The Carolina literary community heralded Ron Rash’s receipt of the 2014 Thomas Wolfe Prize with wide enthusiasm. Fellow writer and Carolina Creative Writing faculty member Michael Chitwood reflected that endorsement in his introduction of Rash at the 2014 Thomas Wolfe Lecture on October 2 in the Genome Sciences Auditorium. He celebrated Rash’s success as a writer and his deep roots in Appalachia: “Ron Rash has always rooted his work in his native Appalachian soil, but it blossoms in the universal.” In characterizing Rash’s kind of regionalism, Chitwood explained, “He locates his work in place and time to make it vivid and give it the ring of authenticity, and then he transcends that place and time with character and voice to get at what is true in all times and all places.”
The evening began with ceremony befitting the occasion. Chair Beverly Taylor welcomed the audience. Terry Roberts (Ph.D. 1991), Executive Director of the Paideia Center, brought greetings from the Thomas Wolfe Society as he celebrated the shared Appalachian roots of Wolfe and Rash. Then first-year Thomas Wolfe Scholar Maddie Norris (Class of 2017) presented Rash with the Thomas Wolfe Prize medal. Rash is the fourteenth recipient of the medal and prize which honor Carolina literary alumnus Thomas Clayton Wolfe (class of 1920), author of Look Homeward, Angel.
Rash’s comments and reading quickly confirmed Chitwood’s observations in his introduction. His speaking voice is rich with the cadences of the mountains where he grew up and continues to live. After nodding to Thomas Wolfe’s influence and sharing some of his own excellent poetry, Rash held the audience’s attention rapt with a reading of his short story “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out.” The story offered a full illustration of Rash’s dynamic of exploring universal issues through the specifics of the Carolina mountains and its culture. It also reflects the quality that Chitwood observed is at the heart of much of his writing: “the struggle to discern the right path with all the complications provided by the human heart.”
Rash is exceptional in his success in three genres: poetry, short story, and novel. Over the course of his career, he has published four books of poetry, four short story collections, and five novels. His poetry collections include Eureka Mill (1998), Raising the Dead (2002), and Waking (2011). His novel One Foot in Eden (2002) won the 2002 Novello Literarcy Award and was an Appalachian Book of the Year. Other novels include Serena (2008) and The Cove (2012). Among his critically popular short story collections are Burning Bright (2010) and Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013). His work has earned a long list of awards and prizes including the Sherwood Anderson Prize, the James Still Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, two O.Henry Prizes, and the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
The Thomas Wolfe Prize recognizes a writer who has made a significant contribution to writing in the humanities and whose work befits the ambition and scope shown by that of Thomas Wolfe. The range and power of Rash’s work make him a deserving recipient of the honor. Rash continues to write prolifically while serving as the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.
The department is grateful to the sponsors of the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Lecture: alumnus John Skipper (BA English 1978) and his wife Jessica, The Thomas Wolfe Society, and the Department of English and Comparative Literature. The prize money comes from the Thomas Wolfe Endowment Fund. UNC Alumnus Ben Jones (class of 1950) gave the medals that each recipient receives.
Previous recipients of the prize include Tom Wolfe, Larry Brown, Elizabeth Spencer, Pat Conroy, Ellen Gilchrist, George Garrett, Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Robert Morgan, Roy Blount Jr., Lee Smith, Al Young., and Josephine Humphreys.