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Charles Egbert Craddock, 1850-1922
The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains
Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company; Cambridge: The Riverside Press, [1885].

Summary

Mary Noailles Murfree, who published under the pseudonym Charles Egbert Craddock, was born January 24, 1850 on her family's plantation outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Descended from Colonel Hardy Murfree who founded the town in 1807, Mary and her sister Fanny lived a privileged life that included some of the best educational opportunities available to southern women. In addition to attending the Nashville Female Academy, the sisters practiced French under a French governess, and for two years studied languages and music at the Chegary Institute in Philadelphia. William Murfree, their father, was a lawyer and encouraged his daughters to read extensively. Under his influence, Mary began to study law and to practice writing short stories in the popular local color tradition. Having suffered partial paralysis at age four from a fever, Mary also may have turned to writing as a source of entertainment and comfort.

Mary Noailles Murfree published her first and only stories about the American upper class—"Flirts and Their Ways"(1874) and "My Daughter's Admirers"(1875)—in Lippincott's Magazine under the pseudonym R. Emmett Dembry. However, her subject matter shifted considerably in the years to come. She published eight short stories on rural life in the Tennessee mountains in the Atlantic Monthly from 1878 to 1884 using the pen name Charles Egbert Craddock. After rejecting a previous novel, Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish a collection of these short stories in 1884. This collection, titled In the Tennessee Mountains, was an immediate success; fourteen editions were published within two years. Having found her literary niche, Murfree wrote prolifically through the turn of the century, publishing nine novels and two collections of short stories, all set in the Tennessee mountains. Although she also ventured to write Old Southwest humor and plantation fiction, her work in these genres did not meet with success.

In 1885, Houghton Mifflin published The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, considered by many to be Murfree's best novel about Tennessee mountain life. Contemporary southern reviewers praised it extensively, though it also garnered positive reviews in the North and in England. Set in the rural hills of the Smokies, the novel explores the tensions created by the encroaching Tennessee state authority on the mountaineers' lives. This is particularly manifest in the fate of Rick Tyler, a young man wrongfully accused of a stabbing who subsequently chooses to flee rather than fight his case. Rick's decision to become a fugitive sets in motion a series of events in the "Settlemint" that brings the sheriff and his men into conflict with the mountaineers. Sheriff Micajah Greene, an outsider to the rural mountain community, first accuses a young mountain woman named Dorinda Cayce of concealing Rick's location. Dorinda, who had entertained hopes of marrying Rick, antagonizes and ultimately outwits the sheriff in a verbal spar, refusing to help him in his search. Greene's brusque manner with Dorinda enrages her brothers and father, who threaten to kill Greene. In spite of the sheriff's threats—both to her own person and to the stability of her community—she prefers sparing his life rather than embroiling her family in violent conflict.

When the blacksmith captures Rick in order to claim the sheriff's bounty reward, the local parson, Hiram Kelsey, grows disillusioned with his fellow mountaineers. Like Dorinda, Kelsey yearns for the community to operate under a spirit of decency that transcends the limits of secular law. His outspokenness about the blacksmith's act prompts Sheriff Greene to arrest him under suspicion of aiding Rick's sudden and surprising escape from the blacksmith's shop.

In focusing on the increasing spiritual turmoil of Dorinda and Kelsey, Murfree illustrates the dissolving moral fiber of the mountain community. By the novel's end, Dorinda has become disenchanted with Rick, who refuses to clear Kelsey's name in his escape. Kelsey returns from jail to find the Cayces still plotting against the sheriff, and ultimately intercedes on Greene's behalf by sacrificing himself to the bloodthirsty clan. Within a seemingly closed system, the possibility for positive relationships—human or divine—has apparently vanished from the formerly flourishing community.

Indeed, Murfree's outlook on this mountain community is pointedly bleak. Many scholars have noted that her shortsighted depiction of Appalachian culture as inferior and tragically estranged has contributed to a damaging stereotype. Not surprisingly, her work eventually fell out of favor with contemporary readers; however, she refused to shift her perspective, still favoring romance over the period's much sought-after realism. In privileging lush and often lengthy descriptions of the mountains, her characters' dialogue becomes lost amid the novel's romantic strains. Thus, while Murfree's abiding affection for the region is evident, her unwaveringly quixotic depictions limited her literary success.

Works Consulted: Cary, Richard, Mary N. Murfree, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967; Garraty, Mark A., American National Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Serafin, Steven R., Encyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Continuum, 1999.

Armistead Lemon

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