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Report from Kevan Manwaring, Eccles Centre Fellow in North American Studies 2015


Report from Kevan Manwaring, Eccles Centre Fellow in North American Studies 2015

[vc_row margin_bottom=”15″][vc_column][dt_banner image_id=”15022″ bg_color=”rgba(0,0,0,0.12)” min_height=”270″][/dt_banner][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row margin_bottom=”10″][vc_column width=”1/2″][dt_quote]The Eccles Centre Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to research key aspects of Appalachian culture for my PhD in creative writing, writes Kevan Manwaring. The Fellowship granted me time in the archives but also time to go on an Appalachian field trip that has helped add telling detail to my novel and bring alive specific scenes.[/dt_quote][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]‘We’re sailing west, we’re sailing west,/To prairie lands, sun-kissed and blest—/The crofter’s trail to happiness’ … So goes an Emigrant jingle from the Canadian Pacific Railroad Archives. It sums up the apparently glamorous allure of the New World, as packaged to the Scottish and Scots-Irish settlers, who did not need much persuading, considering the many adverse factors driving them to risk the perilous crossing – Highland and Lowland Clearances; the Potato Famine; punitive changes in farming practices and land[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]ownership; extreme poverty and hardship. It is not surprising they fell for the hype. But they took with them their own songs and tales which evoked the longing of the exile, the backward glance to the lost land of birth, of blood, the soil in the soul.

Many of those settlers ended up in the mountains, laurel meadows and hollers of the Appalachians, planting their culture in different soil that shared the same geology – for once their respective landmasses had been joined as Laurentia. Maybe they felt the ancient rhyme in their bones – it made them feel at home.

Inspired by this notion, of finding unexpected common ground across the divide, my main focus was all things Appalachian. I am working on a novel for a creative writing PhD at the University of Leicester dramatizing the diasporic translocation and cross-fertilisation of ballad- and tale-cultures between the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. I had already done a fair bit of ballad research at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, but needed to explore certain aspects of Appalachian culture relating to my characters (some real, some fictional) and setting (ditto). I am fascinated by the collision of the actual and the imaginary as Nathaniel Hawthorne termed it in his 1850 introduction to The Scarlet Letter, ‘The Custom-House’, on observing the effect of the co-mingled warm light of the coal-fire and the cold light of moon-beams upon the room’s surfaces:

Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.

The actual anchors the imaginary, providing what Hawthorne defined as ‘the authenticity of the outline’, within which a writer can embellish. It was the need for the solid timber-frame of facts upon which to furnish my fictive world that sent my searching through the archives – for the general texture of the milieu and the telling detail with which I could bring alive specific scenes.

Key subjects I looked at in the British Library were: Long-hunters; Medicine Shows; Log-cabins; and Appalachian history. The log-cabin research culminated in a lunchtime talk in July as part of the Summer Scholars series. It felt great to share my shed-obsession with a lovely audience including general public, staff and specialists. Having visited the iconic ‘log-cabin’ of Thoreau fame, on Walden Pond, during my US research trip, this felt like full circle in a way.

And my Appalachian field trip was certainly a highlight.

During 22 August-8 September 2015 I undertook a road trip, courtesy of my American friends from Rhode Island, down the East Coast to North Carolina. I wanted to go by road to experience more closely the transition from New England to the Southern Appalachians, and take in as much of the geography and culture as possible. As a novelist, this kind of texture is vital. It is all in the ‘telling details’, that no amount of book or virtual research will ever uncover. You have to be there, get off the beaten trail, talk to locals, have an experience.

My intentions with this field-trip were to experience North America directly, to observe, record, and reflect (in my trusty Moleskine); to use the above to enrich the novel, paying particular attention to the quotidian texture of the everyday (what novelist Colum McCann called ‘the miracle of the actual’ ); to identify and record examples of the idiolect and ecolect of North Carolina; to make some useful connections; to hear some live music and perform a little myself (sharing my tales and poems at local ‘open mics’ and round campfires); and, finally, to find (fresh) inspiration.

