Books: March-April 2008


Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook
By Georgann Eubanks '76. University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 440 pages. $35.

Location pertains to feeling," Eudora Welty writes in her landmark essay, "Place in Fiction"; "feeling profoundly pertains to place; place in history partakes of feeling, as feeling about history partakes of place." Southern writers have long been accused of being obsessed with a sense of place. Kinfolk and sweethearts and workmates are all tied to a location in Southern storytellers' minds, and those locations to histories, personal and official, and those histories become story. Like all clichés, this truism about place and Southern storytelling has its roots in age-old traditions of that self-same identification with a landscape and an understanding of how a connection to that landscape shapes lives.

Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains gives a rich glimpse into how that connection has been fostered, and more, it excites a desire for reconnection and fresh connections to North Carolina vistas. The first book in a three-part series of guidebooks funded by the North Carolina Arts Council—the Piedmont and the Coastal Plains are to follow in 2009 and 2010—this handsome volume enchants with its stories of the raw material so many North Carolina writers have forged into their narratives.

It has become a perennial question: Why has North Carolina in particular, of all the loquacious Southern states, produced such a great number of wordsmiths, from its colonial days to its modern banking present? So often agrarian-based, so often bound up in those diurnal Southern topics of fixation—Protestant religion, race, farming—North Carolina writers have taken their humble state and worked and reworked it, from Charles Chestnutt's defiant slaves of Fayetteville to Thomas Wolfe's Asheville boarding-house sojourners, to Reynolds Price's twentieth century Piedmont existentialism.

The most delightful thing about Georgann Eubanks' absorbing book is how she slices and dices the great overabundance of the North Carolinian literary heritage, how she uncovers literary landmarks in at times unlikely places. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time in Hendersonville; Thomas Dixon, who wrote The Clansman, made into the movie Birth of a Nation, was from Shelby; Valle Crucis was the inspiration for Romulus Linney's historical novel Heathen Valley, and the general store, built in 1883, still stands there. It would seem every small town and hamlet has had a scribe either born there or inspired by it.

The book is divided into two geographical sections. "The Southern Mountains: Place" includes, among other places, Black Mountain and Swannanoa, home to the two legendary and unusual schools—Black Mountain College and Warren Wilson College—known for their progressive approaches to education, especially the arts. Black Mountain College, no longer in business, was famous for the many dancers and artists and writers who taught and studied there (Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, John Cage) from the early 1930s until it closed in 1956. We are told about Canton, the hometown of former North Carolina poet laureate Fred Chapell '61, A.M. '64, and given snatches of the world he returns to over and over again in his vast oeuvre. Of course we are treated to Asheville's rich and well-known history (Thomas Wolfe, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald), to Flat Rock, where poet Carl Sandburg made his final home, but also to places like Cullowhee, home to our current poet laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer. But given equal footing with the well-known writers are lesser-known, though interesting and important, contributors to the tapestry, many who deserve rediscovering. 

"The Northern Mountains and Foothills: Voice," the second section of the book, gives us places like Celo, where novelist Anne Tyler '61 grew up, and Andrews Geyser, a man-made waterworks created when the railroads were built in the Blue Ridge, which John Ehle writes about in The Road. Tryon, where singer/songwriter Nina Simone grew up; Rutherfordton, which Tony Earley writes about with such wry joy; exotic Little Switzerland, which Doris Betts describes in her 1981 novel, Heading West—towns upon towns, each with a story, each that gives us a more and more layered sense of North Carolina's cultural legacy. The photography, largely by Donna Campbell, at times whimsical and times reportorial, almost always lyrical and evocative, whets the appetite for more, makes us want to get up and go see for ourselves.

Well researched and pleasingly written, this volume will captivate the armchair tourist, the backpacker, or the day-tripper—its rewards are rich. Even if the reader is steeped in North Carolina lore and literacy, Literary Trails of North Carolina is bound to excite new discoveries and to lure one back to old haunts with new eyes.

Welty writes: "It seems plain that the art that speaks most clearly, explicitly, directly and passionately from its place of origin will remain the longest understood." Ultimately, the reason that North Carolina has produced so many important writers will probably remain a mystery. If, however, an answer exists, this book will go a long way toward explaining that wonderful literary cornucopia.

— Kenan is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books, including A Visitation of Spirits and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom

Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom
By Daisuke Miyao. Duke University Press, 2007. 379 pages. $23.95.

There was a time during the late 1910s and early 1920s—the golden age of silent films—when Sessue Hayakawa was something of a household name in the U.S., at least among movie-going Americans of Japanese descent who were proud to see that a son of Old Nippon had made it in Hollywood.

