2013 Thomas Wolfe Lecture
"One of the leading voices of Appalachia, both for its people and the place."
Ron Rash is a literary rarity. Most writers specialize, concentrating on poetry or short stories or novels. But Ron Rash is that most unusual talent—there are only a handful in the country—who not only writes in all three genres but excels at them.
Over the course of his still-building career, he has published four books of poetry, five short story collections, and five novels. It is a staggering output of top-quality work, so much so that it almost seems like there must be more than one Ron Rash. On top of this astounding body of writing, he has been a full-time teacher at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, South Carolina, and is now the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.
Rash demonstrated his powers in poetry with 1998’s Eureka Mill, a gritty paean to his cotton mill working forebearers. Though he had already published two collections of short stories, Rash solidified his promise in fiction by winning the 2002 Novello Literary Award for the novel One Foot in Eden, which also garnered an Appalachian Book of the Year award. His prose is always grounded in the cadences and lilts of his native North Carolina mountains while at the same time taking on environmental and moral issues that are at the heart of our living. His novel Serena (2008) gives us the story of the unforgettable title character—a sort of Appalachian Lady Macbeth—whose ambition powers the clear cutting of the mountains’ majestic forests. His latest novel, The Cove 2012), is a heartbreaking account of prejudice and hate brought on by the first World War and the love and tragedy it brings to one mountain community. Its setting is historical, but its themes are as fresh as the day after tomorrow.
While his longer narratives are compelling in their arc, his poems and short stories pack a verbal punch that many novelists would find hard to achieve. As Anthony Hecht said of his poetry, “the supreme achievement of Mr. Rash’s work inheres in a quality derived partly from his remarkable skill, partly from the richness of his regional past, and largely from his dramatic instincts, stoic voice and deep humanity.”
Those qualities have brought Ron Rash a long list of awards and prizes, including the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, two finalist spots for the PEN/Faulkner Award, two O. Henry Prizes, and the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award—so far. The major motion picture version of Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, is scheduled for release this fall.
Ron Rash is a regionalist, one of the leading voices of Appalachia, both for its people and the place. Yet he is a regionalist in the way of Faulkner and Frost, which is to say that the region he explores most vividly is the human heart and soul.