Gurney Norman is a compelling personality, outstanding author and a leader who has worked tirelessly to stimulate, encourage and gain recognition for Appalachian literature. Norman’s writing is true to the traditional lives and language of mountain people. At the same time, his work is anchored in a solid vision that is informed by a truly international consciousness.
Gurney Norman was born on July 22, 1937, in Grundy, Virginia. His father, Howard Norman, grew up in Allais coal camp, near Hazard, Kentucky, and worked in the Allais mine until he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. His mother, Thelma Musick Norman, taught in the Perry County, Kentucky public schools in the 1930s and early 1940s, until mental illness caused her to be hospitalized. His maternal grandfather, R.F. Musick worked in the underground mines in Lee County, Virginia for thirty years. After the war, he and three of his sons operated a small pony mine for several years. Mr. Musick and his wife, Mary Kirk Musick, lived in the traditional Appalachian way, raising and canning most of the family’s food, milking cows, raising hogs and heating their house with coal fires in two grates and the stove in the kitchen. Gurney Norman’s paternal grandfather was Gurney Wesley Norman, who managed the commissary for Columbus Mining Company at Allais from 1915 to 1946. His wife, young Gurney’s grandmother, Flora Lewis Norman, was the daughter of Sam Lewis, Knox County, Kentucky’s sheriff around the turn of the twentieth century. Gurney’s father, Howard, never really recovered from his service in World War II, and his mother remained a hospital patient for several years. By the time Gurney was five, he and his older brother, Jerry, and younger sister, Gwynne, began moving back and forth between their two sets of grandparents. At the age of nine, Gurney enrolled at Stuart Robinson School in Letcher County, Kentucky, a Presbyterian mission school where he roomed and boarded with other students. While he was a student there, Jerry, a popular senior at Hazard High School, was killed in a car wreck two weeks before his high school graduation, a devastating experience for Gurney and Gwynne. Norman graduated from Stuart Robinson School in 1955 and went from there to the University of Kentucky where he received a journalism degree in 1959. At UK, Norman’s friends included fellow writers Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan and Bobbie Ann Mason. He was also influenced by the writer and professor, Hollis Summers. His other writing professor at UK, Robert Hazel, suggested that Norman apply for a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Then he “bugged” him about doing it. Hazel even threatened to never talk to him again if he didn’t apply. Finally, Norman filled out the simple application, cutting and pasting in work he had published in a local literary magazine, stamped the envelope and tossed it in the back seat of his car. Soon it fell to the floor and started to get stepped on. Finally on December 31—the deadline—Norman happened to stop at a drugstore in Newland, North Carolina, about 4:00 in the afternoon and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed one of those round-topped postal boxes. He grabbed the application from the floor of the car and threw it in the box. The result was that he received a Stegner Fellowship, the opportunity of a lifetime, because a teacher was bound and determined to encourage him.
At Stanford, Norman’s studied under Wallace Stegner, the critic Malcolm Cowley and the Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor. After leaving Stanford, Norman joined the Army, serving as an infantry lieutenant at Fort Ord, near Monterey, California. Then he returned to Hazard, Kentucky where he worked as a reporter for the weekly Hazard Herald newspaper from 1963-1965, an exciting time when the Rovin’ Pickets of Southeastern Kentucky were active and indigenous movements against strip-mining and for black lung compensation were in their formative stages. His friends and colleagues at the time included Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in nearby Whitesburg, where Harry Caudill was practicing law and writing books. The Gishes and Harry and Anne Caudill had been sounding the alarm about the destructive power of strip-mining for years, and were important and inspiring influences on Gurney Norman’s thinking and writing in the mid-1960s. In 1965 Norman left Hazard to work as a babysitter and motel night clerk in Connecticut, and as a fire lookout for the U. S. Forest Service in the Mount Hood range of Oregon.
In 1967 Gurney Norman returned to Palo Alto, California, married Chloe Scott, a dancer, and began working with Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog. When they first met, Brand was driving a station wagon around to various West Coast communes, acting as a kind of informal facilitator and agent of communication among like-minded young people. When Brand found products which were particularly useful, he purchased them and began to carry them place-to-place like an old-time frontier peddler. From this experience came the idea of creating a kind of counter-culture mail- order catalog which would inform people of available tools for people consciously living simple lives, close to nature, with minimum reliance on fads and multi-national corporations. The Whole Earth Catalog became a publishing sensation as readers from all walks of life discovered it. The Last Whole Earth Catalog sold more than two million copies.
