Author Jeff Biggers brings the history and accomplishments of an often misunderstood region to life in his new book, The United States of Appalachia.
Author Jeff Biggers.
Author Jeff Biggers.
Appalachia needs no defense—it needs more defenders
Beyond its mythology as a quaint backwater in the American imagination, Appalachia also needs to be embraced for its historic role as a vanguard region in the United States.
Vanguard Appalachia? The very word—vanguard—conjures up a plethora of images, though none in Appalachia. It’s Thomas Jefferson at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia; it’s George Washington plotting his campaign at Yorktown. William Lloyd Garrison, the great New England abolitionist, was in the vanguard of the antislavery movement; his transcendentalist Boston neighbors stood in the forefront of nineteenth-century American literature. The New York Times, in an era of yellow journalism, typified the vanguard press; the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City provided the nation’s music innovators with its hallowed stage. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the front of the civil rights movement, would be its modern political symbol. Expatriate Gertrude Stein might be its literary icon.
These are all reasonable examples, of course. And yet, would you believe me if I said an Appalachian preceded, led or influenced every one of these historic events or gatherings? That years before Jefferson completed the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, a backwoods settlement had already stunned the British Crown with its independence as a "dangerous example for the people of America." That an alliance of Southern Appalachian insurgents orchestrated their own attacks on British-led troops and turned the tide of the American Revolution. That a humble band of mountain preachers and writers published the first abolitionist newspaper in the nation and trained the radical Garrison. That a Cherokee mountaineer invented the first syllabary in modern times. That a back-hills young woman astounded the Boston literary circles in 1861, with the first American short story of working-class realism to be published in the Atlantic Monthly. That a young publisher from Chattanooga actually took over the New York Times and set its course for world acclaim. That the "high priestess of soul" put a spell on an audience at the Village Vanguard in 1959, with her blend of folk, jazz, gospel, country, and Bach-motif riffs she had learned in her Southern Appalachian hamlet. That a self-proclaimed "radical hillbilly" galvanized the shock troops of the civil rights movement and returned an African spiritual and labor song as its anthem. That the first American woman ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was recognized for her family memoirs of West Virginia as much as for her literary contributions to the Far East.
Few regions in the United States confound and fascinate Americans like Appalachia. No other region has been so misrepresented by the mass media. Four paradoxical images have enjoyed incredible staying power: pristine Appalachia, the unspoiled mountains and hills along the Appalachian Trail, notwithstanding centuries of warfare, the wholesale destruction of the virgin forests by the timber industry, and the continual bane of strip mining; backwater Appalachia, home of the "strange land and peculiar people" in thousands of stories, novels, radio and TV programs and films, even though the region has produced some of the most important writers, artists, scientists, and politicians in the country; Anglo-Saxon Appalachia, once defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as a mountain region of "white natives," despite its role as a crossroads of indigenous cultures and vast immigrant and African American migrations for centuries; and pitiful Appalachia, the poster region of welfare and privation, the haggard faces greeting Charles Kuralt on CBS News on Christmas 1964, regardless of the tremendous wealth generated by the mountain range’s mineral resources, timber, and labor force in the mines, mills, and factories, and today’s tourist industry.
Untouched wilderness, poor white backward hillbillies.
In his best-selling analysis of the Buffalo Creek mining dam disaster in the 1970s, Everything in Its Path, eminent Yale sociologist Kai Erikson captured these stereotypes in an enduring judgment of Appalachian mountain culture: "It helps breed a social order without philosophy or art or even the rudest form of letters. It brings out whatever capacity for superstition and credulity a people come endowed with, and it encourages an almost reckless individualism."
For most readers, the blood-curdling acts of Appalachian man’s inhumanity to civilized man in the mountains, replete with inbred banjo pickers, violent feuds, moonshine, sexual deviltry, and miasmic gorges, have been put to rest. We are savvy enough to refrain from uttering "hillbilly" in mixed company. Li'l Abner, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, Hee Haw, and The Andy Griffith Show are out; best-selling authors Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Frazier, Homer Hickam, and Robert Morgan are in. Sure, bizarre and offensive portrayals of Appalachians occasionally take place—during the research and writing of this book, CBS talent scouts combed the Southern mountains for corncob-piped rubes to participate in a proposed reality-TV show based on The Beverly Hillbillies; Abercrombie & Fitch dressed their manikins with a "West Virginia, It’s All Relative" T-shirt; and a horror film, Wrong Turn, featured a promo about "six young people who find themselves being hunted by inbred cannibals in the woods of West Virginia" — but we’ve come a long way from the time of literary critic H. L. Mencken, who openly discussed reducing the birthrate of "inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia."
Still, the region’s fame or infamy has forced writers and critics to dwell on what has been done to Appalachia, rather than what Appalachia has contributed to the world. For every Deliverance and its sodomites, we are quick to recall The Waltons in our collective memory, or more recently, the best-selling novel and Oscar-nominated Cold Mountain film. Or, in more tragic terms, for every Private Lynndie England, the defamed cigarette-lipped scapegoat of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, who hails from Fort Ashby, West Virginia, there is a heroic Private Jessica Lynch, from Palestine, West Virginia, molded into the image of Sergeant Alvin York, the Tennessee mountaineer and America's most famous soldier.
Appalachia, as author Wallace Stegner once remarked about the American Southwest, has been more a process than a place. Some critics would even say it has become an invention of its own. Sociologist Allen Batteau once voiced a common feeling that "Appalachia is a creature of the urban imagination." Since the first Spanish conquistador was informed of its existence in 1528 by distant tribes in Florida, Appalachia has certainly bewildered its explorers and inhabitants with its boundaries, its mystical forests, and its meaning.
But Appalachia does exist, both as a range and as a region. Beyond any singular culture, however, any "real Appalachia," the region has also endowed the nation with an enduring and conflicting treasury of innovations and innovators. That treasury, though, is rarely viewed beyond the surface or a few honorable exemplars — high lonesome singers and banjo players, black-faced coal miners, wizened front-porch storytellers — trotted out every so often to represent the entire region. Appalachian author Jim Wayne Miller once recounted an old tale about flat-boaters who traversed the Tennessee River at night, passing house after house with a "great fire burning, people dancing, always to the same fiddle tune." The boatmen didn’t realize they were caught in the "Boiling Pot" eddy, going in circles around the same house and its unchanging scene, unaware of the region’s greater wonders hidden in the forests like ginseng.
This is Appalachia’s best-kept secret: Far from being a "strange land with peculiar people," the mountains and hills have been a stage for some of the most quintessential and daring American experiences of innovation, rebellion, and social change.
This book is an attempt to get off that flatboat and enter another part of Appalachia, or, in fact, we should say Southern Appalachia, that mountain spine and its valley tributaries that trundle along the eastern and Southern states from northern Alabama to southwestern Pennsylvania. (The Appalachian Regional Commission actually defines Appalachia from southern New York to northern Mississippi.) It is not a definitive history of the region; instead, it is a portrait of a hidden Appalachia on the cutting edge, full of revolutionaries and pioneering stalwarts, abolitionists, laborers, journalists, writers, activists, and artists overlooked among the lineup of conventional Appalachian suspects.
Putting aside the banjos and pot-lickers, casting aside both the wearisome slurs and sentimental postcards, and taking a break from recounting the evil deeds done unto mountaineers, this book seeks to show how a remarkable procession of Appalachian-born innovators have gone from these hills, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, to find and shape the great America of our discovery.
Excerpted from The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America by Jeff Biggers. Copyright © 2005 by Jeff Biggers. Reprinted by permission of Shoemaker & Hoard, Publishers, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc.