John Ehle: N.C. mountains shape author's work without confining it
15 July 1996
Greensboro News & Record
John Ehle has had a life-long love affair with the North Carolina mountains _ the backdrop for most of his fiction, including "The Journey of August King."
John Ehle was born in Asheville in 1925 and grew up hearing mountain stories from mountain people.
His Aunt Lucy remembered many of the people who became characters in the novels of Thomas Wolfe, an Asheville native who was master at blending fantasy and fact.
But despite his early exposure to Appalachian stories, Ehle - whose 1971 novel, "The Journey of August King," has been rereleased and made into a movie out on video this month - didn't become seriously interested in writing until he reached high school.
"I started writing speeches in high school," he recalls, "and I learned to my astonishment that my first speech was successful. The topic was a movie, 'Ferdinand the Bull."'
Always an avid reader - of Uncle Wiggly stories, the Bible, Dickens, anything he could get his hands on - Ehle traveled extensively with his high school debate team, from Kentucky to Florida, honing his writing and speaking skills as he went, beginning the long apprenticeship required of all successful writers.
Curiously, Thomas Wolfe was off-limits to him as a boy. "My mother had a copy of 'Look Homeward, Angel,"' Ehle says, "and I asked her if I could read it. She said, 'No, it's a dirty book.' So I did not read Thomas Wolfe at all until I was in my 40s. And then I read just about everything by him. He's an amazing writer."
After serving in the infantry late in World War II, both in Europe and Japan, Ehle earned a bachelor's degree in English at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1949. He then went to work at the university, writing documentary film scripts and radio plays while trying his hand at short fiction. He did not enjoy instantaneous success. One short story was returned by a New York publisher with a form-letter rejection and a terse, hand-written note: "Sorry."
But Ehle kept plugging. His friend Paul Green, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, convinced Ehle that one of his rejected short stories was actually the first chapter of a novel. He persuaded Ehle to write two more chapters, then an outline.
Eventually it mushroomed into a novel and, with Green's help, got into the hands of an editor at William Morrow. It took that editor just 24 hours to make an offer on the book, the story of the travails of a black family in a fictional North Carolina town that sharply resembles Chapel Hill.
"Move Over, Mountain" was published in 1957 to excellent reviews. And John Ehle was on his way.
His second novel, "Kingstree Island," set on the North Carolina coast, was published two years later. Since then he has published nine more novels, most of them set in the North Carolina mountains, where Ehle feels most at home to this day.
"I just felt more comfortable writing about people in the mountains than I felt writing about people in the Piedmont or on the coast," he says. "It was just more natural. Most of my books start with a place, then a person. The two have to be together. The place shapes the person. I think that's particularly true in the mountains (because) the mountains limit the action to what goes on in that valley. The mountains cup the action."
But Ehle has not allowed himself to become trapped by those mountains - or by a single literary form. He has written non-fiction books on wide-ranging topics, including the civil rights struggle in Chapel Hill in the early 1960s, the forced westward march of the Cherokee Indians, a biography of Frank Porter Graham, even an appreciation of the wines and cheeses of England and France, with ruminations on the abundant joys of Irish whiskey.
He also has taught writing in Chapel Hill, worked for the Ford Foundation in New York and served as a cultural adviser to Gov. Terry Sanford from 1962 to 1964. It was then that Ehle came up with the inspiration for the Governor's School, the N.C. School of the Arts and the nation's first statewide anti-poverty program, the N.C. Fund, all of which led Newsweek magazine to dub him a "one-man think tank."
"All of them were my babies," he says with evident pride. "It was fun to see them get developed."
Along the way Ehle has won a truckload of literary awards - including five Walter Raleigh Prizes for fiction and the N.C. Award for Literature - as well as several honorary degrees and countless kind words.
"I like just about everything John writes, especially his fiction," says Buzz Wyeth, who, as a young editor at Harper & Brothers, published Ehle's "Lion on the Hearth" in 1961, beginning a working relationship that lasted almost 20 years. Wyeth also edited "The Journey of August King."
"It was right in the tradition of the stories in his previous books - the mountain country, the mores and characters of that place," Wyeth says. "I thought it had a potential to appeal to a lot of readers."
Ehle appealed to Wyeth from the outset.
"I was sent as a young editor down to Chapel Hill to do some prospecting," Wyeth recalls. "Paul Green gave a dinner for me at the Carolina Inn, and one of the guests there that evening was John Ehle. After the dinner, John and I moseyed off and ended up killing most of a bottle of bourbon together. After that we were very close friends."
Marshall De Bruhl, a fellow Asheville native, edited Ehle's 1968 non-fiction book, "Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation."
"What I wanted was to have a novelist's sensibility on a non-fiction book," says de Bruhl, then an editor at Doubleday's Anchor Books. "He really hit on the right approach to the story. Perhaps only a novelist would have hit on that - so my instincts were correct."
