Catherine Venable Moore — Writer & Producer

Archive for the ‘Women’s History’ Category

“O Beulah Land” in Oxford American

In Appalachia, Audio, Black History, Cedar Grove, coal, Mary Lee Settle, Multimedia, Print, West Virginia History, Women's History on October 10, 2014 at 11:23 am

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 11.26.56 AM
O Beulah Land,” my wandering longform essay about writer Mary Lee Settle, the women of Cedar Grove, and Appalachian transition, was published in the summer issue of Oxford American: The Southern Magazine of Good Writing. Here’s their introduction to the piece:

There are many gorgeous passages in “O Beulah Land” by Catherine Venable Moore, an homage to Central West Virginia published in our summer issue.

Struggling to reconcile a landscape of paradisiacal beauty with its history of unheeded extraction since settlers arrived, Catherine—with the works of Mary Lee Settle as her guide—goes to Cedar Grove, that writer’s small hometown on the Kanawha River. She writes:

“Like Mary Lee, I went to the town digging for some present truth in the past, and knocked on the doors of ten women, up to a century old, who agreed to talk about their lives in Cedar Grove. All of them pay their hearts to the town in some way or another, filling their lives with service to a place where community ties are being severed by a fading industry that once drew its people close in solidarity. These women are and were the societal glue of Cedar Grove, the storytellers, the visionaries, the caretakers, and the advocates for the powerless. I asked them about home. I needed to know how we got here, and how we get out of wherever “here” is, without having to leave.”

The essay is a remarkable, holistic dive into the Transmontane of West Virginia, the land beyond the mountains—one of the first American frontiers and still a misunderstood region. “Recorded history is wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it,” said Settle, explaining the motivations behind her sweeping historical fictions. In “O Beulah Land,” Catherine takes up Settle’s mantle—the writer died in 2005 at eighty-three—reporting untold histories and interviewing women whose stories are essential to the identity of their homeplace yet seldom shared with a wide public. It’s an elegy for a lost time when “Everyone was a part of everything.”

They also published a companion web-only piece–an audio teaser to my forthcoming hour-long radio documentary and some photographs of Cedar Grove by my pal, the photographer Roger May.

 

Moving Parts

In Appalachia, Black History, Cedar Grove, Current Projects, Mary Lee Settle, Uncategorized, West Virginia History, Women's History on September 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm
A crude mind map of the Cedar Grove documentary, later refined during a week at the Center for Documentary Studies...

A crude mind map of the Cedar Grove documentary, later refined during a week at the Center for Documentary Studies…

Cedar Grove Spring Update!

In Announcements, Appalachia, Audio, Black History, Cedar Grove, Current Projects, Mary Lee Settle, West Virginia History, Women's History on May 21, 2013 at 2:17 pm

IMG_3756By way of a refresher, “Cedar Grove” is the working title of BMS’s hour-long radio documentary that tells the story of an Upper Kanawha Valley town through the voices of generations of women who have called it home. The piece, funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council, also brings focus to writer Mary Lee Settle’s memoir, “Addie,” which unfolds over generations in Cedar Grove, W. Va.

This spring we’re in full production mode, and you can read about what we’re up to below. Come summer, we’ll be scripting and cutting audio, getting ready for a two week marathon editing session at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in August.

* May Weekends at the Tompkins Mansion — Thanks to the generosity and graciousness of Patty & Elbie Thurmon, I’ve been spending my May weekends at Addie’s house, in The Pink Room. These days the Thurmons–both Cedar Grove natives–run a rest home called The Haven out of the 1840s-era mansion. I can personally attest to the incredible level of care they give to their guests. Elbie makes homemade dinners every night–fried squash, beans, cornbread, the works. Patty plays the piano in the evenings as guests drift off to sleep.

These weekend stays have made it possible for me to really dig into the project and get some great recordings–including a recent Gospel Sing in Ward and interviews with local children who Elbie mentors (featured recently in a Daily Mail article). Patty has also allowed me to scan rare photos and documents related to the mansion’s history from her collection, which I plan to include on the website. My recorder hasn’t detected any ghosts in the mansion so far, only the crackle of monitors in the rooms of The Haven’s elderly guests…but I’ll keep listening!

