A collection of essays, excerpts, songs and poems covers centuries of reflection on the Southern mountains. A native son traces the history of Appalachian literature through 745 pages of a recently published anthology.
If you are one of the hundreds of thousands who have read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” or maybe even one of the 14,344 who have reviewed it on Amazon, you may have been led to believe that Appalachia is a region of 25 or so million of your fellow Americans who are culturally degenerate, likely illiterate, all Trump voters, and are very representative of what’s wrong with most of rural America.
I don’t mean to yet again pick on Vance in the Daily Yonder except for the purpose of saying he has written 288 pages about a place and people that mostly don’t exist. How then did prestigious publications from the New York Times to the Economist magazine end up praising it in similar fashion to the National Review: “A harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations…an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans?”
The occasion for this essay is to review a just published 745-page anthology of Appalachian literature written since the founding of our nation. “Writing Appalachia,” published by the University Press of Kentucky, is thicker than a college Oxford dictionary and contains excerpts from writings ranging from the Cherokees—the original Appalachians—to the latest from recognizable authors such as bell hooks, Wendell Berry, Ron Rash, Barbara Kingsolver and Silas House.
The editors of this book, Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd, both are veteran professors of mountain literature in the region who saw a need for a one-place collection of representative writing about Appalachia. To be precise, they did not set out to refute Vance (that is my doing), but they do note, “A recent controversial literary example that reinforces the degenerate-culture vision of Appalachia is J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’”
A disclaimer is in order before going any further. This writer and most of the staff of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Yonder, hail from the mountains or have chosen to live there. To be clear, while we qualify as Vance’s hillbillies, none of us are illiterate or so vain to claim our autobiographies would explain very much about a whole class of rural people that Vance defames and we celebrate and defend here five working days a week. The mountains and rural America are blessedly diverse.
Naming a Region
The term Appalachia derives from some maps drawn by Spanish explorers in 1562 referring to a tribe of Apalachee natives. While naming a whole mountain range of some of the oldest mountains in the world, they missed the target. That tribe only lived in northern Florida.
Ledford and Lloyd begin their anthology with narratives from the Cherokees, who had occupied the Southern Appalachians at least 11,000 years before Daniel Boone arrived on the scene and President Andrew Jackson removed most of them to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears and on which more than a fourth of the tribe died.
Like the ancient Israelites, the Cherokees had some fascinating origin stories to explain how various things came into existence. There’s no talking snake here, but there is a very romantic story of a wife who abandoned her husband and the two managed to reconcile only after a spirt provided multiple species of berries to lure them back together but only succeeded when it provided that most succulent of them all: strawberries. I won’t spoil the story of how bears came to be.
No one ever called Thomas Jefferson a hillbilly, but he qualifies. For all his learning, however, Jefferson didn’t quite get everything right. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” (1787) the anthology picks out his guess that the Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Parkway “are thought to be of a greater height, measured from their base, than any others in our country, and perhaps in North America.” Not quite, Tom. You missed by about 10,000 feet, since Colorado’s 58 “fourteeners” dwarf these little 4,000 feet or less peaks. Those peaks got immortalized anyway when stones from there got placed in the Washington Monument. We can agree with Jefferson that “the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is, perhaps, one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.” One way to verify this is to visit the much-maligned state of West Virginia, the only state entirely in Appalachia.
It just occurred to me while penning this that Jefferson’s University of Virginia also qualifies as the first hillbilly institution of higher learning, occupying as it does the little city of Charlottesville, near where John Boy Walton and his large rural family lived and prospered. There were no deplorables or degenerates in that family. I don’t mean to trail off here, but the same could mostly be said about “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy grew up in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, just down the mountain from me, qualifies as a hillbilly, and got his start on one of the pioneering country music radio stations in the country, WPAQ. Well, just one more little detail: Barney Fife, in real life Don Knotts, grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Ledford and Lloyd note that even early in the 19th century, literature was appearing romanticizing the exploits of mountain men like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. The key point is that mountaineers were being celebrated as some of the new nation’s best. The book mentions the Battle of King’s Mountain on the North/South Carolina border in 1780 when mountaineers poured out of the hills to inflict one of the most decisive Revolutionary War victories over the British Army of General Cornwallis, thus ending forever our need to curtsy to any royals.
The Battle of King’s Mountain lasted 65 minutes. The Brits and Loyalists suffered 290 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner. The Patriot militia suffered 28 killed and 62 wounded. The British, believing that gentlemen soldiers kneeled in line and shot in unison, lost to the mountaineers who thought it fair game to shoot from behind trees the same way they shot deer and squirrels. John Crockett, Davy’s father, was among those sharpshooters.
