With only his most famous novel still in print, late West Virginia author Hubert Skidmore is a literary tragedy who deserves to be remembered.
By Chris McGinley
West Virginia writer Hubert Skidmore is not much read nowadays. In fact, only his most famous novel, Hawk’s Nest, is still in print. Two thematically related works, I Lift Up Mine Eyes and Heaven Came So Near, can be found at university libraries and through vendors on the Internet, but his other books are hard to find. It’s too bad, really, because the novels are achingly beautiful studies of Appalachia. They’re absolutely gripping in terms of story and so skillfully written with respect to character development and language. It’s also regrettable that there’s precious little research on Skidmore himself, who died in a house fire in 1946. Just 36 years old, he had his writing life ahead of him, especially given the accolades he’d already received. All things considered—his untimely death, the fact that he’s largely been forgotten and the frequently forlorn mood of the novels themselves—it makes for a kind of literary tragedy. But maybe I’m being overly romantic about it. Either way, this much is true. The canon of Appalachian literature, of American literature, would be greatly enhanced by a reconsideration of Skidmore. (It should be noted here that the West Virginian also wrote another series of novels featuring a character named York Allen, but these differ from the aforementioned both thematically and in terms of genre.)
In I Lift up Mine Eyes (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1936), Skidmore introduces three themes that will occupy him over the next several years: the threat of corporate industry, the loss of traditional mountain culture and the resilience of Appalachian people in the face of continued adversity. At the center is the Cutlip family of Cherry Knob, West Virginia, a settlement high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Maw Cutlip is the family matriarch, a hard-working, middle-aged farm woman. Along with her husband, Nat, and their four children, she struggles to coax crops from the parched earth up on the Knob. In previous years, the family has experienced lean years, but it’s worse than ever now. To make things worse, Nat is unable to find any other work up on the mountain. Out of desperation, he decides to take a job at the sawmill down in the valley, promising to return to the Knob someday. However, his decision ends with grave consequences.
This mountain story is a narrative device common to Skidmore: dislocation necessitated by economic insecurity and the introduction of the corporation with its mechanized workplace that promises to “make life better” for mountain folk. It’s always a bad recipe, a fact Maw senses even before she and the children move down to “the Trot” to live with Nat. Indeed, as the psychological center of the novel, Maw becomes a vehicle for Skidmore’s critique of corporate industry. But the book is not overtly political as is, say, The Jungle, or the many proletarian novels of the era. Yes, Skidmore uses Maw to illustrate the dangers of corporate power but never at the expense of the story. Maw’s interior moments—and there are many—are principally a mother’s lament for the loss of the old ways, for the demise of the small farming lifestyle and all the good it affords her “young’ins,” not a broadside against corporate America. Thus, when Nat announces that he will move the family to the Trot so that he can earn money at the sawmill, Maw’s anxieties are instantly mobilized:
The thought of moving into a strange town where people lived so close as to enter into the pattern of your life was frightening. To leave the work of years, the garden, the ever-widening cornfield, the little peach tree about to bear fruit for the first time, and the cabin, was like cutting off the growing years of her life. Deeply inrooted, she could not imagine resuming life in another soil, felt that the children were being untimely torn from the security of their solid life and thrown, like rootless things, into a life that would bewilder and waste them.”– I Lift Up Mine Eyes
Maw cannot stand that her children will be deprived of the hard work on the Knob, of the beauty that proceeds from traditional, small farm work, and of the restorative presence of nature. The Trot—with its shabbily constructed workers’ shacks, its company store and its dangerous sawmill work—represents to Maw everything violent and impure.
Sadly, her fears are instantly realized.
The Trot is a place where children are cruel, domestic thrift and cleanliness are seen as useless, where alcohol and licentious behavior are accepted, and money controls everything. By contrast, up on the Knob money is a commodity less important than crop yields or the number of cans one has “put up” for the winter. The quantity of eggs that chickens produce, the value of a skill like sewing, building a cabin or a piece of furniture, or the ability to work hard—these are the things that determine value and give life meaning on the Knob. In one particularly sad passage, Skidmore documents the effects of the Trot on mountain consciousness. Having already lived in the valley far longer than she had intended, Maw tries to make sense of the little cache of bills she’s saved from Nat’s earnings, but it’s an enterprise totally alien to her.
