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Back Talk from Appalachia

Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes

Dwight B. Billings
Gurney Norman
Katherine Ledford
Foreword by Ronald D Eller
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Back Talk from Appalachia
    Book Description:

    Appalachia has long been stereotyped as a region of feuds, moonshine stills, mine wars, environmental destruction, joblessness, and hopelessness. Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Kentucky Cycle once again adopted these stereotypes, recasting the American myth as a story of repeated failure and poverty--the failure of the American spirit and the poverty of the American soul. Dismayed by national critics' lack of attention to the negative depictions of mountain people in the play, a group of Appalachian scholars rallied against the stereotypical representations of the region's people. In Back Talk from Appalachia, these writers talk back to the American mainstream, confronting head-on those who view their home region one-dimensionally. The essays, written by historians, literary scholars, sociologists, creative writers, and activists, provide a variety of responses. Some examine the sources of Appalachian mythology in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature. Others reveal personal experiences and examples of grassroots activism that confound and contradict accepted images of ""hillbillies."" The volume ends with a series of critiques aimed directly at The Kentucky Cycle and similar contemporary works that highlight the sociological, political, and cultural assumptions about Appalachia fueling today's false stereotypes.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4333-0
    Subjects: History, Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xi)
    Ronald D Eller

    Appalachia may likely have replaced the benighted South as the nation’s most maligned region. Once disparaged as the “bunghole” of the nation, “the Sahara of the Bozarts:”¹ the South has risen in stature in recent years, and the new “Sunbelt South” now rivals other regions as the symbol of American economic and cultural progress. Not so Appalachia. Always part of the mythical South, Appalachia continues to languish backstage in the American drama, still dressed, in the popular mind at least, in the garments of backwardness, violence, poverty, and hopelessness once associated with the South as a whole. No other region...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xii-xii)
  5. I. (Re)lntroducing Appalachia:: Talking Back to Stereotypes

    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-20)
      Dwight B Billings

      This book began as a series of responses to a play, Robert Schenkkan’sThe Kentucky Cycle,and to the latest round of stereotyping of Appalachian peoples and their cultures that such works exemplify. While the peoples and cultures in the Appalachian Mountains are decidedly plural, outside the region in the arts, the academy, and popular culture, many representations of them now, as for the past one hundred years, are often monolithic, pejorative, and unquestioned. But they are challenged in the region. Appalachian scholars have been engaged in the sustained critique of these stereotypes for many years, and the people of...

    • Beyond Isolation and Homogeneity: Diversity and the History of Appalachia
      (pp. 21-44)
      Ronald L. Lewis

      Appalachia is a region without a formal history. Born in the fertile minds of late-nineteenth-century local color writers, “Appalachia” was invented in the caricatures and atmospheric landscapes of the escapist fiction they penned to entertain the emergent urban middle class. The accuracy of these stories and travelogues, the dominant idioms of this genre, generated little or no critical evaluation of their characterizations of either mountain people or the landscape itself.

      If local color writing in the Appalachian motif must have a beginning, it would be with Will Wallace Harney’s 1873 travelogue, “A Strange Land and Peculiar People,” published inLippincott’s...

  6. II. Speaking of “Hillbillies”:: Literary Sources of Contemporary Stereotypes

    • A Landscape and a People Set Apart: Narratives of Exploration and Travel in Early Appalachia
      (pp. 47-66)
      Katherine Ledford

      We don’t have to look hard to find a hillbilly today. Turn on the television, open a newspaper, watch a movie, listen to political debate, or attend a performance of a Pulitzer Prize–winning play and there he is—drinking, feuding, and fornicating. But how has this character, the one who leading national publications such as theWashington Posthave no trouble accepting as sociological fact, gotten here? Where do we begin searching for the “first” hillbilly, the ancestor of respectable Americans’ dangerous and degenerate country cousin? InAppalachia on Our Mind(1978) Henry D. Shapiro identifies the rise of...