* 11 Women Interviewed — Patty (Ellis) Thurmon, Shirley (Ellis) Stennett, Peggy Coleman, Katherine Atwater, Carol Saunders, Paula Clendenin, Sharon Hemmings, Jean Lamb, Jean Cary, Linda Saunders, Lynnette Hudnall. Thank you for your stories.

* Website & Music Are Cookin’ — I’m really lucky to be working with Drew Tanner on a project website, and Bob Webb on scoring & technical aspects of audio. It has been fun to brainstorm and dream with both of them about how to make the project come alive on the web and in listeners’ ears. Stay tuned…

* Cedar Grove Town Council & Other Partnerships — Recently, the mayor and council of Cedar Grove were informed of the project and invited to nominate a woman to be interviewed. They were extremely supportive and encouraging, and many good leads came out of the discussion. Some had not read “Addie,” and so I shared copies with them. I will continue to work with the town during the outreach and distribution phase as we host listening parties in the community.

Other organizations that have expressed their support for the project and volunteered to help in various ways include: Goldenseal Magazine, WV Public Broadcasting, West Virginia Archives and History, Daughters of the American Revolution (William Morris Chapter), Midland Trails Scenic Byway, Virginia’s Chapel Board of Directors, Kanawha Valley Historical and Preservation Society, Appalachian Heritage magazine, and of course our number one supporter and project partner, Allegheny Mountain Radio/Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, without whom this project would not be possible.

* Slavery & Salt, Rare Archive Finds — Thanks to a brilliant friend and Charleston native, Cyrus Forman, who is researching slavery and salt production in the Kanawha Valley for an academic thesis, we’ve got our hands on two fascinating documents related to slavery in the Cedar Grove area. One is a riveting account of the escape of a couple of dozen enslaved people on the Underground Railroad via boats built at the Cedar Grove Bote Yards. The other is a story of a slave “conjurer” in Malden who converts to Christianity. Cyrus and I plan to collaborate on a short radio piece that tells these stories.

HOW YOU CAN HELP — Send me names and email addresses of more folks who should know about this project, so I can keep them in the loop. And share news of this project with other radio- and history-lovers you know…

Thanks to the women of Cedar Grove, thanks to spring mornings on the Kanawha, and thanks to all you wonderful folks for your support!

–Catherine

Listening to Mary Lee

In Audio, Cedar Grove, Current Projects, Mary Lee Settle, West Virginia History, Women's History on November 29, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Listening to archival tape of writer Mary Lee Settle today, I found a few gems that I wanted to put out there. They’re from a series called “Tell It On The Mountain,” hosted by poet Nikki Giovanni and produced in the mid-90’s by Maxine Kenny at WMMT, the public radio station of Appalshop in Whitesburg, K.y. The series featured women writers who call the southern Appalachian Mountains home.

From Giovanni’s Intro: …Settle grew up in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia and she dabbled in acting and high fashion modeling before turning to a lifetime of writing. Now in her 70s, National Book Award winner Marry Lee Settle has lived through some turbulent years in American and European history, much of which she documents in impeccably researched historical fiction. Five of her acclaimed novels are called the Beaulah Quintet. These collected works trace the history of several Appalachian families from their roots in Cromwell’s England to the coal towns of West Virginia. Settle’s most recently published novel, “Choices,” follows one woman’s involvement in the great social movements of the 20th century. In her work, Mary Lee Settle proves everyday events are not always what they seem, and that economics, history, and class dominate our everyday lives. Having been born to it, she delights in criticizing the class of people she calls the “mountain gentility.”

 

On the “Mountain Kingdom” and why she writes historical fiction

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

In my lifetime, I saw what had been a virgin country decimated by industry. I think I was marked by it. And also, I got sick of the legends of history. I think the reality of our history is so much stronger. So much more to be proud of, and ashamed of, than the sort of pacified, cleaned-up legend of our history. I wanted to know where I came from, what I was doing here, why I had the attitudes–the trained, received attitudes that I had. I questioned a lot of them, and a lot I threw out. (…) I’ve always said there’s a mountain kingdom in this country, and it goes from Wheeling down to east Tennessee. And we all belong together. We’re all more alike than we are like other people. My husband says you can’t rule anybody born above 5,000 feet. I think that in the mountain kingdom, this is true.

