Wilma Dykeman (1920-2006) lived all her life near the French Broad River in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Born in Asheville, she was the only child of a mother whose people had lived in the North Carolina mountains since the eighteenth century. She traced her interest in writing to the stories her parents read aloud to her when she was a child. By the time she was in elementary school, she was making up her own stories, plays, and poems. After graduating from high school and Biltmore Junior College in Asheville, the author went to Northwestern University for a bachelor’s degree in speech.
The summer after graduation, she met and married James R. Stokely, Jr., of Newport, Tennessee, a poet and nonfiction writer. The Stokelys, who maintained homes in both Asheville and Newport, collaborated on several books, including Neither Black Nor White (1957), a personal view of integration in the South; Seeds of Southern Change (1976), about race relations; and Prophet of Plenty (1966), a biography of W.D. Weatherford, a Southern leader who worked for racial peace and justice. They also shared interests in book collecting and apple growing. Stokely died in 1977.
Wilma Dykeman’s first writings were radio scripts and short stories, which she followed with articles for Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and other periodicals. In all, she published more than sixteen books. The French Broad (1955), one of the famous “Rivers of America” series, was completed in a year but represents a lifetime of observation and note-taking. It recounts the history, legend, biography (such as the chapter on Thomas Wolfe), sociology, and economics of a mountain region that draws its life and ways from this stream and its tributaries. The book entertainingly relates a dozen or so memorable stories usually omitted from standard histories, such as the search for Professor Elisha Mitchell’s body on the mountain that bears his name, the cutting of the Swannanoa tunnel, and the coming of the Vanderbilts to western North Carolina.
Her critically acclaimed novels especially reflect her understanding of people in the North Carolina mountains. The Tall Woman (1966), which, like all of her books, has gone through numerous printings, tells of a determined mother’s fight for education and justice in the years after the Civil War. The Far Family (1966) picks up several generations later and shows how long-lasting her efforts were.
Return the Innocent Earth (1973) is loosely based on the fact that her husband belonged to the farming family that established the mammoth Stokely canning company. The book fictionally depicts the internecine contention between family members who want to remain true to the soil and those who are contemptuous of everything except the money generated by the canning company. Look to This Day (1969) is a book about her own life and convictions. In 1976 came Tennessee: A Bicentennial History. The writer also collaborated with her two sons on two books.
Dykeman’s many honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and the 1985 North Carolina Award for Literature. She held the honorary title of Tennessee State Historian from 1981 until she died. A popular lecturer, she taught a spring course for many years at the University of Tennessee. Sally Buckner relates in her anthology Our Words, Our Ways that: “Ms. Dykeman urges students to learn to listen and look at the world with keen eyes and ears, then apply themselves diligently. She also draws a keen distinction between aptitude and attitude. ‘The talent comes from developing the aptitude,’ she has said. ‘The writer comes from developing the attitude.’”
With Fire and Sword: The Battle of Kings Mountain, 1780:
Watch Wilma Dykeman and others talk about revitalizing the French Broad River in western North Carolina:
(Courtesy of RiverLink)