    • “Deadened Color and Colder Horror”: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Myth of Unionist Appalachia
      (pp. 67-84)
      Kenneth W. Noe

      “When the civil war came,” Berea College president William Goodell Frost confidently wrote in 1899, “there was a great surprise for both the North and the South. Appalachian America clave to the old flag. It was this old-fashioned loyalty which held Kentucky in the Union, made West Virginia ‘secede from Secession’ and performed prodigies of valor in east Tennessee, and even in the western Carolinas.”¹

      Most students of Appalachia² are aware that one of Frost’s great legacies is the mature incarnation of the mountain stereotype. While earlier generations of local colorists and missionaries had publicized and profited from the alleged...

    • The Racial “Innocence” of Appalachia: William Faulkner and the Mountain South
      (pp. 85-97)
      John C. Inscoe

      Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, is a long way from southern Appalachia, and William Faulkner has never been noted as a chronicler of the mountain experience. But in at least two instances he did write of southern mountaineers, and in both he emphasized their isolation from the rest of the South, and in particular, from its black populace. In an early and little-known short story, “Mountain Victory,” and in what is arguably his finest novel,Absalom, Absalom!,Faulkner related the initial encounters of nineteenth-century highlanders with African Americans. In “Mountain Victory,” it is a black man who intrudes upon an Appalachian family’s...

    • A Judicious Combination of Incident and Psychology: John Fox Jr. and the Southern Mountaineer Motif
      (pp. 98-118)
      Darlene Wilson

      Midway through 1894, Theodore Roosevelt had not yet been challenged by the exigencies of either war or presidential succession and still had time to indulge his considerable passion for history, anthropology, and literature. Into his ever-growing circle of American men of letters, he welcomed a new writer, a central Kentucky native named John William Fox Jr. (1862–1919), whose romantic fiction set in the southern Appalachian Mountains was featured in three installments by a national magazine that summer. Samples of correspondence between Fox and his new admirer survive; one letter from Roosevelt, dated June 21,1894, especially illustrates the tone of their...

    • Where “Bloodshed Is a Pastime”: Mountain Feuds and Appalachian Stereotyping
      (pp. 119-137)
      Kathleen M. Blee and Dwight B. Billings

      A persistent concern among Appalachian writers, activists, and scholars remains the challenge of responding to pervasive stereotypes regarding the peoples, cultures, and communities found—or imagined—in the central and southern sections of the Appalachian Mountains.¹ A landmark text in this ongoing process of refutation is, of course, Henry Shapiro’s brilliant intellectual history of the idea of Appalachia,Appalachia on Our Mind.In this familiar work, Shapiro did much to deconstruct the “mythic system” that interprets Appalachia as “a coherent region with a uniform culture and homogeneous population” by showing how mythical versions of Appalachia were produced in late-nineteenth-century local...

    • Where Did Hillbillies Come From? Tracing Sources of the Comic Hillbilly Fool in Literature
      (pp. 138-150)
      Sandra L. Ballard

      Because I grew up in western North Carolina, graduated from Appalachian State University and the University of Tennessee, live in East Tennessee, and have no qualms about identifying myself as a native of Appalachia, some people expect me to object to the comic image of “hillbillies” depicted in syndicated television shows such asThe Beverly Hillbillies.But I happen to likeThe Beverly Hillbillies.

      I grew up laughing at the six-foot, sixth-grade graduate Jethro Bodine and the Clampett family who struck oil and moved from a cabin in the mountains to a Beverly Hills mansion with a “cement pond,” I...

  7. III. Speaking More Personally:: Responses to Appalachian Stereotypes

    • The “R” Word: What’s So Funny (and Not So Funny) about Redneck Jokes
      (pp. 153-160)
      Anne Shelby

      If you happen to be from eastern Kentucky, as I am, then other people’s stereotypes of the place you are from are as much a part of your landscape as the hills themselves. They can loom as large and seem as permanent. You have to find your way over or around them. But unlike the mountains, which can be seen from some distance, stereotypes jump out at you in ambush—at parties and meetings, at dinner with friends, from movies, from magazines and newspapers, from your favorite TV show. Even in college classes.

      “And this group,” a University of Kentucky...

