Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century

Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings and Altina L. Waller (editors)
Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press
0 8078 4534 5 (pb); 0 8078 2229 9 (hb)
$18.95 (pb); $49.95 (hb)
viii + 391 pp.

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The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860

Wilma A. Dunaway
Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press
0 8078 4540 X (pb); 0 8078 2236 1 (hb)
$21.95 (pb); $49.95 (hb)
xvii + 448 pp.

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Let's get one thing straight at the start: these two volumes are going to rewrite the history of Appalachia for the foreseeable future. That's worth saying, because 'Appalachia' (defined narrowly as a series of mountain ridges running generally north and south or broadly as a socioeconomic experience of Wagnerian proportions) has been America's most significant region this century, a shifting paradigm for historic transformations.

As the quintessentially rural place of the 19th century, Appalachia encountered the urban 20th century and (multiple choice):

  1. remained impervious to change, backward and bigoted, and got away with it because of its total isolation.
  2. succumbed spiritually but drew back physically from 'modernity', retreating into permanent 'cultural lethargy'.
  3. succumbed both physically and spiritually to not modernity but 'capitalism', became a 'culture' on the cross, an environmental crucifixion of an innocent native population by the politics of greed.
  4. evolved, along with the rest of rural America, in response to changing demographics and power, reacting defensively at times and at times brilliantly to an increasingly dominant urban majority and its cash economy.

If you're prone to any of the thinking in the first three choices above, then you need these books. You need these books in any event. They will both save your soul from stereotypical assumptions and teach you what you didn't know about American history, let alone the Appalachian past.

Knowing the 'character' of a group to whom you owe allegiance is more difficult than knowing the character of some other group to whom you owe nothing. So Southern mountain whites have loomed large at times in the urban mind. Maybe all the time. Some urban nostalgists have wanted to romanticize the rural (frontier) survivor, mainly to flatter themselves. They put a coonskin cap on the rural backwoodsman mainly as a trophy of their own fondest desires for their own virility. Other, smugger urbanites wanted to debunk frontier nobility and focus on how mean we were as a species, so Daniel Boone had to morph into the hillbilly. And more recently, those who got bit by the mind-virus of 'capitalist hegemony' needed the rural Appalachian as exquisite victim, and the hillbilly becomes liberal 'social problem' to be pitied, organized, defended, but never laughed at.

Certain assumptions about the people who first inhabited these hills breed common misconceptions. The first-comers were Scotch-Irish, right? Wrong. That is the prevailing mythology. But many and various regional groups from Great Britain settled in Appalachia, among whom were certainly many Scotch-Irish but also Irish and English from all over the isles, and numerous Germans of various religions and a goodly smattering of other nationalities. They came together in these mountains and teemed together in trade, growing for the market, buying at the market, courting and marrying, so rumors of cultural isolation are remarkably exaggerated and manipulated to suit the agenda.

The theory goes that Scotch-Irish or Anglo-Saxons, super-isolated from the mainstream, become mean customers indeed, because they are also by genetic makeup incipient egalitarian anarchists holding deep resentments against 'lords' of all kinds, including especially landlords, and who like their spirits home-distilled, their music orally transmitted, and their violence unprovoked and sudden. Or under better circumstances, our Appalachians, as quintessential north Britons, are the perfect yoeman democrats, welded to the sustaining earth like the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, caring not a whit for profit and wouldn't know what to do with money if they had any.

With exhaustive research, Wilma Dunaway proves once and for all that capitalism didn't arrive in Appalachia long after settlement and didn't canker the flower of a now lost rural self-sufficiency. No, the capitalist impulse, the drive for profit, was there from the beginning like a germ in every settler, or in most of them, and total rural self- sufficiency is a myth anyway. Dunaway proves that the earliest settlers in the backcountry went far beyond mere barter-borrow to get themselves into the channels of cash. Southern Appalachians have been participants in the national economy, not victims only.

They are also as various and as contradictory as any urban population, being racist at times and at times accommodating, both to blacks and to remnant Cherokees hid out from the Trail of Tears. Some sections, especially river valleys, prospered in the national economy; some suffered from corporate greed. Some mountain families owned slaves and produced massive amounts of goods for the market. The slaveholders often lived in the same neighborhood in the same county with their non- slaveholding brethren and even co-religionists, those who incidentally did not break over to the pursuit of profit and who sank therefore in social class while rising in social- class stigma and resentment. From the beginning, a commercial elite took hold of local government, but rich and poor alike travelled everywhere, especially to market and back, by foot, horseback, and cart, because they were as inquisitive and acquisitive as their urban cousins on the East Coast, only possessing less opportunity to scratch those itches. But isolated the mountaineers never were, though urban visitors loved to say they were, a comment on the difficulty of travel to the urban perspective and not a piece of credible evidence for the actual isolation of actual mountain people. (They're still not isolated. Any backroad in any mountain county will reveal today a gratifying census of TV satellite dishes, the very antithesis of isolation.) Women were not merely the tied- at-home slaves of intolerant white guys with bad teeth and a drinking habit. Women too were also producers and traffickers in the commerce of the world and exercised about as much freedom as any other women in various other places at similar times in our history. Social class has always meant as much in mountain neighbourhoods as in city neighbourhoods, with elites insulting lowdown others and lowdown others taking their revenge. The word feud, applied to trivialize their struggles in the urban media, covered real divisions between those who carried the cause for urban profit against those stigmatized as 'agrarian' and backward.

All of this above and more is explored in the 13 essays contained in Appalachia in the Making. This cutting-edge work, like Dunaway's book, shatters old assumptions and deconstructs our mythologies. Many of the essayists in this collection have produced their own books, and their names may be familiar already: John R. Finger, Wilma Dunaway (again), Paul Salstrom, John Inscoe, Ralph Mann, Gordon McKinney, Mary Anglin, John Williams, Dwight Billings & Kathleen Blee, Mary Beth Pudup, Ron Lewis, Alan Banks and Altina Waller.

One of the great glories of Appalachia in the Making is the clear and helpful introduction by the editors, as concise a history as one will ever find of the 'idea' of Appalachia and the intellectual battles this century over its meaning as an historical and sociological paradigm. If one reads nothing more than this introduction, one would emerge edified.

I cannot recommend these books more highly for anyone looking for quick primers in the best and most recent historical research on the real Appalachia.

J. W. Williamson
Appalachian Journal
Appalachian State University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996