Norman’s first novel, Divine Right’s Trip, was written to complement The Last Whole Earth Catalog, a true merging of the practical, the political and the artistic. The text of the novel appeared on sequential pages along with the product descriptions. When Divine Right’s Trip was published separately by The Dial Press, Bantam Books and Pan Books in England in 1972, it was reviewed in a lengthy essay by John Updike in the New Yorker. Hilarious and yet profound, the book represents a startling reversal of the American tradition of “westward movement” literature, as it depicts the story of David Ray (Divine Right) Davenport, an Eastern Kentucky native, and his fellow hippies, traveling west to east from California back to Kentucky, eventually settling peacefully on a mountain farm raising rabbits and using rabbit manure to reclaim abandoned strip mines. In particular this novel turns around those books, like On the Road by Jack Kerouac, which viewed youths’ quests as continuing to open up new frontiers. Instead, Gurney Norman’s story follows the more traditional mythic path of the hero’s journey as articulated by the scholar Joseph Campbell. D. R. Davenport goes on a quest, slays his dragon, in this case his alter-ego, and then, like Odysseus and his literary successors, returns home. Many of the characters in Divine Right’s Trip are stoned much of the time, and they swear constantly. Deep down, however, they have great respect for the traditional rural American ways of their forebears of previous generations. They are rebelling against their parents’ generation, but not their grandparents’. They want America to skip the generation which brought the world the atomic bomb, the multi-national corporations and compulsive consumerism. They want to get back to a make-do-or-do-without way of life which relates peacefully to the land and people and is not obsessed with technology and profits.
Throughout the seventies, Norman often traveled back and forth from Kentucky to California, in a way reminiscent of Stewart Brand’s early travels, encouraging the social and artistic movements of the time. During the later half of the decade, Norman taught creative writing at Foothill Community College in Los Altos, California while continuing to participate in several collaborative literary efforts. In 1976 JuneAppal Records, a division of Appalshop, an innovative arts cooperative in Whitesburg, released Ancient Creek, Gurney Norman’s spoken-word record album in which a folktale of resistance to environmental
Degradation is told. Kinfolks, a collection of short stories, published the next year, presented the common people of Eastern Kentucky, warts and all, in a delightful and endearing light. Outwardly, this book is very different from Divine Right’s Trip. This book appeals to a wide audience, and, in fact, is immensely popular with all generations. The people of Kinfolks are just as imperfect as those in Divine Right’s Trip, but they hold dear the same old-fashioned values, even when they are incapable of exemplifying them.
In l979 Norman returned to Kentucky to join the University of Kentucky English Department as a teacher of creative writing. Still at UK, Norman continues to encourage the writing talents of a generation of students while pursuing his own creative work and participating in a legion of exemplary community-based cultural efforts as well. He is a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Writer’s Cooperative and, since its beginnings in 1978, a teacher and supporter of the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. He teaches for and facilitates the work of the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea, Kentucky, founded in 1987. In late 1996, he married Nyoka Hawkins, a native of Pike County, Kentucky, and a professional editor who founded Old Cove Press in 1999. Old Cove Press’ first book was Affrilachia, a book of poems by Frank X Walker.
In the late 1980s, Norman’s work moved from fiction to non-fiction, from print to television. Kentucky Educational Television (KET) premiered three one-hour documentary programs written and presented on-screen by Gurney Norman in collaboration with director John Morgan. Time On The River (1987) is a study of the history and landscape of the Kentucky River Valley. In From This Valley, (1989) Norman delves into the history of the Big Sandy River Valley, with a focus on the valley’s rich literary tradition. The Wilderness Road (1991) traces Daniel Boone’s route from the New River near Radford, Virginia, through Cumberland Gap and on to the banks of the Kentucky River in Madison County, Kentucky. This work emphasized Norman’s lifelong fascination with his region’s history yet represented many of the same strengths and values of his fiction. In addition to his work with television, Gurney Norman collaborated with independent filmmaker Andy Garrison, who directed three films based on Norman’s short stories from Kinfolks, “Fat Monroe,” “Night Ride,” and “Maxine.” Garrison combined the three films into an hour-long program for PBS entitled “The Wilgus Stories.” Another collaborative effort, this time in the print media, was released in 1993. It is a celebration of the writing which has come out of the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School. This workshop was founded in 1978 by one of Gurney Norman’s primary role models, Al Stewart, the founder of Appalachian Heritage as well as the Writer’s Workshop.