The book has sold a robust 180,000 copies over the past quarter century. After modest sales on his first three novels, his fourth, "The Land Breakers," was a main selection of the Literary Guild. It sold a stunning 120,000 hardback copies in Holland, which prompts Ehle to speculate, "I think they stuffed them in the dikes." Every one of his novels, except his debut, has come out in paperback as well as hardback.
"'August King' is one of my favorite books," de Bruhl adds. "I'm a Southerner. These people were anti-slavery, and that attracted me to the story. I'm a kind of sucker for the evocation of the mountains. They didn't mess up the film - they didn't make a big interracial love match, which would have been impossible in those days. I was very moved by the film. Jason Patric is terrific - whoever coached him with the accent did a great job."
Fred Chappell, an acclaimed writer who also grew up in the North Carolina mountains and now teaches at UNCG, says of "The Journey of August King": "It's a strong book, with fairly short scenes that move right along. It should translate very easily to the screen. It's very vivid. He knows what he's talking about - it's not phony stuff, but it's not dogged realism, either. He has a real streak of adventure and action that I've always admired."
Ehle and Chappell became acquainted in the early 1960s, when they were working in the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill and Durham, respectively.
"We go back a long ways together," Chappell says. "John was very instrumental in demonstrations. He was one of the people who helped keep the lid on the situation. The rural people were against civil rights - the town (of Chapel Hill) was, too, for that matter. He worked with the police, university officials, the NAACP, whoever was around. Everybody knew he was somebody sensible because passions were running pretty high."
Ehle's civil rights activism, like just about everything else he has done, led to a book. "The Free Men" is his 1965 account of the boycott of Chapel Hill businesses that refused to serve black people, a volatile subject that inspired strong feelings - "from high plaudits to near-absolute and sometimes bitter condemnation," according to the Greensboro Daily News.
Like many others familiar with Ehle's work, Chappell feels Ehle deserves a wider, national reputation but has been denied it because he has chosen to write about a specific place, those lilting North Carolina mountains.
"It's true that if you come from a specific place, then you're regarded as a regional writer," Chappell says. With a rueful chuckle, he adds, "If you come from New York, on the other hand, you're universal."
Of the remarkable people Ehle has met in his 70 years, Frank Porter Graham stands above all the others.
"He was a wonderful fellow, an absolute knockout," Ehle says of Graham, who served as president of the Consolidated University of North Carolina from 1932 to 1949, then in the U.S. Senate for two years, and finally as a mediator at the United Nations in the 1950s.
Ehle became acquainted with Graham in the late 1940s during his undergraduate years in Chapel Hill. Ehle visited Graham's home one Sunday afternoon - and promptly got into an argument about where N.C. Memorial Hospital should be built. Graham, naturally, favored Chapel Hill. Ehle thought Asheville or Charlotte would have been more suitable.
"Dr. Graham always liked people who had opinions - including people whose opinions didn't jibe with his own," Ehle says. "I'd always known I was going to write a book about Dr. Graham. He came up to me at a reception once and asked if I would consider writing a book about him. I left that out of the book because it was so out of character."
Ehle remembers Graham not as a self-promoter, but as "an outright genius," a tireless champion of the university, a defender of civil rights, freedom of speech and the working man.
The two men saw each other frequently in New York in the 1950s, when Ehle was working at the Ford Foundation and Graham was at the U.N. mediating India's and Pakistan's claims to Kashmir.
"It took an eternity to get from his office to lunch," Ehle recalls. "He seemed to know everybody. Guards, doormen, secretaries - they seemed to sparkle when he was around. I uncovered some wonderful stories about him. He would lend people money if they needed it. He would go to funerals up in Harlem, wherever."
And he would go to parties. Ehle particularly remembers the ones thrown by Al Lowenstein, a Chapel Hill grad who later became a virulent critic of the Vietnam War and was instrumental in driving Lyndon Johnson from the presidency.
"Al's idea of an hors d'oeuvres table for 150 people was a box of crackers and a quarter pound of cheese," Ehle says with a laugh. "At Al's parties, Dr. Graham would stand up in the middle of the room. He could talk, and he could listen. He was mostly interested in what you were doing and what he could do to help."
In 1967 Ehle married Rosemary Harris on the porch of his 19th-century cabin near Penland. An English actress acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, Harris has won a Tony Award, an Emmy, and an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as T.S. Eliot's mother-in-law in the 1995 feature film, "Tom and Viv." She recently finished filming "Death of a Salesman" for British television.
Ehle and Harris have one daughter, Jennifer. The 26-year-old actress is also in England, where she recently played Elizabeth Bennett in a six-hour BBC production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." It won critical raves when it was shown this year on the Arts & Entertainment network.
Ehle recently visited his wife and daughter in England. "I told Jennifer at her 26th birthday party that I wish she had been twins," Ehle says. "I'd like to have two of her. Her career is a treasure to me."
Much as his own life has been a treasure.
"Yes, I have led a rich life," Ehle says. "There have been many facets to it. I've enjoyed every year of it - and most every day."