Unaccustomed to money, she never looked upon it as representing any number of things they needed. She had too long denied herself what the earth could not produce. Rather, in the aged and crumpled money, she felt a vague nameless security, an intangible protection against some dreadful hour. It was in the pile of dollar bills, and not in the few fives and tens she had managed to get from the storekeeper, that she felt the greatest comfort. Their bulk seemed to afford an added assurance.”– I Lift Up Mine Eyes
Of course, in the end, the money is useless to fend off the ill-effects of the Trot, and the story ends with Maw and the remaining family headed back to the Knob where they try to make a life there again. This is where Heaven Came So Near (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938) takes up the story. At this point, Nat has passed away and Maw’s oldest child, John, has married and decided to remain down in the valley, having accepted a coal mining job against Maw’s better judgment. Though Maw, her daughter, Effie, and her “least ‘un,” Ben, work hard to try and eke out a life back up on the Knob, they never succeed.
Without Nat and John, the family simply cannot make it. “Runty” crops and poor conditions overall lead the family back to the Trot. Maw figures it is the only way they can get by, but little has changed in the valley during the family’s year and a half away. The children at the Trot are still cruel, and the adults are catty and vengeful. Once more, Skidmore places the focus on Maw and her desperate desire to make a life for her “young’uns.” The tone is bleak, and the reader is privy to even more of Maw’s interior narration in this book. She laments about the loss of Nat and the home place on Cherry Knob, where life was hard but rewarding and pure. During a long session of peeling apples for butter, Maw drifts off in recollection of such days:
The seasons had been long and generous. By the middle of October the corn showed yellow through the highest crack of the crib, and Nat had dug an extra straw-filled hole for the potatoes that came large and plentiful from every row across the old field. Not in the six years they had lived on Cherry Knob had Nat and Smanthey [Maw] known a harvest so fruitful, and the hogs grew fat on garden vegetables they could not put away.”– Heaven Came So Near
However, there’s a new focus in this novel, too: the relationship between Maw and her youngest, Ben. Ben is quick-witted, and just as soon as he finishes school, he takes the teacher certification exam. He passes and for a brief time, it seems as if all will work out for what remains of the Cutlip family. When Maw must reconcile herself to the fact that the disabled Effie marries a “widdy-man,” she is heartened by Ben’s good turn of fortune. She plans to follow him to his new school once determined.
Some of the most touching passages depict Maw in her efforts to support her gentle, loving son during this brief period of happiness. Still, on some level, she knows that she’s fooling herself. She quickly realizes that Ben is not made for the world of the valley, or maybe for any life outside of Cherry Knob. In another dark moment, she recalls the unending abuse the boy has endured on the Trot and the events that have forever altered him:
The years had marked a long procession of such events. With an increasing fear she could not express, Maw saw Ben become more reluctant to extend himself, less ready to step forward and claim what was his own. Like a growing thing too often denied light, turning and searching deep in the soil, he was attempting to find some other direction he might travel, unaware that his inward seeking created a greater hunger. Maw half sensed that no answer waited in that strange, dark, inner life.”– Heaven Came So Near
As hopeless as it seems for Ben, Maw tries to believe that the two of them can make it out of the Trot. In a scene of great tenderness, she worries over Ben’s solo walk to Camden to take the teacher examination. She prepares his “vittuals” for the long hike, making far more than he could ever be expected to eat:
Don’t fuss so much,” Ben said, a little embarrassed at Maw’s careful preparation. “I ain’t going to eat no great lot.”– Heaven Came So Near
You can’t reason out the answers so good,” Maw returned cheerfully, if yore stomach is empty; you gotter eat well.” Suddenly she whirled about. “Land o’ liven,” she exclaimed, “I clar fergot to get the cheese! Now ain’t that a fearful shame?” Her eyes were apologetic as she looked at Ben. “I figgered I’d get you a nice piece of cheese form the commissary.”– Heaven Came So Near
There are many such scenes that portray Maw’s complete devotion to her children, her deep love and unending support. Interestingly, much of it comes through Skidmore’s use of mountain dialect, which is something readers so rarely see in a form like this nowadays. Indeed, most writers would avoid dialect in the way Skidmore renders it—misconstruing spelling and phrasing as condescending or consistent with negative stereotypes about the region. However, once one enters into it fully—and with a level of trust commensurate with Skidmore’s love for his mountain characters—the speech patterns and dialect evoke an intimate, down-to-earth sensibility that connects the reader to the characters. Put simply, Skidmore is not making fun of Appalachia and its people. He’s ennobling their culture, language and identity.
