The Mythic School of the Mountain: Black Mountain College
Brilliant artists, poets, and intellectuals established Black Mountain College’s reputation as a bastion of innovative thinkers. The college’s brief, obscure existence — and its avant-garde “Happening” — sealed its legend.
In early 1933, John Andrew Rice, an outspoken firebrand and educator, founded a revolutionary new college deep in the mountains of North Carolina’s Buncombe County, just a few miles from the village of Black Mountain. Black Mountain College not only became a legend in its own time, but also established itself during its brief existence as the boldest, most progressive educational experiment in American history.
Rice, a dissident professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, had been dismissed from his teaching post. He had been accused of many things, chief among them fomenting revolt among the Rollins faculty. Rice held that traditional lockstep academia, and its often anemic curricula, allowed little in the way of independent thought and engagement. Upon departing, he led a band of fellow academic dissidents — as well as a number of Rollins students loyal to him — away from Rollins and established Black Mountain College. Rice had nothing in the way of a plan, much less dollars or even a building. The college’s very first catalog stated that it had been founded “to provide a place where free use might be made of tested and proved methods of education and new methods tried in a purely experimental spirit … ”
The W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection, in the Belk Library at Appalachian State University, houses the John Andrew Rice Papers, a trove of lore and memorabilia. One extraordinary document — tattered, cracked, and with Rice’s own penned-in emendations — is a single page of aged onionskin, at its crest the heading, in all caps, THE PURPOSE OF THE COLLEGE. It begins: “The purpose of the college is to lead on to creative consciousness a carefully selected group of talented young men and young women who are eager to know, to will, and to do.” Across its very bottom edge, in Rice’s penmanship, sprawls “Inner freedom in judgment and action.”
That first semester, fall of 1933, Black Mountain College had 13 faculty members and 26 students. The physical plant materialized, like so many of Black Mountain’s milestones, through serendipity. One of Rice’s confederates, Bob Wunsch, a dramatist from Rollins and a North Carolina native — not incidentally the roommate of Thomas Wolfe for a time at the University of North Carolina — suggested the first site for the college. The Blue Ridge Assembly, a Christian conference and training center, established in 1906, was a cluster of blazing-white buildings, including the august antebellum structure Robert E. Lee Hall. It was utilized in the summer for religious retreats, but unused for the most part during the traditional academic year. Rice and Wunsch engineered a deal and were able to rent The Blue Ridge Assembly for a fantastic bargain. Nevertheless, there was the Depression to contend with. There was little money to speak of. Malcolm Forbes, of the famous Forbes family and a former Rollins professor himself, provided the majority of the underwriting.
Black Mountain College faculty, with liberal input from the students, ran the entire operation. No boards of regents, directors, or trustees. The college was not accredited. Of the roughly 1,200 students who attended during its history, few (approximately 60) ever graduated, and those who did received hand-designed, homemade diplomas. Yet its students, upon leaving Black Mountain, were coveted by the very best graduate schools in America and beyond. The school’s structure was its lack of structure. The pedagogical direction was whatever students and teachers agreed upon. No grades. Process claimed dominion over product. Many local Buncombe citizens regarded Black Mountain with suspicion and disdain.
Both faculty and students pitched in to help with campus upkeep. photograph by Emily Chaplin
In the beginning, faculty were paid on the basis of need. When there was enough money, they received small salaries, plus room and board. Much of the food that fed the residents was grown on the college farm. Self-sufficiency, living lean and close to the land in the true pioneering tradition of America, was very much a part of Black Mountain. The college taught that the exchange of creature comforts for freedom was a more than equitable barter. Black Mountain invented itself and in so doing established a paradigm for all educational communities ever after to mimic. It initiated itself by posing tough questions about arbitrary, traditional rules governing education and teaching, questions about the self and various external fetters imposed upon it.
Black Mountain was also a crucible of dangerously volatile social change. Long before the rest of America wrestled with sexual orientation and racial integration, Black Mountain was establishing a forum for discussion and acceptance, but always — and perhaps more important — dissent. During its inception, it became a sanctuary for Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were fleeing the scourge of Nazi Europe.