Norman co-edited A Gathering at the Forks: Fifteen Years of the Hindman Settlement School Appalachian Writers Workshop, with George Ella Lyon and Jim Wayne Miller. In the following year, 1994, Norman worked again with George Ella Lyon and this time with Bob Henry Baber as co-editor of Old Wounds, New Words: Poems from the Appalachian Poetry Project, a selection of poetry from all over the mountain region.
Norman’s next collaborative book effort went beyond the earlier collections of regional writing. Its focus remains very dear to the editors’ hearts. Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes, co-edited by Dwight Billings and Katherine Ledford, was published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1999 and reprinted as a paperback with the title, Backtalk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes. Norman’s most recent collaborative book is An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature, co-edited with Danny L. Miller and Sharon Hatfield. As the title implies, this 2005 release by Ohio University Press is the culmination of years of work encouraging regional literature. It collects critical essays on the abundant regional literary works which Norman and his colleagues strived not only to encourage but also to celebrate by stimulating writers to do the critical analysis necessary for regional writing to be taken seriously.
A clear progression exists from a novel which turns counter-cultural momentum back into local communities, to an audio recording of a modern myth, to celebrations of those communities in print and on television, to collections of regional writing, and on to the effort to confront stereotypes and encourage the literary profession to take regional writing seriously. Each step, each new work, builds on the accomplishments heralded by its predecessors.
Gurney Norman views his role as part of a larger Appalachian Renaissance which continues to evolve. For at least thirty-five years, Norman “has seen the rise of a thoughtful community of people in Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia who think, read, write, and engage in the community.” Hundreds of high school teachers and others are encouraging new generations of the region’s youth to become part of this community of awareness of regional heritage and determination to carry forward its best traditions. Books about the Appalachian Region and fiction set in the region now abound as a new generation of Appalachian writers asserts itself. Critical works about regional literature, Norman believes, are becoming “deeper, richer, and more complex. Universities, colleges and high schools are beginning to produce good critical essays about this new body of work.”
Gurney Norman is often encountered as a human whirlwind. He shows up unexpectedly and almost always conveys enthusiasm about new ideas in relation to the Appalachian Region. The last time he came to my house, in June of 2005, he was talking about the applicability of Edward Said’s concepts in Orientalism to post-industrial Appalachia, and literary modernism in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy. How can a person not be intellectually stimulated when Gurney Norman makes statements like, “I think of Marc Chagall as an Appalachian writer.” In addition to fostering deeper thinking, Gurney Norman encourages, by example, active participation in important collaborative efforts with filmmakers, musicians, artists, photographers and other writers in the mountain region as well as local citizens working to improve their communities. A skilled organizer, he has produced concerts, conferences, literary readings and frequent writing workshops in rural areas. In 1991 Morehead State University presented him with its Appalachian Treasure Award. In 1996, Emory and Henry College celebrated his career by featuring him and his work at the College’s annual Literary Festival. In 1997 he was the keynote speaker at the Appalachian Studies Association Conference.
Over the past thirty five years, Gurney Norman has had an immense impact upon the literary life of the Appalachian Region. As a working-class person, he has discouraged class chauvinism and encouraged inclusion regardless of class. As an anti-racist, he has worked tirelessly to include people of all ethnic backgrounds, especially African-American writers, in the regional literary canon. As a supporter of community activism he has encouraged the unity of creative expression and progressive politics. As a firm believer in traditional Appalachian values, he has opened minds and evaporated stereotypes. Gurney Norman’s sustained efforts have born fruit in a region which now boasts a vibrant and progressive and expanding literary community.