    • Appalachian Images: A Personal History
      (pp. 161-173)
      Denise Giardina

      In 1934, English historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in hisStudy of History,

      The Scotch-Irish immigrants who forced their way into these natural fastnesses have come to be isolated from the rest of the World. They have relapsed into illiteracy and witchcraft. The Appalachian “Mountain People” at this day are no better than barbarians .... It is possible ... that barbarism will disappear in Appalachia likewise. Indeed, the process of assimilation is already at work among a considerable number of Appalachians who have descended from their mountains and changed their way of life in order to earn wages in the North...

    • Up in the Country
      (pp. 174-183)
      Fred Hobson

      It is a strange destiny, Thomas Wolfe beginsLook Homeward, Angel,that leads from England to Pennsylvania and down into the Carolinas. Or, in my case, a strange destiny (although, in fact, no stranger than any other, for all destinies are equally improbable) that in 1756 brought a Pennsylvania Quaker down the Valley of Virginia into the western Piedmont of North Carolina; and some forty years later brought a restless young Connecticut Yankee, a son of the Puritans, down from New Haven to Burke County (that part of it that later became Caldwell County), North Carolina, within sight of the...

    • On Being “Country”: One Affrilachian Woman’s Return Home
      (pp. 184-186)
      Crystal E. Wilkinson

      “Country-rural areas,” “wide-open spaces,” “backwoods,” are used in the African American vernacular to mean “from or acting as though from the boondocks, socially inept, backwards.”

      One thing I vividly recall about growing up in Indian Creek, Kentucky, with my grandparents is the square-offs between my city cousins and me, the country cousin, during June family reunions. They laughed at the way I spoke and called me country. Country? I had never thought of myself as anything else. I lived on a farm, nestled in a holler in Casey County. We had a house with no plumbing that sat on sixty-four...

    • Appalachian Stepchild
      (pp. 187-190)
      Stephen L. Fisher

      I was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia. My working-class father, ashamed of his lack of education and my mother’s coal camp background, was determined to “make it,” He worked two jobs, and as his income rose, we moved to “better” neighborhoods and adopted middle-class values and attitudes. As we ascended the urban class scale, I acquired very few of the traits commonly attributed to rural Appalachians.¹ I was exposed to liberal Presbyterianism, not religious fundamentalism. I didn’t develop a love of the land (I quit the Boy Scouts after my first overnight hike) or a sense of individualism...

    • If There’s One Thing You Can Tell Them, It’s that You’re Free
      (pp. 191-200)
      Eula Hall

      I’ll tell you, to get to where I am today has not been easy. I was born an Appalachian child in poverty. I was reared in poverty, deprived of an education. But you know, I held onto one dream. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to do things for other people, and I wanted to change lives for people in the same position I was in.

      I didn’t get along with my parents because I felt like I was a slave. I felt like I was a servant. I had no freedom as a child. I don’t have one...

  8. IV. Sometimes Actions Speak Louder than Words:: Activism in Appalachia

    • The Grass Roots Speak Back
      (pp. 203-214)
      Stephen L. Fisher

      Contrary to popular images of Appalachians as passive victims, there exists throughout the Appalachian Mountains a tradition of individual and organized citizen efforts to establish community services and preserve community values. This essay describes the variety and extent of local and regional efforts for change in Appalachia since 1960 and examines the lessons to be learned from these efforts.¹

      The Appalachian region has never lacked a politics of change and alternative development. But what stands out in the literature describing life in Appalachia before 1960 is not the extent of change efforts but rather the obstacles to change, the conditions...

    • Miners Talk Back: Labor Activism in Southeastern Kentucky in 1922
      (pp. 215-227)
      Alan Banks

      Many writers have worked to overcome stereotypical images of southern Appalachia in recent years. Some of the more stubborn characterizations of the place include Appalachia as a dysfunctional culture, a quaint and unindustrialized wilderness, an internal colony, a hotbed of labor militancy, and/or a deficient gene pool. Critics have discounted these one-sided and often pejorative views of the region and its people; they argue that these views rely on broad generalizations that overstate the uniqueness of the region and its supposed uniformity. In the case of Appalachian coal miners, popular images tend to vary between two competing and contradictory extremes....

