On this day in 1930: After a month’s rest at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville fails to halt his mental and physical deterioration, William Howard Taft submits his resignation as chief justice of the United States.
Taft, who earlier served as president, is 73 years old, weighs 300 pounds and suffers from progressive heart disease. After sending his resignation ahead, he returns by train to Washington, where he will die barely a month later.
“[I am] pained at the implication in your letter that I was ashamed of North Carolina — only what is N.C. willing to do for me? I don’t think there is a place there now for anyone who cares for anything besides Rotary and Lions and Boosters Clubs, real-estate speculation, ‘heap much’ money, social fawning, good roads, new mills — what, in a word, they choose to call ‘Progress, Progress, Progress.’.…
“N.C. needs honest criticism — rather than the false, shallow ‘we-are-the-finest-state-and-greatest-people-in-the-country’ kind of thing. An artist who refuses to accept fair criticism of his work will never go far. What of a state?.…”
— From Thomas Wolfe’s letter to his mother, Julia, on April 21, 1924. Excerpted in “Thomas Wolfe v. the state of North Carolina, 1924” by Thomas Calder in Mountain Xpress (July 19, 2016).
Wolfe, 23, had just begun teaching at New York University. It would be another five years before publication of “Look Homeward, Angel.”
“Shayda Vance grew up not thinking much of her last name. She had never lived in Western North Carolina, and although she knew some of her family hailed from Weaverville, her bloodlines were a bit of a mystery.
“Like many of the 42 million African-Americans living in the United States, part of her lineage is a web of unknown trades and transactions that started on the shores of West Africa and ended in 1870, when more than 240 years after their arrival in the American South, slaves were listed by name in a U.S. Census for the first time.
“Now researchers in North Carolina are working to add to those records by amassing a statewide index of slave deeds, inspired in part by Buncombe County’s work in unearthing records of sale in Western North Carolina….”
— From “Buncombe records unearth slave data, expansion planned” by Beth Walton in the Asheville Citizen-Times (Oct. 14)
“On a trip through the North Carolina mountains in 1878, Virginia newspaper editor James Cowardin found himself surrounded by thousands of pigs. ‘Hogs were before us and behind us, and both to the right and to the left of us,’ Cowardin wrote. ‘There was whipping and shouting and twisting and turning’ as the swineherds yelled, ”Suey!” “Suey!” “Get out!” “Suey hogs!” “D—d devil take the swine!” ‘
“Cowardin too cursed the pigs at first, but once he settled into the rhythm of the road, he began to daydream about following his ‘grunting friends’ to their destination and enjoying a pig slaughter feast: ‘What luxury in spare ribs, backbone, and sausage we would have,’ he fantasized, ‘not to mention pigs’ tails broiled on hot rocks!’
“The flesh of Cowardin’s traveling companions, though, was destined for other stomachs. He had stumbled upon a seasonal movement of livestock that had been happening each winter for more than half a century. He was in the middle of a pig drive….
“The best estimates suggest that in the antebellum South, five times as many hogs were driven as all other animals combined. In 1847 one tollgate in North Carolina recorded 692 sheep, 898 cattle, 1,317 horses, and 51,753 hogs….”
— From “The Great Appalachian Hog Drives” b May 4, 2015)
When they’re not being stolen, these pig statues in downtown Asheville commemorate the 19th-century hog drives.
“P.S. There is a poor, desperate, unhappy man staying at the Grove Park Inn. He is a man of great talent but he is throwing it away on drink and worry over his misfortunes. [Maxwell] Perkins thought if Mama went to see him and talked to him, it might do some good — to tell him that at the age of forty he is at his prime and has nothing to worry about if he will just take hold again and begin to work.
“His name, I forgot to say, is Scott Fitzgerald, and a New York paper has just published a miserable interview with him — it was a lousy trick, a rotten…piece of journalism, going to see a man in that condition, gaining his confidence, and then betraying him. I myself have suffered at the hands of these rats, and I know what they can do. But I don’t know whether it’s a good idea for Mama to see him — in his condition, he might resent it and think we were sorry for him, etc .— so better wait until I write again.”
— From Thomas Wolfe’s letter to his brother Fred (Oct. 7, 1936)
On Fitzgerald’s 40th birthday two weeks earlier, a reporter from the New York Post had tracked down the drunken author in Asheville and brutally described him under the headline “On the other side of paradise… engulfed in despair.”
“We have had a few folks get to the end of our 50-minute tour of the old boardinghouse before they realize we are not talking about the guy in the white suit…. As a tour guide it is rewarding for us anytime we see the light bulb going on and someone finally making connections… but you do have to wonder where they were over the last 45 minutes.”