Of course, the challenges of life on the Trot make the move difficult, even with Ben’s successful completion of the exams. First of all, Ben falls for a local girl, a situation that brings trouble. Add to that the fact that he begins to suffer from delusions and an inability to separate fact from fantasy and things become even more difficult. In fact, Skidmore seems to suggest that Ben’s ever-worsening illness stems in the first place from the endemic cruelty of the Trot. To the naturally peaceful Ben, there’s no logic to the ways of his neighbors, so unlike the friendly folks on Cherry Knob. Not surprisingly, the locals seize on Ben’s “quare” manner and alienate both him and Maw. Only the cantankerous (and often funny!) Aunt Binney remains a friend.
The end of the novel is courageous, but in a manner that may not sit well with all readers. (I’m surprised that the Doubleday & Doran editors approved it, actually.) Even so, no matter how one receives it, this much must be said: Over the course of the final 50 pages, Skidmore proves that he could have been a writer of thrillers. The writing is tension-filled, full of the “harrowing” events promised by so many back cover blurbs nowadays.
In the final analysis, both I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes and Heaven Came So Near are condemnations of extractive industries and of corporate greed and exploitation, but again, they are much more than just this. Together, the books anticipate Skidmore’s most famous work, Hawk’s Nest (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1941).
Here Skidmore creates a fictional narrative from actual events surrounding the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project, a massive engineering enterprise intended to produce power for Union Carbide Corporation’s ferro-alloy smelting plant. With construction begun in 1930, the three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain was designed to divert water from the New River to the Union Carbide hydro-electric plant downstream at Alloy, West Virginia. But in drilling the tunnel, the corporation showed little concern for employee working and living conditions. Estimates vary, yet most sources claim that anywhere from 500 to 1,000 workers died from silicosis. Nowadays, the tunnel project is regarded as “the greatest industrial disaster” in American history.
Like the sawmill in the earlier two novels, the mining company in Hawk’s Nest elevates profits over men. The main difference here is that Union Carbide (and affiliates) are far larger and more powerful than the sawmill. Furthermore, men all over the country are desperate for work in these early Depression years, which was a situation ideal for the exploitation of human capital. To document the full horizon of economic inequity, Skidmore shapes this narrative differently than the previous ones. In Hawk’s Nest, he tells the stories of many intersecting characters with different backgrounds and different priorities. To wit, there are: single, down-and-out men; young couples and families escaping drought and poor crop yields; unemployed African Americans paid even less than the grossly underpaid whites and immigrants; and sundry out-of-work salesmen, among others.
Again, bent on finishing the tunnel quickly, the company disregards worker safety and health regulations. The biggest problem is the rock dust from the high volume of silica released in blasting and drilling. With “wet drills” and masks, the men would be protected from the dust, but such practices slow progress, and the company forces the men to work in veritable clouds of silica. What comes next is inevitable: The men inhale the tiny particles of silica, take sick and die.
Like the families of the Trot in the earlier novels, the workers live in flimsy, cold shacks, often sardined one-upon-the other. They are forced to pay a fee to cash weekly paychecks, and they may not eat non-commissary food in the shacks. The workers and their families remain continually outraged, but to complain aloud means instant dismissal. There are hundreds of men waiting in the wings to take the jobs of “malcontents,” which Skidmore describes in a memorable passage:
As snow rode into the winter valley on winter winds, death followed death like the steps of a walking man. With Number One and Two ready to hole through, and the other spur not far behind, the drills whirred and whined ceaselessly in the great shafts beneath the foot of the Gauley Mountain. New men quickly replaced the ones who were fired when the emaciated bodies could no longer man the drills, and any mucker who staggered was sent home for a day, for two days, and then, if he was not able to return to the hole, another took his place, for all crews were kept at capacity, all work went on unremittingly.”– Hawk’s Nest
One of the novel’s heroes is “Long” Legg, a stout drifter more vocal than others about the horrendous conditions. Long looks out for his friends, Jim Martin and Owl Jones—a Black worker confined to the worst conditions in the camp. One day, Long and Jim hike up to visit Owl in the crowded shack where he lives with the other Black workers. They discover men quite literally on their deathbeds curled up on tiny bunks and coughing spasmodically from the dust. The men tell Long that the camp physician pays them no mind when they call for him, setting Long and Jim off to reckon with the doctor and force him to attend to a dying worker. In the midst of a poker game, the doctor simply refuses to go, and he even levels a veiled threat at Long, whose job the doctor could terminate with a word to a company boss. Long realizes once again that justice and equity are not much in evidence anywhere in the camp, nor is basic human decency. In the same scene, Long also learns about a man the Black workers call “the Rouster,” Slat McCune, a bully hired by the company to brutalize “lethargic” and “non-compliant” Black workers. McCune regularly steals money from the men when he raids their “illegal” dice games, but this is better than dealing with the Sheriff, the men tell Long. Again, Long is incredulous:
Does the bastard come in and grab your money and keep it?”
