Hillbillyland A Review

I met J. W. Williamson in 2000 when we were both reading papers at a literary conference at Emory and Henry University in Emory, Virginia. I’d read his 1995 book Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to the Mountains and What the Mountains Did to the Movies, and was looking forward to meeting the author. In the interim of two decades, my enthusiasm for Williamson’s treatise hasn’t flagged; on the contrary, Hillbillyland continues to delight and surprise with its extensive research and sweeping insights. It is rare to find a writer more knowledgeable about his subject than Williamson.

Williamson’s understanding of Appalachian archetypes is broad and nuanced. He has examined more than 800 films for their representations of “cultural others.” The author’s publisher at the University of North Carolina had this to say about the book on its publication:

According to Williamson, mainstream America responds to hillbillies because they embody our fears and hopes and a conflicted view of the past. They are clowns, children, free spirits, or wild people through whom we live vicariously while being reassured about our own standing in society.

Williamson’s catalogue of mountain character archetypes, or regional universals, is expansive. The following is a discussion of some of the more salient ones:

Hillbilly as Fool

The Fool is the first card in the Tarot deck. He is associated with naïveté, folly, mania, extravagance, intoxication, delirium, frenzy, and bewrayment. In a phrase, the hillbilly fool is sorry and of no account. Williamson observes that he appears often in the literature of the American frontier, particularly with the character of Sut Lovingood. Sut was the creation of George Washington Harris, an early nineteenth-century humorist and postmaster in Knoxville, Tennessee. Harris’ individual Sut tales were collected and published as Sut Lovingood: Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool. Williamson describes Sut’s appearance and Harris’s intent in creating him:

Harris created the purely fictional mountain fool, a tall and lanky East Tennessee ridge runner, to lambaste northerners and stir up southern solidarity. Sut was long on vulgarity and short on manners, intimate with dirt and ignorant of ‘progress.’ Sut had a talent for sowing chaos, especially among the pretentious, the smug, and the sanctimonious—symbolic northerners.

Sut was a favorite of William Faulkner who created his own version of Sut, the Snopes, a clan of ne’er-do-wells and dimwits given to extremes of murder, incest, and bestiality. Faulkner admired Sut for some of the same reasons other readers found him abhorrent:

Sut had no illusions about himself, did the best he could; at certain times he was a coward and wasn’t ashamed.


Hillbilly as Social Bandit

Given the mountaineer’s clannishness and contempt for intrusions on his personal freedom to do much as he pleases, the Hillbilly as Social Bandit enjoys a status similar to his English cousin—Robin Hood. In fact, Williamson describes the mountain social bandit as a Rube in Hoods. (I assume the author intended this tacit allusion to Ku Klux Klan members who justify their hatreds as defenders of an exclusively white way of life.)

For Williamson, the quintessential hillbilly bandit is Jesse James. Though born and reared in Clay County, Missouri, James, the author insists, is “mountain” given his subliminal connection to the rocky edges of human existence.

Jesse and his older brother Frank grew up frontier tough, crossing the line into delinquency until the Civil War gave them an opportunity to broaden and refine their repertoire of terrorist tactics. Refusing regular service, the James Brothers joined Quantrill’s Raiders, a notorious band of Confederate irregulars who employed guerilla tactics to ambush Union army patrols and terrorize Northern sympathizers in Missouri and Kansas. Theft, cold-blooded murder, and pillaging entire communities became hallmarks of Quantrill’s marauders. Despite the horrors they inflicted, the James brothers earned the folk glorifications of social bandits because, in Williamson’s words, “their criminal acts are perceived to be committed on behalf of their own peasant societies and against an invading or oppressive power from outside.” The history of banditry is typically short-lived. However, Jesse James’ post bellum career of robbing banks and trains lasted sixteen years. The only way James could achieve this feat was through a network of alliances and protections provided by a rural underclass said to be dirty, backward, slow, and dangerous. The movies may have immortalized him, but James was eventually killed in inevitable fashion: shot in the back by “family.”


Feuding Hillbillies

Hillbillies are notorious for feuding. Their surnames are legendary in Appalachian history and culture: the Hatfields and McCoys; the Tollets and Swaffords; the Greenes and Joneses, and the list proliferates.