The anthology next picks up mountaineers’ contribution to ending slavery. Twenty years before William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the abolition newspaper “The Liberator,” Elihu Embree began publication of “The Emancipator” in 1820 in the little town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, deep in the Eastern mountains. This area, like counties in northern Alabama and eventually the whole state of West Virginia, revolted against secession. The Civil War battles across the region and differing views on slavery split mountain families into divisions that were chronicled nationally in newspapers as barbaric feuding over women and whiskey. And not all mountaineers were saints in this struggle. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor who unraveled the ideals of Reconstruction, hailed from Greenville, Tennessee, just a fair piece down the road from Jonesborough.
And now we get to the invention of Appalachia, a process that followed on the heels of the railroads and the timber and coal industries in invading large parts of Central Appalachia, changing forever the national perception of the region and its people. The anthology contains one of the most representative essays from William Goodell Frost, the president of Berea College in Kentucky. Writing in “The Atlantic Monthly” magazine, Frost in 1899 deemed mountaineers “our contemporary ancestors.” They were, he opined, “living to all intents and purpose in the conditions of the colonial times!” He allowed further, “If the mountaineer’s patriotism is old fashioned, his literary sustenance, if such it may be called, is simply archaic. His music is a weird minor key, and like that of Chaucer’s Prioress, ‘entuned in hire nose full swetely.’” (sic) And their gospel music was “doleful.”
I’ll pause here to say the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Ralph Stanley and too many other mountain country and gospel musicians to mention (well, I’ll mention Roy Acuff, “the king of country music” and the Grand Old Opry from Maynardville, Tennessee) would not have a clue what Frost was talking about.
Frost’s statements are ironic because Berea College, in the Cumberland foothills, was the first integrated co-educational institution in the South, founded in 1855. Its mission to Black Americans switched to free tuition for mountaineers like me when Kentucky banned integrated education in 1904. Frost and the mountain “helpers” were all well-intentioned, but they turned the nation’s perception of mountaineers from sympathetic to disdainful.
Novelist John Fox Jr. willed that perception into fiction in “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” about Big Stone Gap, in far southwest Virginia. The state designated this Harvard graduate’s production as the state play. Horace Kephart, one of the pioneers in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, penned a noted book, “Our Southern Highlanders,” on the region and claimed its denizens “know nothing of civilization.” “But let us never lose sight of the fact that these people, intellectually, are not living in our age,” he concluded.
Thus was born and seeded “Appalachia,” mostly a 13-state region of “others.” It’s a mental concept independent of geography. If I mention western North Carolina, people will say its mountains are paradise, attracting residents like Billy Graham, the evangelist, and the Vanderbilts who constructed Biltmore Estate. Asheville is now charmingly called “Austin East,” and Knoxville and Chattanooga, both mountain cities, are regularly called the best places in America to retire by magazines that specialize in such listings. West Virginia, “Wild and Wonderful,” is “the Switzerland of North America.” So, how does all this stereotyping like Vance’s continue into the modern era?
Industrialization and Resistance
This anthology does a good job of covering the effects industrialization had on the mountains. There are the protest songs from the textile mills like “The Mill Mother’s Song” by Ella May Wiggins from Sevierville, Tennessee, Dolly Parton’s hometown in the Great Smokies. Wiggins sang:
But understand all workers
Our union they do fear
Let’s stand together, workers
And have a union here
In the coalfields, union struggles led to epitaphs like “Bloody Harlan,” resulting from miner’s fights with state-backed militias. Florence Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On” on a window shade waiting for her miner husband to return from a strike there. Jean Ritchie penned “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” about the Hazard coalfields in eastern Kentucky.
I used to think my daddy was a black man
With scrip enough to buy the company store
But now he goes downtown with empty pockets
And the L&N (coal trains) don’t stop here anymore
The book has a section on “Mother” Jones who stood down a strikebreaker’s machine gun during the Paint Creek and Cabin Creek mine wars in West Virginia.
Somehow these valiant struggles for worker rights ended up as a portrait of a region infused with violence. The book notes the founding of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle in the mountains of Tennessee. Poet Don West and Union Theological School-educated Myles Horton, both mountaineers, founded the school on the model of the Scandinavian folk schools. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Andrew Young and many other leading civil rights movement leaders studied there. The song “We Shall Overcome” was introduced to the civil rights movement there. The anthology has a good sampling of West’s poetry.
With the decline of the coal industry, the introduction of mechanized mining and diesel locomotives, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia came to symbolize white poverty. In 1964, President Kennedy appointed a panel led by Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., that called Appalachia “a region apart—geographically and statistically.” The nation’s and Kennedy’s interest in the region was spiked by Harry Caudill’s book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” Harry was an eloquent local attorney from Whitesburg, Kentucky, who dictated his pleadings against stripmining and the practices of coal companies to his wife Anne. They entertained journalists and dignitaries from all over the world. Among them was Charles Kuralt, the CBS reporter who produced “Christmas in Appalachia,” a heartrending tale of poverty in eastern Kentucky coal camps. Thus, one writer concluded, the campaign to “modernize the mountaineer” got a booster shot.
The anthology has Caudill’s essay “O, Appalachia,” which both showcases his eloquence in describing his region and his emerging doubts about the strength of character of mountaineers to do anything about their condition. Caudill’s work would help establish the perception that Appalachia was predominantly a ravaged coal land. And it’s about this period in the 1960s and 1970s that the anthology chronicles the beginning of what is being called “the Appalachian Renaissance.” Literature and native writers were and are in the forefront.
To the stereotypical characterization of the region’s people as shiftless and lazy ne’er-do-wells, native literature began a pushback emphasizing the people’s independence, self-reliance and pride. “Independence raised to the fourth power,” was one description. Jesse Stuart’s “The Thread That Runs So True” described how his mountain students with few resources won a state academic championship. Wilma Dykeman Stokely, an Asheville-born writer who married into the Stokley Van Camp canning family in Newport, Tennessee, on the edge of the Smokies, wrote “The French Broad,” about strong families and pollution in this river valley in two states. It was a pioneering revelation in the 1950s of the coming environmental movement.
Jim Wayne Miller, another Berea graduate, wrote poetry that captured the feelings of people who grew up on the mountain farms but had to migrate to cities to survive. The anthology characterizes his work as reaching out to “southern mountain people who live in two worlds: no longer isolated subsistence farmers, they have modern lives like other Americans, yet they are rooted in older traditions as well.” His “Brier Sermon-You Must Be Born Again,” described escaping stereotypes as “brier’s”—city slang for mountain migrants—like being born again, akin to taking off the brogans of winter and walking refreshingly barefoot in the summer.
The late James Still, author of River of Earth, was also a teacher of other writers at Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky. His poems like “Rain on the Cumberlands” would appeal to any farmer who appreciates nature’s wonder. Another east Kentucky author, Gurney Norman, has also become a teacher of aspiring writers at the University of Kentucky. Like a very surprising number of mountain writers who came out of hollers and coal camps and later attended Ivy League level universities, Norman attended Stanford University where he wrote “Divine Right’s Trip” in “The Last Whole Earth Catalog.” It’s a story about a tripped-out fellow who heads back home to the hills and proposes to establish a rabbit and worm farm to refurbish the hillsides with good soil:
Two nationally known writers, both now at Berea College, who are making major strides in redefining mountaineers are bell hooks and Silas House. Hooks, like Bill Turner in his articles in the Daily Yonder, has dispelled the myth—repeated by Vance and many others—that the mountains are full of white Scots-Irish and no Black people. “Coming home to Kentucky hills was, for me, a way to declare allegiance to environmental struggles aimed at restoring proper stewardship to the land,” hooks writes in an essay in the anthology. Her first book, “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism” (1981) was a critique of the feminist movement that had overlooked Black people. She is hoping for a “return migration” of the dispossessed to retake the mountains and replant them with trees and rose bushes.
Silas House is leading the charge in redefining Appalachian people. The anthology describes his novels and other writings well: “House’s keen sense of home is a catalyst for both his activism and his writing….His richly developed characters, often members of the rural working class, also want to be seen as real people, not romanticized abstractions. They worry about the responsibility of carrying on traditions and memories in the face of a changing economy and landscape.” His first novel, Clay’s Quilt, part of a three-volume series, made the New York Times best-seller list.
Reimagining the Region
This is only a small sample of the hundreds of essays, poems, songs and folk tales in this anthology. The book makes clear the “Appalachian Renaissance” is real. It’s part of a movement ranging from Appalachian studies on college campuses all over the region to community groups and whole towns engaged in the process of reimagining what 21st century survivable life can be like in rural areas and small towns and modest-size cities. The visions are about the mountains getting re-homesteaded in an age where the economy is about more than just carbon or chasing factories or prisons.
And it’s not just writing. Robert Gipe, from Kingsport, has written two novels, “Trampoline” and a sequel, “Weedeater.” He trained at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School where James Still taught, and worked at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a remarkably resilient 50-year old purveyor of all things Appalachian in films, theater and radio. Gipe started the “Higher Ground Project” in Harlan County where his students in Appalachian studies at the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College conduct oral histories and then write and produce plays on topics ranging from drug abuse to the challenges of remaining and working in a job-challenged area, to local history of Black coal miners and their families. In other words, town and gown are connected.
Every movement for change has to have a vision of where it’s going and a community well-grounded in its self-definition. Literature and stories are an integral and inspirational part of that journey. “Writing Appalachia” is a great volume showing how one region has fought and is fighting back against being cast as “other” by William Goodell Frost or J.D. Vance. The region has taken off its brogans and is walking on new ground.
Jim Branscome is a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Business Week, and Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Kentucky. He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. He was born in Hillsville, Virginia, and is a graduate of Berea College in Kentucky.
This piece was originally published by the Daily Yonder.