Thursday, May 03, 2007

Emma Bell Miles

I learned about Emma Bell Miles about 10 years ago, reading that she was one of the first to describe traditional Appalachian string band music in print. I tracked down a copy of her 1985 biography, Emma Bell Miles, by Kay Baker Gaston, as well as the first edition of her most-cited book, Spirit of the Mountains. when the initial printing didn't sell well, the publisher gave Miles the remaindered copies, which she embellished with pen and ink drawings and sold near her home in Chattanooga. I have one of those copies, inscribed to "Mrs. R. M. Davidson."

Although she wrote in the nineteenth century "Appalachian local color" convention, Ms. Miles has been taken up by recent academic writers as an eco-feminist, a Scotch-Irish traditionalist, and an abused wife. Baker's excellent biography demonstrates that these are inaccurate projections on Miles' life and writing, but no one seems to have bothered to read the biography.

For example, David Hackett Fischer uses quotes from Spirit of the Mountains to illustrate his assertions about Appalachian/Scotch-Irish family, gender, and religious folkways in Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. He points to her maiden name, Bell, as evidence of her Scotch-Irish/Border Counties ancestry, and assumes that her book is a memoir. In fact, Spirit of the Mountains is a work of fiction, and Miles' parents were Yankee missionaries proselytizing in the post-Civil War South. Her mother was from a Quaker family, hence a member of one of Mr. Fischer's other "folkways." If Spirit of the Mountains is his main source, (and it's all he cites), he's got no data.

Here are some useful (and not-so-useful; see below) links about Emma Bell Miles.

  • Emma Bell Miles entry from The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, written by her biographer, Kay Baker Gaston
  • Fountain Square Conversations by Emma Bell Miles. Text of 33 newspaper columns by Ms. Miles, originally published in 1914 in The Chattanooga News.
  • Fall 2005 Issue of Appalachian Heritage features Emma Bell Miles, some of her stories and poems, and some biographical material. It's only available as separate .pdf files, but it's a good way to get a taste of her work.
  • Kay Baker Gaston Papers. "The Kay Baker Gaston Papers contain the papers of Tennessee historian and writer Kay Baker Gaston. The majority of the collection involves her research of Chattanooga writer Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919)." This is a list of material available, with some color .jpgs of pamphlet covers.
  • The Thistle And The Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels Between Scotland And Appalachia by Richard Blaustein. This author (correctly) equates Miles with other early purveyors of the hillbilly stereotype/myth, including my favorite, John Fox Jr.
    The American idea of Appalachia is to a substantial extent grounded in comparisons to Scotland derived from selective, romantic readings of Scottish history and literature by such influential commentators as William Goodell Frost, John Fox, Jr., Emma Bell Miles and Horace Kephart. Though largely the descendents of Scottish lowlanders, the people of the Southern Appalachians have been equated with Scottish highlanders in popular and scholarly literature. The romantic haze of the Celtic Twilight continues to confuse perceptions of Appalachian and Scottish highlanders to the present day....
  • Shannon Brooks. "Coming Home: Finding My Appalachian Mothers Through Emma Bell Miles." NWSA Journal - Volume 11, Number 3, Fall 1999, pp. 157-171. Indiana University Press. This abstract is ubiquitous on the Internet. It exemplifies an academic tone I find unattractive--womens' studies meets multiculturalism with a side order of self-discovery. I wonder if these ladies have read Ms. Miles at all.
    Growing up in a culture that frequently denigrates the very women that it relies upon, I had a difficult time finding models for womanhood among the women of my Appalachia....Driven by a desire to break the cycle of dropping out, marrying, bearing children, and settling into manufacturing work, I abandoned the Appalachian women of my past in search of a future with the new womanhood I saw in the academy....Through the discovery of the writings of one of Appalachia's earliest feminists, Emma Bell Miles, I found the value of the culture I had left behind, as well as my own ability to create space for myself within that culture on my own terms.

These are some browse-able books that mention Emma Bell Miles in Appalachian scholarship context.


Larry said...

Interesting, Rebecca! As a fiddle-player of music much of which came from the Scots-Irish Appalachian diaspora these links will give me some food for thought.

Anonymous said...

As a present-day Walden's Ridge painter, I have an interest in Emma's story, especially as it relates to our local history. 100 years later, she has a great deal of timely wisdom for us.