My intoxication with Black Mountain College began the summer of 1987, when Ronald H. Bayes, my Literary Godfather, laid in my hands Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: AnExploration in Community. I had just started teaching at what was then St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg — a little town every bit as obscure as the town of Black Mountain was in 1933 when the first faculty members of Black Mountain College arrived at the rail station on Sutton Avenue and were spirited off to their new home at the Blue Ridge Assembly in the very rural Swannanoa Valley.
Bayes, a longtime distinguished professor and writer-in-residence at St. Andrew’s — by my lights, a fringe Black Mountain poet himself — had been intimates with Black Mountain writers Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and Fielding Dawson, and a very close friend of Robert Creeley until Creeley’s death. Through Bayes’s magical connections, many of those writers had been frequent visitors to the St. Andrew’s campus, and, in 1974, St. Andrew’s hosted the now mythic, actually unimaginable (so large are the names on this list), Black Mountain Festival, which featured the writers already mentioned as well as John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, and M.C. Richards.
At the time I read Duberman’s book, I had merely heard of Black Mountain College, which I knew no longer existed. I conceived of it like any other college, like the ones I attended and taught at. As I read, however, I was astonished to learn, page by page, what experimental education and community looked like up close — perhaps what education and community had been meant to aspire to all along. What’s more, I was utterly mystified as to why — having been a North Carolinian and a college English professor for 10 years and pretty knowledgeable, or so I thought, in American literature — Black Mountain College had never crossed my radar.
Today, 27 years after I discovered Black Mountain, it remains among even the well-educated across America — not to mention the citizens of North Carolina — at best an anomaly, but more a well-kept secret. There is nothing to commemorate its considerable glory other than a terse epitaph etched into a silver historical marker on U.S. Highway 70 (State Street) at West College Street, traveling west out of the charming little town of Black Mountain: “BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE: Est. in 1933: Closed 1956. Experimental school with emphasis on fine arts & progressive education. Campus was 3 mi. NW.”
• • •
In 1988 I took a job, under the auspices of the North Carolina Visiting Artist Program, as writer-in-residence at McDowell Technical Community College in Marion. With my wife, Joan, and our 1-year-old son, Jacob, I moved to Old Fort, an outpost in the far west of McDowell County, literally in the shadow of Black Mountain, a mere seven miles off, way up corkscrewing Old Fort Mountain. Being in such proximity to the sites of the legendary college enchanted me.
I was actually invited to read my work at The Blue Ridge Assembly, in Lee Hall no less, in front of the same immense fireplace where Thornton Wilder, five years before Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize, mesmerized the college community. I wandered the endless corridors, the voluminous rooms and sequestered chambers with the same furniture the Black Mountaineers had used, the same oxygen they had breathed still secreted in the ether.
I wrapped my arms around the colossal white columns of Lee Hall’s veranda. I sat on its wide stairs and gaped at the looming range of the Blue Ridge that had awed those first pilgrim students. The ladder-back rockers lining the porch had to be the same ones that visitors John Dewey, Henry Miller, and Aldous Huxley — men in linen suits — had rocked in, dispensing with inscrutable wit what it was like to be brilliant and recognized worldwide. Those rockers murmured; the planks beneath them creaked assent. The sound of the past, in all its uncanny falsehood, an imagined idea of perfection, was hauntingly palpable.
In 1941, the college moved but a few miles from The Blue Ridge Assembly to its decidedly more famous, even more notorious, campus at Lake Eden. It was built in the early 1900s by E.W. Grove, often dubbed the “Father of Modern Asheville,” the man who built The Grove Park Inn. Finding the Lake Eden campus was not so easy. The highway marker gives only the murkiest directions for how to get there. What does “3 miles NW” mean, anyhow, unless you’re a crow? The marker does not even distinguish which of the two Black Mountain campuses it refers to. Nevertheless, I drove the maze of winding blacktop roads, lined with hemlocks and ancient split-rail fences, off U.S. Highway 70 until I finally found Lake Eden Road and, not long after, Lake Eden itself.
Students pose for a photo snapped by Jonathan Williams. photograph by Emily Chaplin
I recognized the campus at once from photographs I had seen in Duberman’s book and elsewhere. It was by then Camp Rockmont, a Christian summer camp for boys and the site of the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF). It was early December. The place was seemingly abandoned. I wandered about in a stupor. I found the Round House and the Quiet House — a small stone building, the college’s de facto chapel.
