Emma Bell Miles: A Place of her Own


Emma Bell Miles with her husband, Frank, and their twin daughters Judith and Jean, summer of 1903 | Contributed by Grace Toney Edwards

By Grace Toney Edwards


I am longing for the silence and the shadow,

I am dying for the starlight and the dawn;

For the nightwind crying free on the hills where I would be,

For the forest and the waters and the sun.

Then, wild Heart of God, O receive me—

Take me back and let me lair among the fern;

Take me back and let me rest on the Forest-mother’s breast,

Where my lonely, longing heart must ever turn.

Emma Bell Miles, “Homesick” [1]


These words were likely penned by Emma Bell Miles as she languished in the urban recesses of St. Louis, where she had been sent to study art as a young woman of barely 20. Though she loved the great library of the city and made the acquaintance of a fellow nature lover, Henry David Thoreau, through his writing, she could not acclimate herself to staying in this confining place. In a letter to friend Anna Ricketson some years later, she said, “I felt that I had no part in the life about me in St. Louis — it was like a world of dreams; I wanted to go back to the mountains and reality, and back I went, almost at once” [2].


Miles had been nurtured by those “blue hills” of southeastern Tennessee from the time she was a fragile child of 11 when her parents brought her into the southern mountains for the benefit of her health. As she grew into a teenager, she was given relatively free rein of the Walden’s Ridge mountaintop community; she roamed far and wide in the woods, the fields, and the back yards of neighbors. She came to know and love every wildflower, every stream, every rock and crevice, as well as every bird and small animal that peopled her forest. At butter churnings and corn shuckings, she listened to the old stories and songs, to the superstitions and beliefs, to the medicinal remedies and cures. All of this information found a place in her head and heart and would later emerge in beautifully poetic writing and in amazingly realistic drawings and paintings.


Miles’ first major piece of writing made its debut in 1905. Called The Spirit of the Mountains, the book was a fictionalized ethnographic study of the people of Walden’s Ridge. The narrator took on the persona of a mountain school teacher and surely borrowed from the experiences Miles had seen in her own parents’ teaching lives. Though her formal schooling was scant, she had spent many days at her parents’ knees and in their classrooms, serving as teacher’s aide from time to time. In The Spirit of the Mountains she addressed topics such as practices of the log church school and descriptions of the cabin homes of the people. She described their religious habits, their supernatural beliefs, their music, and their literature, primarily oral. One of the most compelling topics was the role of mountain women and their relationships with the men in their lives. This topic was to become a dominant one throughout her writing career, as well as her personal life.


Her 17 short stories published between 1908 and 1921 took on the tone of a crusade for woman’s identity as a person, as an independent being capable of thinking, acting, and living by her own lights. Such a notion was not popular during those turbulent times, especially in the mountain South where a woman was considered to be merely an extension of the most dominant male in her life. But Emma was not daunted by conventional expectations; nor was she unduly influenced by outsiders’ societal ambitions. She came to her views primarily of her own accord through personal experience and observation, coupled with extensive reading as a child; later as an adult she made occasional forays down the mountain into Chattanooga, where she was introduced to the art and literary scenes of a lifestyle totally different from her own.


Miles’ first short story titled “The Common Lot” appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in December of 1908. Here she tackled headlong the dilemma of mountain women: that of taking on the burdens of marriage and the care of children and a household, or remaining single and suffering much the same drudgery in a father’s or brother’s residence without any choice or power of her own. As she puts it in the story, the mountain woman must choose between “slavery in her father’s house or slavery in a husband’s” [3]. A dismal outlook, particularly as viewed through today’s lens! And yet, Miles’ female protagonists, like herself, almost always choose marriage in anticipation of personal rewards of love and affection.


