Tuesday, April 15, 2008
PA 6: "Appalachian Literature"
You’re listening to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.
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An aspect of Appalachian society that is sometimes overlooked is literature. Although it does not always get the attention it deserves, Appalachia has produced a significant body of literature. Although these works are sometimes lumped into the general category of Southern Literature, Appalachian literature is unique. In contrast to the more general genre of Southern literature, Appalachian literature usually not concentrated on North-South conflicts, which is also a characteristic of the Appalachian region at large.
Appalachian literature is also unique in that it’s very centered around the setting of the stories. The setting is usually viewed as an influence on the motivations and values of the characters involved. This fact has led some observers to diminish the literature as “regional,” but in reality it gives rare insight into the values and culture of a particular time and place. Literature in general is best when it reveals great truths, and Appalachian literature is certainly very good at this.
Early fiction about Appalachia began to appear after the Civil War. Often written by local colorists, this literature was often stereotypical and sometimes painted a negative portrait of the region. In these stories, the Appalachian people were often presented as hillbillies, usually poorly educated, and frequently involved in feuds, much like infamous Hatfields and McCoys feud.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that the picture presented by literature from this era was not entirely negative. Although stereotypical, the stories often contained heroic, likable, and even intelligent, though eccentric, characters, not unlike the Beverly Hillbillies. The stories also frequently focused on the natural beauty of the region. These stories would help create a sort of romanticism about mountain people that would endure in the popular imagination for years to come.
One early fiction writer was John Fox, Jr., who hailed from a prominent Kentucky family and was educated at Harvard. He authored many novels and short stories about the Appalachian region during the early 20th century, often presenting a romanticized and one-dimensional portrayal. Some found this, as well as the sometimes exaggerated mountain dialect he used in his stories to be condescending. Nevertheless, his writings dealt with serious issues facing the region. His 1908 work The Trail of the Lonesome Pine examines the coal industry in the region, and portrays a conflict between mountain culture and American culture at large. Considered by many to be the greatest of the local color writers, Fox’s works remain influential in Appalachian literature today.
Unfortunately, stories that featured positive aspects of Appalachian life began to fade by the early 20th century. Most of the stories that appeared during these years took a very negative view of mountain people, often presenting tales of violence, drunkenness, and incest.
Gone were the lovable, if strange characters of the late 19th century and the romantic tales of heroism and the simple life. This change was the result of an interest by Americans in “social betterment,” and the writers were attempting to advocate for “reform” in the mountains. Some authors were also trying to recruit social workers and missionaries from outside the region to come and offer assistance. Will Allen Dromgoole, for example, wrote many stories featuring negative portrayals of mountain people in an effort to attract missionaries to Appalachia.
By the 1920s, more and more stories began to appear by native Appalachians. There were many reasons Appalachians were late in writing about their own lives, lack of educational opportunities and very little leisure time being chief among them. However, from the 1920s onward, Appalachian writers produced countless great works, many of which are now considered classics.
One of the earliest novels written by a native Appalachian was Look Homeward, Angel, written in 1929 by Thomas Wolfe. This work is not considered “Appalachian literature” however, as it focuses on life in urban Asheville, NC, instead of the rural settings that would characterize later Appalachian literature.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s Appalachian literature truly began to blossom due to the efforts of writers from within the region who used their own personal experiences in their stories. This literature is very true to the values and beliefs of Appalachians at that time and are delightful to read even today, almost seven decades after they first appeared.
The three most prominent of these authors were Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow and James Still. Jesse Stuart’s first work came in 1943, a satire entitled Taps for Private Tussie. This story is a humorous critique of the welfare system which argued that dignity could be restored for the impoverished through hard work and private land ownership. Although the Tussie family is presented as epitomizing all that was wrong with the welfare system, they are not presented as negative stereotypes but rather as victims of the supposedly benevolent welfare system. Stuart would later write The Thread that Runs so True, concerning his work as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in eastern Kentucky.
Harriette Simpson Arnow wrote a trilogy of Appalachian novels, including Mountain Path, published in 1936. Although the story features stereotypical Appalachian traditions such as moonshining and feuding, the central plot presents a generally positive view of Appalachia. It focuses on a young woman who moves to Appalachia in order to become a teacher. Along the way, she must abandon her preconceived notions of mountain people, and comes to gain a degree of respect for them. Arnow would later write Hunter’s Horn and The Dollmaker, the latter of which dealt with Appalachian migration to urban areas outside the region, and may be the most widely acclaimed Appalachian novel ever written.