I entered the dining hall, a rustic, beamed, window-lined room with a fireplace, polished wooden floors, and wagon-wheel chandeliers. In this very room, the first Happening was staged in 1952. An extravagant event, owing everything to Dadaism, it charted the future of wildly collaborative multimedia improvisational performance art and dramatically influenced an entire generation of performance artists, including Yoko Ono, who became a disciple of John Cage, the mastermind of it all.
The descriptions of the Happening vary widely and, at this point, it’s impossible to have any documentary sense of it. The audience was seated in four arranged triangles. Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings hung from the ceiling. Cage perched on a stepladder and read various esoteric texts, including excerpts from Meister Eckhart, then delivered a performance with a radio while Rauschenberg played records on a gramophone and David Tudor played piano. Charles Olson and M.C. Richards read poems. Merce Cunningham and others, chased by a dog, danced among the audience. Film was projected onto the ceiling. And so it went: perhaps pedestrian by 21st-century standards, but utterly unheard of and avant-garde in 1952 — especially in a remote reach of the North Carolina mountains.
I walked out to the screened porch of the dining hall, sat at a picnic table, and mooned at the range of cobalt mountains blackening in stark relief against the sky softening in the 5 p.m. light. The lesser peaks in the foreground were green, floating on Lake Eden in perfect mirrored reflection. The water was still, everything hushed save for birdsong. Daylilies fluted out of the shoreline. Across the lake shimmered the Studies Building. Its original design — too expensive, too elaborate — had been tendered by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and his partner Marcel Breuer. Ultimately, the college opted for a design by A. Lawrence Kocher, and the entire building, with minimal professional assistance, was constructed by Black Mountain College faculty and students. Today the Studies Building looks, more than anything, dated — though decidedly in the tradition of the Bauhaus — like one of those boxy experimental houses that cropped up in the early ’60s. In 1941, however, it would have seemed space-age.
In the summer of 1944 — 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education — Alma Stone, a 23-year-old African-American musician from Savannah with degrees from Spelman College and Atlanta University, lived on the Lake Eden campus while attending Black Mountain College for its 11-week summer session. Her visit occurred 12 years before Autherine Lucy, another African-American woman, matriculated in 1956 at the University of Alabama for a mere three days. (She was expelled “to ensure her personal safety.”) Although Lucy is generally credited as being the first African-American student to attend an all-white college in the Jim Crow South, it is arguably Stone who initially cracked that unassailable barrier — in North Carolina at Black Mountain College.
Here, as well, in the summer of 1948, the great inventor Buckminster Fuller constructed his first geodesic dome. Though it failed to rise and was christened, anecdotally, “the supine dome,” by Elaine de Kooning, one of Fuller’s students, the design ultimately was not only successful, but is also an architectural touchstone worldwide. In 1953, also on the Lake Eden campus, Merce Cunningham formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which revolutionized the face of dance across the United States and abroad.
Black Mountain College attracted some of the world’s greatest minds, including Buckminster Fuller, who perfected the geodesic dome. photograph by Emily Chaplin
On a Friday in late April 1992, I was working late in my office at Mitchell Community College when the phone rang. In response to my hello issued the inimitable voice — I can hear it now — announcing: “This is Fielding Dawson, from New York City.” I was stunned. Fielding Dawson, one of the truly famous Black Mountain writers, author of some 20 books, had been a household name at St. Andrew’s, where he had visited repeatedly.
Fielding had gotten my name because, at the time of his call, I was chair of the North Carolina Writers’ Network Prison Project, and he was looking for entrée into prison work in North Carolina. After a visit to Attica Correctional Facility, he had become a fire-breathing advocate of prison reform and education, and he regularly taught writing workshops at some of America’s meanest prisons. He was also chair of the PEN Prison Writing Committee.
We became close friends for the last 10 years of his life. He annually trekked to Statesville, stayed with my family at our home, and he and I taught creative writing together at the Statesville medium-security prison. My sons, Jacob and Beckett, grew up calling him Uncle Fielding and calling his wife, Susan Maldovan, who occasionally accompanied him on his trips to North Carolina, Aunt Susan.