The next several short stories detail the wrenching decisions that young mountain women must make as they tussle with the question of what they want their adult lives to be. We see those who have married under the illusion of romance and idealism, only to be worn down through the years by childbearing, child rearing, crushing poverty, and frequently a husband who fails to share either the physical or emotional burdens the woman carries. Only Fan Walton, the main character in “Flower of Noon,” published in The Craftsman in 1912, manages to survive in a male-dominated world with a promise of love not compromised by self-effacement.


Emma Bell Miles with her twins | Contributed by Grace Toney Edwards

It is hardly a coincidence that Miles herself suffered these same burdens in her married life with Frank Miles. Between 1902 and 1909, she gave birth to five children; the first two were twin girls, Judith and Jean, born just 10 months after her marriage. In 1905 came the first son, Joe, and then Kitty, the third daughter, in 1907. In 1909 came the birth of Mirick, the second son and namesake of Emma Miles’ mother. The fate of Mirick, or Mark as he was called by the family, was to become the great tragedy of Miles’ life and a turning point in her decision-making about how to govern her own fate. In the early winter of 1913 Mark fell ill with a severe sore throat, congestion, and fever. With money in short supply, Frank and Emma did not summon a doctor until too late. Mark died in his mother’s arms of what the doctor belatedly diagnosed as scarlet fever. Miles recorded the whole excruciating ordeal in her journal and at that time vowed never to bring another child into the world that she could not take care of. She kept that vow, although we know from her journal she had several other pregnancies in the years to come. In one agonizing entry from March 29, 1914, she wrote, “I had decided not to put off any longer the murder that will have to be done, and I wanted him [Frank] here to share the responsibility of the danger and pain as well as the sin. It is not pleasant, this killing his children before they are born…” [2].


Despite all the anguish Miles suffered in her marriage and her hard life on the mountain, she continued to have a great love for Frank and her mountain home. In reality, there was no single home that she yearned for because she and Frank had never settled into a real home for any extended period. They made multiple lateral moves across the mountain from one rented cabin to another, with only one short period when they actually owned the house they lived in. But she continued to long for “rest in the Forest-mother’s breast” right up to the end of her far-too-short life.


Even with the hardships and serious illness plaguing the last five or more years that she lived, Miles made a strong and significant mark through her writing, especially her crusade in support of the liberation of mountain women from the patriarchal society they endured. Not only her book and her short stories sounded the clarion call, but so also did her newspaper columns, particularly her “Fountain Square Conversations” in the Chattanooga News, and occasionally her poetry. For much of her life she wanted to write fiction and poetry, but her world view demanded exposition. Her gifts lay in informational and inspirational pieces. As a word painter of the Southern Appalachian region, she kept company with a number of local colorists, but for her clarity of vision and her singleness of purpose on behalf of women, Miles stood alone. Though she probably never realized it in her lifetime, she did indeed find a place of her own.


When the laurel jungles hide in snows of blossom

All the streams that leap anew with rippled rain,

When the young wind loiters through trembling

leaves adrench with dew,

When the mocker spills his heart for love

again—

Then, wild Heart of God, O receive me,

Take me back and let me lie beneath the fern;

Take me back and let me rest in the Forest-

Mother’s breast,

Where my lonely, longing heart must ever turn.

Emma Bell Miles, “Homesick” [1]



Dr. Grace Toney Edwards is Professor Emerita of Appalachian Studies and English at Radford University in Radford, Virginia. She retired in 2010 as Chair of the Appalachian Studies Program and Founding Director of the Appalachian Regional Studies Center at RU.


References



1. Miles, Emma Bell. 2001. “Homesick.” In Strains from a Dulcimore, edited by Abby Crawford Milton, 109. Signal Mountain, TN: Mountain Press.


2. Edwards, Grace Toney. 1981. “Emma Bell Miles: Appalachian Author, Artist, and Interpreter of Folk Culture.” PhD diss., University of Virginia.


3. Miles, Emma Bell. 2016. “The Common Lot.” In The Common Lot and Other Stories: The Published Short Fiction, 1908-1921, edited by Grace Toney Edwards, 39-52. Athens: Swallow Press, Ohio University Press.