James Still has been called the “Dean of Appalachian literature” by many of his admirers, and is today most well known for his 1940 novel River of Earth. Often compared with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, River tells the story of the day-to-day life of a struggling family in eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, as viewed through the eyes of an unnamed young son. The family struggles with extreme poverty as they must move from one coal camp to another. Although life is certainly very difficult for the family, Still does not present them as victims, instead showing them to possess a certain dignity that comes from hard work and honest living.
James Still is also the author of much poetry that is still widely read today. Poetry such as his has emerged as an important facet of Appalachian literature over the past couple decades, although it has existed in the region as long as novels and short stories. In addition to Still, important Appalachian poets of the 1930s include Don West, Jesse Stuart, Louise McNeil, and Byron Herbert Reece.
In recent years more Appalachian poets have emerged, among them Fred Chappell, probably the most widely known contemporary Appalachian poet. Additionally, African-Americans have made many important contributions to Appalachian poetry, among them such notables as Frank X. Walker and Nikki Giovanni.
Walker coined the term “Affrilachian” to describe his heritage both as an Appalachian and an African American. A native of Danville, KY, Walker is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and a founding member of the Affrilachian poets, a group of African American poets from the region. He is also a tireless advocate of for the availability of art education for all people.
Nikki Giovanni is one of the most influential voices for African Americans in the nation today. Born in Knoxville, TN she is the author of more than 25 books of poetry and essays. She is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech.
Although there were many positive portrayals of Appalachians in literature, some authors continued to focus on negativity. For example, Mildred Haun published a collection of short stories entitled The Hawk’s Done Gone in 1940. These stories painted a mostly negative picture of mountain people, focusing on infanticide, murder, and racism.
Probably the worst ever portrayal of the Appalachian people, and certainly the most influential, comes from outsider James Dickey, author of Deliverance. This novel, which was later adapted into a film, portrays the Appalachian people as violent, unstable, and inbred. The unfortunate images presented by Dickey continue to live on in the minds of many outsiders.
There is a distinction between literature from southern Appalachian and that from northern and central Appalachia. While southern Appalachian literature tends to focus on rural life, northern literature, especially since World War II, is more focused on urban issues. Additionally, literature from central and northern Appalachia is more likely to promote social activism, usually on behalf of miners and factory workers. A classic example of this type of literature is Out of the Furnace, a 1934 work by Thomas Bell that dealt with the difficulty of life in the western Pennsylvania steel industry.
Given its vast importance to the region, it should come as no surprise that coal mining is commonly featured in Appalachian literature. Mining is prominently featured in works by James Still, John Knowles, and Myra Page. The image presented is often mixed; although usually critical of mining companies for what they perceive as unfair treatment of workers and environmental degradation, miners themselves are often presented as honest, hardworking individuals with strong morals.
There has been an explosion of Appalachian literature since the 1970s, most of it being of very high quality. Because of this, the era from that period until the present is sometimes referred to as the Appalachian Renaissance.
There have been many recent popular works of Appalachian literature. Among them are Lee Smith’s Oral History, Black Mountain Breakdown, and Family Linen, all of which first appeared during the 1980s. These novels earned widespread acclaim. Although they do feature some stereotypes, they also reveal very much about cultural change within the region.
Another, more recent work of Appalachian literature is Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which takes place during the Civil War. A love story, this novel is set in the mountains of North Carolina and tells the story of a Confederate soldier who desserts in order to find his love. The novel has also been adapted into a popular film.
Another widely acclaimed Appalachian author is Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer who has written a trilogy of books based on his life growing up in the mining town of Coalwood, WV. These novels center around young Homer’s family life, particularly his relationship with his father, a tough-minded coal operator, as well as his quest to go to work at Cape Canaveral. One of the books, Rocket Boys, was adapted into the widely acclaimed 1999 film October Sky.
Although sometimes overlooked, particularly by those outside the region, Appalachian literature is very important to anyone who wants to understand the culture and values of the region. Those who read these works will be impressed by the high quality of the writings. Appalachian authors have usually used their own experiences in their writings, and thus have given unique glimpses into what life was like in Appalachia during the time their stories were set. Much of what has been written accurately captures life in Appalachia and are true national treasures.
The sources for this episode were were the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell and A Handbook to Appalachia, edited by Grace Toney Edwards, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox, and At Home in the Heart of Appalachia by John O’Brien.
That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. I greatly appreciate all of the feedback I’ve received, as well as all the webmasters and bloggers who have linked to this podcast. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at podcastappalachia.blogspot.com, as well as two videos of photography from the region that you might enjoy. If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find this podcast on myspace at myspace.com/podcastappalachia. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.