Fielding attended Black Mountain from 1949 to 1953 and while there came under the sway of Charles Olson, of whom he’s written considerably. One of Black Mountain’s greatest, most lasting contributions to the arts occurred under Olson, a visionary, theologian, historian, philosopher, and two-fisted outrageous maverick and raconteur. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, 250-plus pounds, his mere presence was astonishing.
During the 1950s under Olson’s leadership, the literary arts, notably poetry, flourished and took center stage. From this emerged a school of poets and poetry known as the Black Mountain Poets. These writers and their body of work, heavily influenced by Modernist sensibilities — and writers like William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Olson himself, as well as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan, who taught briefly at Black Mountain — noticeably fed into the rise of the Beat poets, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, as well as many of the iconoclastic, often political and politicized, literary evolutions of the 1960s.
• • •
Black Mountain College ceased all academic programs 1957. Later that year, Olson — who remained at Lake Eden to liquidate the college’s assets after it had officially closed — sold Black Mountain College’s library holdings of 12,500 to 15,000 volumes to the then-newly founded North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount for a bargain price of $6,000.
T. Leverett Smith, a formidable Black Mountain College scholar, shared with me copies of letters written between Olson and N.C. Wesleyan. Smith retired from Wesleyan’s English department a few years back, but remains the curator of its Black Mountain Collection. Through his influence, a number of Black Mountain Poets have visited over the years. Signed broadsides of Jonathan Williams’s poems line the hall Smith led me through this past March, on my way to browse the collection. I was stretched for time and made it through only one cabinet filled with book after signed book, monograph, and chapbook, many of them valuable first editions — from Olson, Dorn, Oppenheimer, Dawson, Creeley, and Richards.
Among the American public and academic community at the time, not to mention the rather suspicious Buncombe locals, there was a general lack of interest in Black Mountain. The college had no endowment. In the end, it was unable to recruit enough students for it to remain solvent.
Black Mountain College students followed a variety of creative pursuits on campus and beyond. Robert Rauschenberg makes the final adjustments on a centaur costume. photograph by Emily Chaplin
Yet, to this day, it remains the greatest experimental academic adventure ever launched on American soil. During its shimmering, stormy history, many of the nation’s greatest thinkers and artists were in residence or paid visits to Black Mountain: Anni Albers, Josef Albers, John Cage, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Robert De Niro Sr., John Dewey, Aldous Huxley, Alfred Kazin, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Walter Gropius, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Kline, Jacob Lawrence, Henry Miller, Charles Olson, Arthur Penn, Francine du Plessix-Gray, Mary Caroline Richards, Robert Rauschenburg, Ben Shahn, Thornton Wilder, and countless others.
However, to associate Black Mountain exclusively with this litany of the renowned remains one of the chief hazards of its legacy. What makes the phenomenon of Black Mountain stupendous is the fact that, apart from its glittering roster, there are any number of famous artists and writers, ones without names in neon, without international or even national reputations, who have made prominent names for themselves across every area of the arts. But not just in the arts. Black Mountain produced some of America’s most profound innovators in education, science, social work, architecture, urban planning, psychiatry, history, politics, on and on. To research a Black Mountain College alumnus is to stumble upon greatness. They became citizens of blazing social consciousness and engagement who put to daily practice what John Andrew Rice imagined for his new college’s students back in 1933: inner freedom in judgment and action. In The Black Mountain Book, Fielding Dawson declares: “Forget about the big names” — more a Zen injunction than a literal one. He goes on to say, in an interview I conducted with him, that “[Black Mountain] had a lot to do with a lot of talented individuals who were really interested in what they were doing. The mystic, the intuitive, the anarchist is much more the fact of Black Mountain …”
Black Mountain College started with pure intellectual curiosity and radical curricular reform. It rewrote the history of the self, an opus still unraveling as the endless labyrinth of influence that is Black Mountain branches off into tributary after tributary. Black Mountain College was a gorgeous, temperamental hybrid, gone before America even knew it existed. Nevertheless, as Charles Olson proclaimed in a letter to Martin Duberman: “ There’s no end to the story — her flag flies.’ ”
Photos from the Black Mountain College Museum Photos by Emily Chaplin
Get our most popular weekly newsletter: This is NC