On strip mining

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

My husband and I went to Harlan and Bell counties a couple of years ago. I was doing some research on book I just finished. And there aren’t any beautiful mountains anymore. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled them away. (music) I think what’s happened in the mountains is tragic. You know that song? Oh, I tell you, I remember sitting in the back of a boat in the Aegean, and we’d all been diving. And it was somebody from the American Consul in Istanbul had brought some bluegrass music and I was crying, sitting in the stern of this boat in the Aegean, listening to Peabody’s Coal Train. (…) My father’s first job as a mining engineer was in a mine in the Kanawha Valley where there was not one word of English spoken. It was all Italian. And he said that those Italian people that came over made gardens and walls and raised vineyards, everything, up in those hollers. And my God you should see them now. Stripped out and ruined. I feel fairly strongly on this subject.

The Me That Came Back

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The me that came back was the me that had grown up there, to myself. But to other people, I was somebody who had gone away and got a lot of high falutin’ ideas and wasn’t behaving like a Sweetbrier girl anymore and asking too many questions. Once there was a German girl called ‘The Nasty Girl.’ That’s what I was treated like. It was an appalling experience. And now of course I go back and they give me prizes like that damn thing up there, and 3,000 people come to hear me talk. If they realized that when I leave, I just want to go, ‘pffff.’ People treat their own very badly in this country. You know when we were talking in the beginning about something called the creative impulse and how it’s dangerous? That’s what I meant. For a southerner, it tends to be dangerous. Especially for a mountain southerner. Because you don’t break the genteel rules. We have barriers to get over. They aren’t barriers–almost moats, aren’t they? Of understanding. I remember when working on ‘The Scapegoat,’ I was in a pool at Warm Springs and somebody that I knew whose husband was a very rich coal owner said, ‘I hope you tell the truth about the coal industry, I mean, our side.’ And I thought, there isn’t any side. There isn’t any side.

Cedar Grove Update!

In Announcements, Appalachia, Audio, Black History, Cedar Grove, Current Projects, West Virginia History, Women's History on November 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm

Awesome news came in the mail today! The West Virginia Humanities Council has awarded the documentary “Cedar Grove” a $15,000 matching grant for production and promotion.

“Cedar Grove” is an hour-long radio documentary that explores acclaimed WV writer Mary Lee Settle’s ancestral homeland as it is presented in her 1998 memoir, “Addie,” and as it is today. With the support of top scholars and community advisers, “Cedar Grove” will re-center marginalized narratives of women and African Americans in Appalachia; explore the history of the Kanawha Valley; and create a greater awareness of Mary Lee Settle’s literary work.

Allegheny Mountain Radio is my partner on the project, along with a whole bunch of amazing scholars, local historians, and community members.

Here’s a rundown of the project, from our grant application:

First, we will deepen our audience’s understanding and appreciation of Mary Lee Settle’s historical nonfiction by exploring its imaginative source in the Upper Kanawha Valley. Cedar Grove will create a greater awareness of Mary Lee Settle’s literary work among a captive audience of West Virginians and Appalachians, growing the author’s readership. We hope that it will also prompt renewed study of that work among the general public and a new generation of scholars.

In addition, we will present an evocative, responsive, and intimate portrait of a real, concrete place—Cedar Grove—that stands on its own terms. By reaching into the past for context, as well as listening to those living there today, Cedar Grove will explore in a nuanced way the personal, social, political, economic, geographic, and gendered dynamics at play in an early 21st century Upper Kanawha Valley town, reaching for a better understanding of the present.

By connecting past with present, and by connecting our audience with one of West Virginia’s most powerful and accomplished writers, Mary Lee Settle, we will deepen their connection with and understanding of home. In the process, we seek to reinforce pride in a local community and in the literary heritage of our state.

With a special focus on the narratives of women and African Americans in the Upper Kanawha Valley, this project will re-center these groups’ historically marginalized stories. By framing women’s work as part of a historical narrative, for example, we expand the audience’s notions of what history is and does. And by including the voices of African Americans from Appalachia—who have so often been written out of history—we promote and dignify their rich contributions to the region’s heritage.

In the process of producing this documentary, we will capture and preserve the oral histories of several generations of West Virginian women as a resource for future audiences and researchers. The stories of these women, who range in age from 55 to 100, will add to the richness of the WV State Archives audio collection. 

Finally, this radio documentary will lay the groundwork for a future series of audio works based on Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet, providing biographical and place-based context for her historical fiction.

In addition to the radio documentary, producers will create shorter cuts for placement on national public radio programs; build an interactive web site; and donate all recorded material to the WV State Archives.