Appalachia Recognized

The following excerpt was taken from Edward Francisco‘s introduction, “Appalachia Recognized,” in The South in Perspective:  An Anthology of Southern Literature (2001 Prentice Hall p.1058-59) This anthology is the only Southern literary compilation to feature Appalachian literature as its own category. Works from writers within the region are acknowledged and celebrated. Edward, Robert Vaughan, and Linda Francisco worked tirelessly to compile an outstanding compendium of Southern and Appalachian literature. In addition to Appalachian literature, their endeavor highlights over four hundred years of Southern literature, uniquely dividing the contents of each writing era into “Upper South” and “Lower South.” This undertaking is brilliantly written and organized.                                                                            –Delonda Anderson, Chief Editor, Appalachia Bare

 

 

Appalachia Recognized

Stereotypes, often lurid and derogatory, are never far from “the nature and meaning of Appalachian otherness.” Consider the archetypal hillbilly, “provoking a range of responses, from an odd kind of comfort to a real terror. He is our “symbolic American country cousin,” the slack-jawed yokel at whom we poke fun from a distance but who terrifies us at close range. He symbolizes “an uncomfortable and unwelcome opening into history we have tried to forget, our conflict memory of the pain and heartache of living in the dirt on the frontier.” Even his rude, spare accessories are inseparable from his image as a figure of folk legend. His squirrel rifle, outhouse, and moonshine whisky jug are the stuff of innumerable caricatures reinforcing our cultural and economic superiority at his expense. His wife, the rock-faced “maw” found in such comic strips as L’il Abner and Snuffy Smith, provides an additional “decorative snapshot” in a family album too often characterized by “coarseness, brutality, and unspeakable possibilities spawned in the darkest corners of our consciousness.” The hillbilly’s backwardness – his aversion to civilized amenities and to a way of life ratified by the cities – offers a “useful negative object lesson, a keep-away sign” pointing to the superiority of mainstream, which is to say urban culture and the comforts offered there.

Yet, the mountaineer, the hillbilly, is ironically the most democratic and fiercely individualistic of our longstanding cultural icons. In many ways, he represents the best traditions of the South and of the nation. At first glance, there is little of the romance about him that we associate with such Southern types as the Cavalier or Planter. He has almost nothing in common with either, having had little inclination for rewriting his family’s list or for owning other human beings as a way of getting work done that the hillbilly can do himself.

Suspicious of pseudoaristocrats and people who put on airs, the early Appalachian mountaineer rejected the coastal Southerner’s obsession with genealogy. As John Rice Irwin, founder and Director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee, points out, people of the Southern Appalachian Mountains “were reflective, philosophical, and even studious, when it came to unwritten history; but in referring to the ‘old’ family members they never got beyond ‘Virginia, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania.’” The reason, Rice contends, was that rural mountain folk considered themselves foremost to be “all Americans, and if pushed as to where one’s family was from, the patriarch might say ‘they was Irish or they was Scotch-Irish,’ or that ‘they come from across the waters.’” Appalachian scholar Billy Kennedy identifies a similar tendency, suggesting that the Scots-Irish emigrant families who settled in the American frontier during the eighteenth century “were a unique breed of people with an independent spirit which boldly challenged the arbitrary power of monarchs and established church prelates.” Consequently, “almost everyone, it seems, who has written about this region refers admirably [to its inhabitants] as a brave, hard working independent, self-reliant, and fiercely honest people.”

Yet these very qualities, coupled with ongoing cultural and geographical isolation, have often made the mountaineer a living artifact, subject both to ridicule and to culturally sanctioned caricature. One explanation for this phenomenon may lie in the Appalachian mountain people’s tendency to go their own way, eschewing “progress” and the politics associated with various social programs and reforms. Undeniably, rural Appalachia has resisted change for almost three centuries, often in ways detrimental to the people there. For instance, Southern Appalachian counties are still among the poorest in the country. Health care is often substandard or lacking in rural Appalachia, and education lags sadly behind the rest of the nation. The coal industry, a traditional source of livelihood for many inhabitants of the region, represents one of the most ambivalent, bitter choices that mountain people have been forced to make in order to supplement inadequate farming incomes. No one can accurately assess the human toll that mining has exacted in the Southern Appalachians.

Too often, what the rest of the country sees when regarding Appalachia is the people’s habitual recalcitrance and their unreasonable resistance to social improvements. Consequently, there is sometimes a conflicting response by mainstream America to refashion Southern Appalachia into something more culturally acceptable or to reject Appalachia out of hand as a region of bumpkins and misfits, often “abnormal, degenerative, and pathological.” Our “romanticized awe” for the mountains and for the simplicity of mountain life is countered by a “deeply ingrained aversion [that has] never disappeared and is the key to our modern ambiguity.”

This ambiguity makes it easier for Americans not to take seriously Appalachia itself or its contributions to our national life. A much easier task is to paint the region’s citizens in broad strokes, equating their traditional “multicolored patchwork dress” with the motley of court jesters and fools. Again, J. W. Williamson points to this oft-made connection. The “hillbilly as fool,” as Williamson points out, is a cultural archetype. Even English etymology bears out this pejorative link. Clown, for example, “originally meant a peasant, a rustic, a farm worker.” Likewise, the “word idiot derives from Greek idiotes, meaning ‘a private person,’ one who dwells outside the pale, presumably because of foolish or unnerving behavior. The word fool itself describes “a scapegoat, one visually stigmatized by either outright deformity of outlandish dress.” These are some of the lingering images that attach to the hill people of Appalachia, a people who have somehow managed to survive and even thrive despite our low opinion of their worth.

2 Comments

  1. Long-live the stereotype. This region could be the personification of choice and freedom. Thanks for educating us, Eddie.

  2. Thank you, Sheron, for your kind and insightful words.

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