    • Coalfield Women Making History
      (pp. 228-250)
      Sally Ward Maggard

      On the night of June 10, 1972, over two hundred people walked off their jobs at the end of the evening shift at a large eastern Kentucky hospital. Almost all of them were women. The rest of the night they milled around in a huge crowd gathered at the mouth of Harold’s Branch where it runs into the Levisa Fork of the Kentucky River in Pike County. Across the parking lot behind them, administrators and members of the board of directors were gathered in the lobby of a shiny new concrete-and-glass, eight-story hospital. The face-off that began that night was...

    • Paving the Way: Urban Organizations and the Image of Appalachians
      (pp. 251-266)
      Phillip J. Obermiller

      For the millions of Appalachians who left the mountains and migrated to urban centers outside the region, the first priority was to find a job and a place to live. Appalachians were—and still are—generally quite competent in finding employment and housing in the host cities. In a few places, such as Chicago and Cincinnati, the migrants set up social service organizations to assist with the fundamentals of relocation. But more often, urban Appalachian organizations formed in response to the widespread denigration they experienced in their new—and largely unwelcoming—social and cultural settings. These organizations, which emerged in...

    • Stories of AIDS in Appalachia
      (pp. 267-280)
      Mary K. Anglin

      There are many stories about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Some of these are the “official” accounts offered by journalists and experts on AIDS, and some, the literary imaginings of writers such as Fenton Johnson. Others are stories of ordinary people living, and dying, with HIV disease. This essay explores each of these kinds of stories for what they tell us about Appalachia, and the motivating forces behind these accounts.

      However, the purpose of this inquiry is more sharply fixed. It is to show that in the 1990s, stories of HIV and AIDS have been...

  9. V. Recycling Old Stereotypes:: Critical Responses to The Kentucky Cycle

    • America Needs Hillbillies: The Case of The Kentucky Cycle
      (pp. 283-299)
      Finlay Donesky

      Anyone familiar withThe Kentucky Cyclehas likely heard a variation on the following story, the essential details of which appear in most articles and reviews about the play. On a wet spring day in 1981, a twenty-eight-year-old actor by the name of Robert Schenkkan traveled across central Kentucky from Louisville to Hazard, a town set deep in the mountains of Perry County. A local physician had asked him if he wanted to accompany him as he made house calls in the area around Hazard. In the ten hours he spent in the region, Schenkkan witnessed environmental abuse from strip...

    • The View from the Castle: Reflections on the Kentucky Cycle Phenomenon
      (pp. 300-312)
      Rodger Cunningham

      Just when Appalachian scholars, writers, and activists have begun to think that perhaps a quarter-century of their efforts had started to make some dent in public perception of their region, along comesThe Kentucky Cycle.Robert Schenkkan’s lengthy play cycle, inspired by a weekend visit to eastern Kentucky in 1981, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1992—the first play ever to do so without having yet opened in New York¹—and though the play’s reviews were mixed, it appears that little of the negative reaction on the part of non-Appalachians centered on the play’s portrayal of mountain people. If anything,...

    • Regional Consciousness and Political Imagination: The Appalachian Connection in an Anxious Nation
      (pp. 313-326)
      Herbert Reid

      When I was about eighteen years old and a student in the Kansas University Library I discovered the history of racial lynching in the United States, especially in my native South. In 1956 my political education was accelerating in response to the Montgomery bus boycott led by Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose assassination twelve years later was to affect me more than that of either Kennedy. The next year I was stunned by the failure of national political leadership combined with the crass political opportunism of an Arkansas mountaineer governor that led to “Little Rock”...

    • Notes on The Kentucky Cycle
      (pp. 327-332)
      Gurney Norman

      The following notes represent a set of thoughts that have been accumulating since I first readThe Kentucky Cyclein 1992.¹ At that time the play had already won approval by audiences and critics alike after performances in Seattle and Los Angeles. Within months the play would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 1992. I didn’t like the play at all. Even though I consider myself to be a “Left Liberal Democrat,” with a long history of identification with a range of liberal issues and causes, I resented the play’s plodding recitation of “progressive” and “correct” positions. My...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 333-335)
  11. Index
    (pp. 336-351)