Williamson chooses to focus on the most famous feud, that between the Hatfields and McCoys, families living on the West Virginia-Kentucky border along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River from 1863 to 1891. The Hatfields lived primarily on the West Virginia side; the McCoys lived mostly on the Kentucky side. Though both families tended to fight for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The exception was Asa Harmon McCoy, who fought for the Union, and upon his return from the war was murdered by a group of Confederate Home Guards known as the Logan Wildcats. “Devil Anse” Hatfield was suspected of the killing but was exonerated when authorities discovered he was sick at the time of the incident. Anse was the inspiration for T. C. Crawford’s 1889 account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, titled, An American Vendetta: A Story of Barbarism in the United States. From comic caricature to monstrous murderer, the hillbilly evolves over time into a stark representation, in Williamson’s judgment, “meant to be taken seriously as a threat to American Progress (and ironically, in some threatening way, a living embodiment of who we always really were).”

Famous picture of the Hatfield clan from Daily Iowa State Press, Feb 11, 1899 Pg 6 – another source says the picture is from 1897 – Wikimedia

Absent from the Hatfield-McCoy chronicles is the fragrance of romance. Nothing of the story resembles the star-crossed plight of Romeo and Juliet. Operating here is the purest of hatreds, honed over time and practiced as the most primitive of blood sacrifices. Property lines and moonshine whiskey are only the outward trappings of a drama as old as Cain and Abel, especially when we pause to consider that the Hatfields and McCoys were actually cousins. Williamson acknowledges that these and other feuding families were descendants of Scots-Irish clans manifesting such traits as loyalty, family pride, irascibility, an eagerness to fight, and self-sustainability. They tend to thrive with their own kind and are suspicious of outsiders.


Hillbilly as Moonshiner

If souring family alliances are a trademark of Appalachian feuds, then slights, real and perceived, are enough to trigger and prolong decades of savage violence. It little matters that outsiders consider precipitating events as trifling and insignificant. Georgia novelist Harry Crews once wrote that more murders in the South have resulted from conflicting boundary lines and poaching coon dogs than any other motive. What Crews leaves out of the equation is the role of alcohol in fueling violence. Moonshine wars have been a staple of mountain experience dating to the mid-eighteenth century when waves of German, Scotch-Irish, and English immigrants pushed South and West from Pennsylvania into Appalachia. They brought with them the whiskey-making practices of their native countries. They also brought with them a fierce recalcitrance and undaunted opposition to government overreach in matters settlers believed were none of the government’s business. Taxing whiskey was as outrageous as taxing tea.

For insiders, there was nothing exotic or glamorous about bootlegging spirits. As Williamson avers,

It was not from greed that they first started selling moonshine. Rather, they made whisky by training or by talent or by habit, and when trading it is proscribed and then becomes competitively dangerous because of the contaminating greed from the city.

In the author’s view, the cinematic distillation of moonshine as a way of life is the 1958 landmark classic film Thunder Road, starring Robert Mitchum as Luke Doolin, “a mountain boy running illegal alcohol,” in the lyrics of the movie’s theme song. Williamson describes Doolin’s singular character as a real-life, rural Robin Hood “who must die for his people.” The author offers further insight into Luke’s character:

Movie poster – Wikimedia
Doolin the moonshine runner helps his father, respects his mother, protects his younger brother, and is chivalrous to women and hard on cads. Luke’s people are not the hurting poor, though they are poor by any comparison to late-fifties urban standards. They live on the economic periphery in Harlan County, Kentucky (which in this movie is strangely free of any vestige of coal mining). But as the movie takes pains to dramatize, though Luke’s people inhabit the urban fringe, they nevertheless constitute a rural community. They are relatively untouched by the city’s evils and do not live by the city’s cash alone, depending also on the rural barter-borrow tradition and on self-sufficiency. But city cash has invaded the garden in a destructive way, and with it come some rules and some arrangements and some corruptions that ironically make the mountain people poor indeed. The new cash makes them dependent as well as peripheral.

By movie’s end, Doolin is a tragic protagonist. Though vanquished in body, his spirit remains free. Like the Anglo-Saxon warrior of old, his people will compose songs praising the man’s daring exploits and memorializing his feats for generations.


