By Steve Bergsman
I had been interested in visiting the Appalachian community of Black Mountain, North Carolina, for a long time. Located about a 15-minute drive from Asheville, the tiny hamlet had its two decades of fame from 1930s to 1950s, when it was host to one of the most unique experiments in American higher education, the Black Mountain College.
This institute of achievement was owned by the faculty, committed to democratic governance and operated on the concept that the arts were central to the learning experience. Starting in the Depression years, the college attracted a host of creative types — artists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland and Ben Shahn; dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham; film director Arthur Penn; architects Buckminister Fuller and Walter Gropius; and writer Francine du Plessix Gray.
The problem for me was that whatever was left of Black Mountain College was now on private property. The funky town was a good place to stop for a meal, do some shopping for local crafts and visit Black Mountain Books, a fine old bookstore of the type that is fast disappearing.
At the store, I spotted a signed copy of Carson McCullers' "Member of the Wedding" in a locked, glass-enclosed shelf under the main counter. It was such a rare sighting I asked the merchant if I could hold the book. He put it into my hands and then walked away. I opened the cover to read the signature and noticed the book was valued at $750. When the merchant returned, I gave it back to him and said, "This is a valuable book. You shouldn't just give it to someone and walk away." He shrugged.
As much as I love Carson McCullers, she was out of my price range, but I did buy an autographed book by Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer before leaving the store.
In Asheville proper, there is a museum dedicated to Black Mountain College, its works of arts, and now current craftspeople and artists. The Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center can be found in two storefront buildings on Broadway and runs exhibitions and art performances year-round. A short, entertaining video tells about the history of the college. When I was in Asheville, the show was called "Active Archive" and included new paintings and invaluable works from the Black Mountain archives by Josef and Anni Albers, who taught at the school.
Before I left Black Mountain Books, I had noticed on the countertop signed copies of "Cold Mountain," by Charles Frazier, and the young adult novel "Serafina and the Splintered Heart," by Robert Beatty. The merchant said his wife, who owned the store, knew both authors as they both lived in Asheville, which I found interesting because I had been coming to Asheville since my son moved to North Carolina about a decade ago — and I continuously circled its literary history.
My first stop years ago was the downtown ancestral home of Thomas Wolfe, an Asheville boy who migrated to New York, where he wrote two of the 20th century's best books, "Look Homeward Angel" and "Of Time and the River." One year I drove the 30 miles from Asheville to Flat Rock to the visit the last home of poet and writer Carl Sandburg, which is now the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site and is operated by the National Park Service.
Last year, my wife and I took advantage of a special deal at Asheville's historic Omni Grove Park Inn, probably the most expensive hotel in the whole Appalachian region. Sure, it was the smallest and probably oldest room in this grand hotel, first opened in 1913 with arts-and-craft-style design, but we didn't care.
Over the years, 10 presidents have stayed there, as well as myriad actors and musicians, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Helen Keller and many authors, including Margaret Mitchell, who wrote "Gone With the Wind." The most famous author to stay there was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lingered for two years while his wife was a patient in an Asheville asylum. His rooms were 441 and 443, and you can rent them today.
Since this was probably going to be my last trip to Asheville for a while, I traveled to the outskirts of the city, where the old Riverside Cemetery is located. Although a number of Civil War generals are buried here, that didn't interest me. The most famous grave is that of Thomas Wolfe. The second most-visited grave? That's another author, William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry. The great short-story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries arrived in Asheville a very sick man, his body riven by alcohol abuse. He died after a short stay, and he too is buried in Riverside Cemetery, now operated by the National Park Service. Look for the jars stuffed with pens and pencils at both gravestones. At O. Henry's grave you'll also see pocket change left by visitors — the $1.87 mentioned in the opening lines of "The Gift of the Magi."
WHEN YOU GO
Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center: www.blackmountaincollegemuseum.org
Thomas Wolfe House: www.wolfmemorial.com
Carl Sandberg Home National Historic Site: www.nps.gov/carl/index.htm
Omni Grove Park Inn: www.omnihotels.com/hotels/asheville-grove-park
Riverview Cemetery: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/riv.htm
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville, North Carolina, is home to displays of fine art. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.