Tall Tales of Appalachia

Posted on 2006-12-28. Filed under: Mountains |

Here’s a great article published in the New York Times on May 10, 2003. While it’s not specifically about my corner of Appalachia, it’s still speaks thoughts that are on my mind. In terms of regional identification, I’ve always identified myself first as an Appalachian boy, even before Southerner, North Carolinian or even American. The mountains are a place all their own.


Tall Tales of Appalachia

CBS is developing a reality TV series modeled after “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the 60’s sitcom. A poor family from a remote corner of southern Appalachia will be transported to a California mansion, the ensuing comic antics shown to America.

Well, as a West Virginia farmer might say, that’s a load of fertilizer. Having spent virtually my entire life in West Virginia, I can say with some authority that the strange, woebegone place called Appalachia and the hillbillies who inhabit it are a myth — one devised a century ago to justify outsiders’ condescension and exploitation.

In the 1870’s, there was no “Appalachia.” At that time, this mountainous stretch of the country from West Virginia to northern Georgia was one of the most prosperous agricultural areas in America. The people here drew upon their English, German and Scotch-Irish roots to create a variety of vibrant, peaceful cultures.

But in the 1880’s that started to change. Outsiders came, ones who didn’t care about the thriving farms. They wanted raw materials for their factories, and the mountains had them. Our mountains were covered with the largest and oldest hardwood forest that people had ever seen. The coal deposits were the richest in the world. Industrialization came here like a cyclone roaring through the mountains. People like my ancestors were bullied, threatened and cheated out of their land. By 1920, timber companies had cut the entire forest. Most of the profits left the state along with the timber and coal.

As the mountains were denuded, the industrialists portrayed the families they were robbing as “backward people” and themselves as the prophets of progress. The missionaries who often accepted large donations from the industrialists exaggerated the “otherness” of these strange people. “Local color” writers made brief visits to the mountains, then wrote fanciful books about the queer, violent mountain folk. As realistic as Harlequin romances, local-color books like Mary Murfree’s “In the `Stranger People’s’ Country” were read and reviewed as journalistic accounts.

College professors began to use them as textbooks in sociology classes. The news media took its part with the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud in the 1880’s and 1890’s — a conflict that as Altina L. Waller wrote in her book “Feud,” was not really a family feud, but a war between coal mining interests and local interests. Corrupt politicians took isolated incidents and described them as a hillbilly feud.

Reporters from the big cities wrote about “white savages” and “West Virginia barbarians.” (The New York Times, for example, said of people in eastern Kentucky: “They are remarkably good shots and effective assassins,” adding that they “are so accustomed to murder that they do not look upon it with the horror with which it is regarded in civilized communities.”) Then, in 1897, the president of Berea College in Kentucky, William Goodell Frost, desperately trying to raise money for his failing institution, created a fund-raising campaign based on the idea of saving the people in the Appalachians from themselves. In an Atlantic Monthly article, Frost described the southern Appalachians as our “contemporary ancestors” waking up from a Rip van Winkle-type sleep and in need of help in joining modern America. Frost’s article made mythic Appalachia and its backward hillbillies a permanent fixture in America’s imaginary landscape.

Many in the southern Appalachians are certainly poor, but the poverty grew out of the vagaries of the coal market and outsiders’ control of resources. Industrialists and others, however, blamed the people for their own poverty, and this myth continues because it is entertaining to the Americans beyond the mountains. Some of the region’s middle-class writers continue to churn out Gothic hillbilly tales, the descendants of local-color stories.

This mythology has even been accepted by the people living here. Not long ago, one of the student counselors at West Virginia University told me that the most persistent problem she encounters is a lack of self-esteem. Bright, capable, young men and women do not think they belong in college because they are hillbillies. I have taught at a small private college in West Virginia. Ninety percent of the students were from out of state. The few West Virginians on campus huddled together in their own corner of the student union. They had become marginal people in their own state.

My own father spent his life backing up, apologizing for the space he took up in the world. He took the hillbilly stereotype to heart and all of his life believed that he was backward and inferior — a despair I, too, have been trying to escape all of my life.

The reality show that CBS is considering not only exploits my part of the world, it also separates struggling Appalachians from the rest of the American poor. If a television network proposed a “real life” show treating poor African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Asians or Jews as curiosities, they, and all Americans of good will, would be justifiably outraged.

Many of us in the southern Appalachians are outraged too. That’s why coal miners from the southern Appalachians plan to protest “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” outside the shareholders’ meeting on May 21 of CBS’s parent, Viacom. It’s time the people of the southern Appalachians stood up for themselves.

John O’Brien is the author of “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia,” a memoir and social history.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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