Hillbilly Gals (or Hellbillies)

Of interest is Williams’ contention that for a woman to survive (let alone thrive) in the hardscrabble landscape of the mountains and beyond, she must acquire a quality of mannishness to withstand an all-male world. She’s seen firsthand the ways men wear out women the way they wear out land. Whatever degree of freedom she achieves depends on her ability to offer male displays, such as dressing and bragging like the Alpha men surrounding her. Williamson makes it clear, however, that the crossdressing antics of the hillbilly gal will be tolerated only so far. Eventually, she is expected to submit to the exclusively masculine right to power, which, in Hollywood at least, can shape the narrative of what happens when free-spirited women push the threshold without awareness of the inevitable conclusion.

As Williamson writes, “The fear of female freedom victimizes men and women, but countering this powerful backlash are the improbable Thelma and Louise,” characters in the 1991 MGM film of the same name. For Arkansas women Thelma and Louise, the open road is an invitation to freedom. But as the author warns:

Movie Poster – Wikimedia
On the hillbilly highway, rough masculinity is the norm. But rough masculinity extends to more than just potential rapists in every honkytonk, because this landscape is also the setting for the first real sexual fulfillment Thelma has ever experienced. This hillbillyland—as in the hillbillyland of the good old boys—is the only place left to get properly laid. At least that’s the case for Thelma. And the message is that it’s a good thing she’s hightailed it onto this uneven ground, this hillbilly possibility, “Deep Shit, Arkansas.” For Thelma, this life is better than life with Darryl (and all the talk-radio swagger and ultimate infidelity he stands for). Hillbillyland may be an uncomfortable place in many respects, but philosophically the only road to freedom leads through it.

Not an hour out of town, Thelma and Louise stop for a drink at the Silver Bullet saloon. A honkytonk stud named Harlan instantly zeroes in on Thelma as easy prey. Williamson narrates what follows:

. . . Harlan twirls her around and around to the Western swing until she gets sick. Saying, “You need some fresh air, little lady,” he takes her to the parking lot, where he immediately starts pawing her, pushing up her skirt, claiming that he just wants to kiss her, that he won’t hurt her. She tells him no, to stop it, and she tries first to push him away, then to walk away herself. He stops her with that arm of his, and she fights back with a slap. This sends him into a violent rage. He hits her several times hard across the mouth, which stuns her. He has her bent over a parked car, his pants open, and clearly he means to rape her, but into the frame comes a gun, its barrel pushed against his neck, and we hear Louise’s voice telling him to let Thelma go or his brains will be splattered “all over this nice car”; as the camera moves back, we see that she has the know-how to do that very thing. Thelma gets away. With some effort, Louise controls her anger and tells Harlan, “In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having fun.” She turns to leave, both women walking away free of him, when Harlan, by now a badly humiliated and frustrated two-stepper, shouts, “Bitch! I should have gone ahead and fucked her!” Louise stops and turns around: “What did you say?” He replies, “I said suck my cock!” And she shoots him. Then she tells his corpse to watch its mouth in the future. Most audiences cheer, because her action feels like justice at a time when justice is subversive . . .

From this point, the chase is on. Thelma, played by Geena Davis, and Louise, by Susan Sarandon, try to outrun what seems every police vehicle in the American West before screeching to a halt on what is literally a cliffhanger. Cornered on the edge of what appears to be the Grand Canyon, Thelma says, “Something’s crossed over in me, and I can’t go back.”

Williamson describes the finale:

Thelma, with tears of joy in her eyes, suggests they just ‘keep going’ over the rim, making the only gesture of refusal still open to them, defying power even in death.

Being all out of options is nothing new for the hillbilly gal.

J. W. Williamson’s brilliant Hillbillyland explores Appalachian archetypes with an acumen rarely found in books about the region and its culture. His scholarship is comprehensive, his insights incisive. Anyone wishing to know Hollywood’s depiction and distortion of mountain life in the Southern highlands will find the author’s treatise an indispensable guide in sorting fact from fiction and character from caricature.


Featured image view of Seneca Rocks, WV by Eric W. Portenga – portengaround.blogspot.com

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