Particular highlights included meeting fretless banjo-player Rick Ward, a singer descended from long-hunters and a long line of local note-worthies (including the famous Hicks family – see below). I recorded one of his stories, a local folk tale, on my phone, during our conversation at a Boone coffee-house. I was introduced to Rick by local music impresario, Mark Freed, of Jones House – a centre for bluegrass, Americana and Old Timey music in Boone. Another highlight was a visit to Jane Hicks Gentry house, Hot Springs, NC (Jane Hicks Gentry was a ‘tradition-bearer’ with a vast repertoire of ballads and Jack-tales, recorded by Sharp, Lomax, et al). I got to meet her great-grandson in Gentry Hardware and purchased a copy of the biography on Jane Gentry Hicks, A Singer Among Singers, signed by the author, Betty N. Smith and the grandson. During my stay I got to check out a fine slice of different types of music – buskers on the streets of Asheville; the Boston bluegrass all-female outfit, Della Mae, in concert at the legendary Grey Eagle; the Shindig on the Green: a weekly hoe-down in the centre of Asheville with music and dancing; a taste of the Counter Culture at Organicfest in the same venue the next day; bluegrass and blues in the downtown ‘pub’, Jack of the Woods; a folk duo at Shenandoah national park; and merry campfire singalongs. In an intangible, but vitally qualitative way, my field-trip enabled me to simply soak up the texture of the American freeway, and ‘Main St America’.

My field-trip also afforded some unexpected but priceless by-products, including spending quality time with an American family – sharing meals, living space, birthday/Labor Day celebrations, et cetera; researching in App. State special collections (where I immediately felt at home!); exploring the Urban Walking Trail, Asheville; visiting the inspiring aSHEville Museum, which celebrates the lives of Appalachian Women; and hiking round in the ‘Backcountry’ on various trails.

What was heartening from all this was confirmation that in my initial envisioning and depiction of my American characters and settings I was pretty near the mark – indeed I felt, at times, that I met real people who could have been from the pages of my novel! Time and time again I did a double-take as I seemed to step into my own book. This was interesting as the working title of the novel was ‘The Two Seeings’, from the Gaelic for Second Sight, An Da Shealladh (literally, the ‘two sights’, the mortal and the visionary sight of the seer) and inspired by the William Stafford poem, ‘Bi-Focal’

So, the world happens twice—

once what we see it as;

second it legends itself

deep, the way it is.

On my final night in Jamestown, Rhode Island, my hosts held a farewell celebration inspired by the theme I suggested: ‘Crossways Medicine Show’. We had fun creating various ‘snake oils’! I MCed a fire circle where I encouraged the sharing of stories, songs and poems, in any language; and painted a banner upon which I asked guests to sign with their respective countries/heritage. It was a great way to celebrate our various narratives, our common ground, and the conclusion of a rich and inspiring trip.

Upon my return to England I followed up some of my field-work with further study in the archives at the British Library; and I went onto incorporate my findings into the second draft of the novel, written while a writer-in-residence at Hawthornden Castle, November-December 2015. I feel my time in the Eccles Centre has been fruitful – taking my research to the next level. It has helped bed my novel in the actual, providing essential nutrients for the orchids of the imagination I have planted there.


Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom-House’, Introductory to The Scarlet Letter (1850) [accessed 20.09.2016]

Stafford, William, “Bi-Focal” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems. Copyright © 1954 by William Stafford. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota,, from [accessed 20.09.2016]


I would like to thank the Eccles Centre this opportunity to deepen and widen my research. It has been a great pleasure and privilege to delve into the bottomless archives of the British Library – actual and virtual. It is truly one of the great places in the world to spend time in scholarly pursuits.

Kevan Manwaring (FHEA) is a Creative Writing PhD student at University of Leicester; and an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies (2015-2016).[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]