Whether a North Carolina native or not, the Old North State has produced some literary giants with national and international reputations. Some, like Robert Ruark of Southport, were a big deal during their day, and some, such as Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, are still discussed widely in literary circles. Others have gone relatively unnoticed.
One overlooked literary is James Ephraim McGirt. Born near Lumberton in Robeson County, McGirt later embarked on some entrepreneurial adventures and became a successful businessman. McGirt was always writing, however. Many times his literary passion competed with his vocational duties. He often started penning prose before the workday ended.
In Philadelphia, the Robeson County native started McGirt’s Magazine, a monthly and later a quarterly publication that explored the news and arts in the African-American community (1903-09). He marketed his publication, however, for black and white readers. He returned to North Carolina and became one of the best-known and most influential African-Americans in the Triad. With his sister, he turned a small entrepreneurial endeavor, Star Hair Grower Manufacturing Company, into a “lucrative” enterprise that employed scores of people and had obtained a national market.
McGirt’s seemingly mundane, rural upbringing provided plenty of material for his poetry and stories. In “Avenging the Maine” (1899), for instance, he discusses the land and a rural lifestyle. A lot of his work includes moral lessons, too. The corpus of his work has been considered to be of “uneven quality” — a fact he blamed on his vocational distractions. For sure, he was not as gifted a writer as Paul Laurence Dunbar, but McGirt, in various ways, may have contributed more to the burgeoning African-American literary scene.
A controversial literary figure and lifetime contrarian was Wilbur J. Cash. (My introduction to Cash was as an undergrad, when my professor unexpectedly asked me — in front of everyone — if I thought “the South” was more of an idea — a created concept — or a particular place. All I was thinking about, really, was what might I order later for lunch.)
Cash grew up in Boiling Springs, N.C. Wary of “preacher colleges,” he still attended Wake Forest College where he was exposed to new ideas and became a budding iconoclast. (No doubt he liked the controversial Darwinian perspective of the college’s head, Dr. William Poteat). After graduation, Cash was a freelance author and a reporter for the Charlotte News. His most famous essay, “The Mind of the South,” caught the attention of a well-known publisher, Alfred Knopf, who wanted the North Carolinian to expand his ideas in a published book of the same name in 1941.
Essentially, Cash argues that there are many Souths. He challenges the “cavalier myth” — the Old South — and the image of a progressive and industrialized South — the New South. To Cash, the South is a “mind of the soil rather than the mills.” To Cash, the South is not “Gone With The Wind,” but the yeoman experience. Reviews were generally kind, but some believed Cash’s “unbiased history” was too limited. It was from a “hillbilly point of view.” After the book’s publication and few months later in Mexico City, a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, yet paranoid and seemingly troubled, Cash unfortunately died most likely from suicide. He never was able to write his lifelong ambition, writes George Tindall, a “fictional saga of a southern industrial community.”
It’s a good idea to keep some of the old works — some North Carolina classics — in your reading rotation. Maybe choose to read an author who is unfamiliar to you. You may unexpectedly find a literary gem or a new favorite novelist. You may eventually find yourself in used bookstores, looking for more of his or her works. You may eventually have a lighter wallet and hear your bookshelves groaning. But if you are like, me you won’t regret it.