He sure does do that,” Owl answered simply.
Effen we opens our mouths,” Stringbean added, “he takes us to the sheriff. The sheriff he slaps the table with he’s hand, and that costs ten dollars. It’s a whole heap cheaper effen we just let McCune grab what he can get.”– Hawk’s Nest
Enraged, Long says, “I’m just itchin’ for that bastard to come in here.” But, similarly to the doctor and the sheriff, McCune is backed by the company and wields far more power than Long or any other laborer. The workers, even en masse, are impotent against people like McCune.
Then there are young couples, like Daisy and Lock Mullens or Anna and Pete Cermak, on the move and looking for any kind of honest work. In the camp, they scrimp and save but never seem to get ahead. Once the men begin to show signs of what the camp doctors call “pneumonia,” the wives know that things will only get worse. Even more dire is the fact that once a man is dismissed from tunnel work, none of the few other operations in the region will hire him on. They are forever cursed.
Perhaps the saddest story is that of the Reip family—Maw, Tom and their four children. Like the Cutlips in the earlier novels, the Reips have moved to Gauley from rural Slaty, where they had tended a failing farm. To Maw’s dismay, her boys get on at the tunnel, forsaking their education altogether. Even Maw’s industrious ways cannot prevent the family from disaster, but she labors on at her garden, almost as if she can outduel the misfortune she sees approaching by turning earth and planting seeds. In a memorable scene, Maw and her young neighbor Daisy take a rare break while working a garden plot together. Here, Daisy confesses to Maw that she’s worried about her husband’s persistent cough. Though Maw has already lost one child to the tunnel and though she knows the signs, she does her best to support Daisy when the young, pregnant wife asks about the collective illness:
Maybe,” Daisy broke in, “maybe it’ll pass, now it’s turnen warmer. It’s just, maybe, somethin they catch form worken where it’s warm and then comen out.”
Mebby,” Maw granted. “There ain’t no real way of tellen. Turner Hatch, what’s a foreman there, tole my man he’s been worken in the mines and sech for twenty years. Said that the dust wouldn’t hurt no more’n breathen in the fog.”
Daisy settled back wordlessly, one finger tracing an endless pattern through the dirt. “Mercy,” she said presently, “mercy, I hope so.”
Hope,” Maw repeated softly. “Hope, I reckon that’s about the most we got to go on.” Then, as if their talk had been idle and without purpose, she clambered to her feet. “I’m goin after the spade,” she called. “Don’t you dig another stroke afore I get back.”– Hawk’s Nest
Like the Cutlip novels before, Hawk’s Nest is bleak but also lovely. There are transcendently beautiful passages about love and family, singular joyous events—like a mountain-style Christmas, letters home to wives and children, and outings to get ice cream or to purchase an article of clothing for a loved one. Skidmore foregrounds the conflict between the workers and the exploitative company, while never losing his characters and focusing on their humanity and their love for one another.
Yes, it is unfortunate that two of the three novels are now out of print. However, copies can be found on the Internet and in libraries. Maybe someday we’ll see a resurgence in work on Skidmore and other Appalachian authors, including their lost novels of Appalachia.
Chris McGinley’s Coal Black (Shotgun Honey, 2019) is a collection of crime stories set in the hills of Appalachia. His work has appeared in Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Cutleaf, Reckon Review, LitHub and other forums. He teaches middle school in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife.