24 August, 2017
Dr. Leslie Harper Worthington realized her Appalachian roots through the study of Southern writer Lee Smith’s book, “Fair and Tender Ladies.”
“I found my home reading her book,” she said. “I found myself in her book. It was a wonderful discovery.”
Worthington, the dean of Academic Programs and Services at Gadsden State Community College, wrote about that discovery and read it to a standing-room-only crowd at the Appalachian Studies Conference in Georgia.
“After I read it, a lot of people encouraged me to do a book,” she said.
That book is “Seeking Home: Marginalization and Representation in Appalachian Literature and Song.” It has been nominated for the Holman Award, a prestigious award established by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.
“The award is named for C. Hugh Holman, who taught at the University of North Carolina and is considered a very significant scholar of Southern literature,” Worthington said.
The prize is awarded to the best book of literary scholarship or criticism in the field of Southern literature.
“I was totally shocked when I found out the book was nominated,” she said. “I didn’t see it coming. It’s such an honor, and it’s so exciting to be nominated. In Southern literature, this award is a big deal.”
It was by chance that “Seeking Home” came to be, and it all started with Worthington being raised by her grandparents, who are natives of Kentucky.
“My grandfather was a coalminer and tobacco farmer,” she said. “Like a lot of Kentucky folks, my grandfather moved the family to Ohio to find a better job. He worked on the railroad.”
Though they lived in Ohio, the tug of the Appalachian culture was always there though she did not fully realize it until adulthood.
“I had a sense of being different,” Worthington said. “I couldn’t put my finger on it but I knew my family was different. They talked funny. They ate weird stuff. They were just different.”
Smith’s Southern masterpiece helped Worthington embrace her Appalachian culture, and she considered the suggestions of those wanting her to write a book about it. At the time, she was the chairperson for the
Department of English and Foreign Languages at Gainesville State College, now University of North Georgia. Jurgen E. Grandt was a fellow instructor who specialized in music featured in Southern literature. He, too, encouraged her to do a book and started pitching the idea to publishers. In the end, Worthington and Grandt edited essays for “Seeking Home” and used Worthington’s essay as the book’s preface.
“’Seeking Home’ is a collection of essays discussing fiction, letters, song and poetry that features the ethnic diversity of Appalachia,” she said. “Appalachian people are often depicted as poorly educated white people who live in mountain hollows. They’re more than that, and we wanted to turn that stereotype upside down in ‘Seeking Home.’”
A call for essays brought in a lot of pieces focused on Appalachian culture, literature, poetry and more. Grandt’s essay about Appalachian music concludes the book. It was published by the University of Tennessee Press in December.
This is not the first time Worthington has published a book. Working on her dissertation for her doctorate, she studied Southern writer Cormac McCarthy and found a connection between him and Huck Finn, a well-known fictional character created by Mark Twain. Soon after she completed the dissertation, several publishers contacted her about turning it into a book. As a busy college instructor, mother and grandmother, Worthington had to find time to complete the book. That happened when she earned the prestigious Quarry Farm Fellowship, which is awarded by the Center for Mark Twain Studies to scholars working in the field of studying the legendary author.
“I was able to go to Quarry Farm, which was Mark Twain’s farm in New York, and finish my book in his house,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience.”
She finished the book, “Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn,” during her three-week stay at Quarry Farm. She said the book can be found in over 400 libraries around the world.
Worthington was also an editor and contributor for a literary anthology called “The Woven Word,” which was published through a grant by the UNG Press. She was the editor of a textbook called “The GSC Guide to First Year Composition,” which was used in many English 101 classes.
“Writing and editing is so much fun to do,” she said. “But, it does take up a lot of time. I’ll probably wait until retirement to do much writing.”
Until then, she will enjoy the accolades and positive reviews for “Seeking Home” and celebrate the award nomination for the book that brought her closer to her Appalachian roots.
“The book confirms that just as there are many Souths, there are also many Appalachias,” she said. “The region is multifaceted, multicultural, and all we have to do is be willing to examine the variety.”
The Holman Award will be presented in January at the Modern Language Association Conference in New York City.