Born in Japan in 1886, Kintaro Hayakawa (Sessue was a later, showbiz name change) was, as one version of his fuzzy life story puts it, being groomed for the navy when a childhood accident damaged one of his eardrums. Unable to meet the Japanese navy's physical requirements and feeling he had let down his father, Hayakawa attempted seppuku, or ritual suicide—demonstrating, perhaps, a youthful taste for drama.

Glimpses of fame: Hayakawa, at lunch with Charlie and Oona O'Neil Chaplin, was never fully embraced by American audiences
Glimpses of fame: Hayakawa, at lunch with Charlie and Oona O'Neil Chaplin, was never fully embraced by American audiences
Bettmann / CORBIS

In any case, notes Daisuke Miyao, an assistant professor of Japanese literature and film at the University of Oregon, the future actor headed to the U.S. in 1907 and a year later was enrolled in the Home Study Department of the University of Chicago. All told, Miyao offers only a few paragraphs about his subject's past prior to his move, from Chicago to Los Angeles, where he appeared in stage plays in Little Tokyo.

It was in one of those theatricals for Japanese immigrants that Thomas H. Ince saw Hayakawa perform; the well-known producer hired the young actor for several movies that would evoke "The Orient" and exploit the popularity, among some middle-class Americans, of what was then known as "Japanese Taste"—aesthetic appreciation of Japanese art, refined gestures, and the ineffable elegance of the "exotic" East. Thus, in early 1914, Hayakawa turned up in O Mimi San with the Japanese-born actress Tsuru Aoki, another player in Ince's stable who would later become the Japanese actor's wife. This "picturesque Japanese number," as one trade sheet described it, offered a convoluted plot complete with a shogun, political intrigue, samurai-armor-busting passions, and, of course, ritual suicide.

Hayakawa acted in more than a dozen films in 1914 alone. A year later, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat, he became an overnight sensation. Critics and movie-goers raved, Miyao recalls, about Hayakawa's charismatic presence, his East-meets-West blend of stylishness and poise, and the heightened emotion expressed by his kabuki-like acting, in which he seemed to use only his face. ("We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" Gloria Swanson's faded, silent-movie queen, Norma Desmond, declares in Sunset Boulevard. Of Hayakawa's acting style, DeMille once remarked: "I don't understand it[,] ... but it is the greatest thing I ever saw.")

In The Cheat, Hayakawa plays a debonair art dealer who uses money from a Red Cross Fund to pay a Caucasian American woman for sexual favors. Apparently, their passion goes unconsummated in this tale of sex and sake, for movie-makers at the time could not allow "the races" to mix. When the woman tries to return his money after her husband scores it big in the stock market, he assaults her and brands her shoulder—The Cheat becomes Sex and the Psycho.

Audiences were captivated by Hayakawa's gentleman-villain character. However, as Miyao explains, over time he faced an irresolvable artistic dilemma: Depending on Japan's relative popularity with the U.S. government—the country and its culture fell out of favor as Japanese imperialist aspirations rose after World War I—on American screens, the actor could play the likable but distinctly foreign Asian but often was forced to play the bad guy. He could not play romantic leads who ended up "getting the girl" when "the girl" was Caucasian. As a result, Hayakawa sometimes played honorable villains who sacrificed satisfying their own desires so that white heroines could find true love—or at least light-skinned, European-descended mates.

Hayakawa founded his own production company, developing scripts, starring in his own movies, and taking part in directing and editing. In 1937, he headed to France to play a Japanese spy in Max Ophuls' Yoshiwara. He spent World War II in France, making movies with French directors and helping the French Resistance. Later, he resurfaced in Hollywood's Tokyo Joe (1949), alongside Humphrey Bogart. Hayakawa's late-career high point was his Academy Award-nominated role as a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp commander in David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). A low point: his turn a year later in the Jerry Lewis vehicle The Geisha Boy, in which Hayakawa again has a bridge constructed—across his swimming pool—but does not commit ritual suicide.

Although Miyao's book often reads like a laundry list of plot summaries and can be annoyingly repetitious, and although it fails to provide a three-dimensional portrait of its subject, it does accomplish its goal of showing how producers and Hayakawa carefully managed "the tense balance between Americanization and Japaneseness" that shaped his "star image." They were keenly aware, Miyao notes, that a Japanese-born performer, even one as well-known as his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, would never be fully embraced by America's xenophobic masses. (Actors Anna May Wong and Paul Robeson faced similar bigotry.) Hayakawa's success story—he had fame, houses, his own company, a gold-plated car—lies in the great tradition of the American Dream Fulfilled. Still, as Miyao's study makes clear, Hayakawa really must have meant it when, in 1949, he said, "My one ambition is to play a hero."

— Gomez '79 is a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board and co-author of Yes: Yoko Ono (Harry N. Abrams, 2000).


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