— Tom Muir, historic site manager at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville, quoted by Tyler Malone at Full Stop (April 14, 2015)
“The guy in the white suit” tells George Plimpton his thoughts about the first Tom Wolfe.
“As idyllic as his days in Royston [Georgia] seemed to be, [young Ty Cobb] was always delighted to visit Grandpa Johnnie, the antislavery Reb, in rural Murphy, North Carolina….
“Once, when he was about 11, he accompanied Johnnie Cobb to Asheville, where the ‘squire’ was serving as foreman of the jury in a civil matter, probably a dispute over land. When the verdict was announced by his grandfather, the loser in the case ran up and grabbed Johnnie by the shirt, an act that caused Ty to also come charging out of the audience and attempt to boot the man in the shins. The angry litigant, unaware of what a pair of Cobb-kicked pants might bring one day on the memorabilia market, swatted him away, but when he turned back to Johnnie Cobb the squire had drawn his pistol. ‘Be on your way,’ Ty’s grandpa said, and the man left peaceably.”
— From “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leerhsen (2015)
“Sen. Robert Reynolds, a Democrat from North Carolina and an outspoken opponent of Jewish migration, claimed Jews were ‘systematically building a Jewish empire in this country,’ and often argued that Jews were alien to American culture. ‘Let Europe take care of its own people,’ Reynolds argued. ‘We cannot care for our own, to say nothing of importing more to care for.
“Reynolds disseminated his nativist views through a publication he founded called the Vindicator. The publication carried headlines about the ‘alien menace’ such as ‘Jewish Refugees Find Work,’ ‘Rabbi Seeks Admission of One Million War Refugees,’ and ‘New U.S. Rules Hit Immigration of German Jews.’ Defending himself against critics, Reynolds told Life magazine that he simply wanted ‘our own fine boys and lovely girls to have all the jobs in this wonderful country’….
“William Dudley Pelley, a leading anti-Semite and organizer of the [Asheville-based] ‘Silver Shirts’ nationalist group, claimed that Jewish migration was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to seize control of the United States. Pelley, whose organization routinely used anti-Semitic smears such as ‘Yidisher Refugees’ and ‘Refugees Kikes,’ attracted up to 50,000 to his organization by 1934….”
— From “Anti-Syrian Muslim Refugee Rhetoric Mirrors Calls to Reject Jews During Nazi Era” by Lee Fang at the Interceptor (Nov. 18)
“A statue of evangelist and pastor to presidents Billy Graham is expected to be installed inside the U.S. Capitol after his death. The statue would replace that of Charles Aycock, a North Carolina governor who championed public education but was also a prominent white supremacist….
“It’s likely that few people will be offended by the honor extended to Graham since he was one of the dominant religious figures of the 20th century, said William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University and a biographer of Graham.
“Martin said he has been retained by ABC since 1995 to be available to the network on an exclusive basis at the time of Graham’s death.
“Graham [at age 96] has been mostly out of the public eye for several years.
“ ‘Outside evangelical circles, knowledge of him is waning daily,’ Martin said. ‘Ten years ago, before I retired from teaching, a minority of my students recognized his name.’ ”
— From “A statue of Billy Graham will likely replace a white supremacist’s statue in the U.S. Capitol” by in the Washington Post (Sept. 21)
The state’s other honoree in Statuary Hall, Zeb Vance, will remain in place, although his own support of white supremacy was just as unequivocal as Aycock’s — e.g., “Even the mind of a fanatic recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick and jealous blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
In Asheville, meanwhile, some are looking askance at the 119-year-old Vance Memorial in Pack Square.
“Mr. Stikeleather, may I give you one little illustration of what I think may have happened between myself and the people in Asheville? Have you ever tried to pass a man in the street and the moment you stepped to the right to go around him he would also step that way, when you step to the left, he would follow you, and so the thing would continue until it became funny and you both stood still and looked at each other and yet all the time all you were trying to do was to be friendly to each other and to give the other fellow a free passage?
“Or, better still, have you ever met some one that you knew you liked and you were pretty sure he felt the way about you and yet, figuratively speaking, you ‘got off on the the wrong foot’ with each other? Now I think that something of this sort may have happened between Asheville and myself.
“When I wrote ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ several years ago, I can honestly assure you I had no notion that the book would arouse the kind of comment and response and cause the kind of misunderstanding in my home town that it did do. I should like you to believe that I, myself, was just about the most surprised person in the world when I finally understood the kind of effect my book was having in Asheville….”
— From Thomas Wolfe’s letter responding to Asheville businessman J.G. Stikeleather (July 8, 1935)