwell accidentally killed her father in self defense, or knocked him out in a cold blooded murder.

Nonetheless, as Hatfield writes, an even greater judgment remains. Never Seen the Moon, in her words, is “a cautionary tale about the dangers of demonizing minority cultures by imposing mainstream values.”

It is also a great page-turning true crime story.

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