Dear Appalachia: Appalachian Readings

Continuing my 2018 resolution to read more books about Appalachia, I chose Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878 by Emily Satterwhite for February.

In Dear Appalachia, Satterwhite looks at reader responses to popular Appalachian regional fiction from the late 1800s to present day. I’ll admit, I haven’t read all the books Satterwhite discusses, but I’ve read a fair number, and two of my favorites are in there: Coal Tattoo by Silas House and Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani.

While the book covers a lot, I found myself drawn to certain themes as I read. Two of the major ones for me were (1) insiders versus outsiders and (2) race and the idea of Appalachia as a white utopia.

Inside or Outside

It was fascinating to see the various reader reactions from Appalachian insiders, outsiders, and insiders who moved away (Jesse Donaldson and I would both be in the latter category). As a native who no longer lives in the region, I tend to react one of two ways to Appalachian literature: either it makes me homesick because it is a fair representation or it makes me angry because it is full of stereotypes. It seems others who are intimately familiar with Appalachia react similarly.

Appalachia has always had a strong dichotomy between locals and outsiders, partially because outsiders have come in time and again to take advantage of the hospitality of mountain folks and the natural resources the landscape holds. They’ve taken our coal, our lumber, our money, and they’ve left us with flattened mountains and dirty water.

The outsider readers saw what they wanted in the books Satterwhite examined: an isolated mountain utopia with close neighbors who were simultaneously hard-working farmers capable of living off the land. They saw the region as somehow more authentic than the US as a whole. In fact, many outsider readers assumed these tales of simple mountain life were biographical documentaries. They chose to see the “imagined geography of Appalachia” (184) as true to life, whether there was proof of that or not (and in some cases the authors weren’t even Appalachian themselves, but outsiders who had visited the area). Many readers simultaneously admired our mountain toughness and self-sufficiency and also wanted to come “save” us from our primitive ways. (Read Ann Pancake’s essay “Tough,” if you haven’t.)

Satterwhite explains that the timing of the popularity of this genre was tied to growing industrialization and the great migration known as the Southern Diaspora. White Americans generally felt displaced, across the country, and they saw Appalachia as a safe, calm, grounded homeland (and many with ties to the area from previous generations, mentioned so, in a claiming sort of way, in their letters to the authors: “My own ancestors were among those early settlers” [111]). Satterwhite writes, “Migration provoked among white Americans a sense of deep estrangement that they turned to fiction to ameliorate” (214–215). They wanted to belong, they “craved a way to understand their relationships to the seemingly atomizing mass culture that newly surrounded them” (118), and this fictional, romanticized version of Appalachia was perfect to them. Many readers actually visited the region as tourists, trying to find the real places that the fictionalized towns were based on, and were disappointed that they were not as imagined. However, as one reader astutely wrote regarding The Dollmaker, “We all have our ‘Detroits’ and we all long for the security of the old Tipton Place . . . but, the Old Tipton Place . . . does not exist for any of us” (123).

Race and Utopia

Unfortunately, the white-washed assumptions many outsider readers had regarding Appalachia as a long-lost home or respite sometimes also showed an endorsement of “racism, nationalism, and imperialism” (221). They saw Appalachia as old-world white, with ballads, traditions, and dialect. Also, if these readers could rewrite their roots as oppressed Appalachians, then they would be incapable of then being the oppressors. These readers valued Appalachia for it’s “purity” and “racial innocence” while also identifying with the “not-quite-white” rough and tumble mountaineers (219). The blandness of their national white culture was essentially tempered, in Appalachia, by the Cherokee, the Melungeons, the Celtic (220).

(It should be mentioned that many nationalities who came in to work in coal, lumber, and railroads were rarely mentioned in the novels, much less the letters: Italians, Polish, African Americans, and many more. Coal camps, in reality, were melting pots of culture. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. has a memoir about his experiences growing up in a coal camp that I highly recommend: Colored People.)

This sense of utopia (hopefully not racialized) happens for insiders who have moved away, too, as shown in On Homesickness and in my own life. We idealize what we had. Within the concept of Appalachia, my childhood has become a place—one that I’ve compacted into beautiful, nostalgic memories, one that I can never physically visit.

The Geography of Hope

The reality of the situation is that I left, as many others have in southern migrations, for opportunities—for school, for jobs—that my hometown could not provide for me. Yes, my hometown is small, and a lot of people know each other. But it is also rural and cannot easily sustain my goals. Like Jesse Donaldson, I think often of moving back, of the sound of the Bobwhite and the whistle of the train, but what would that mean? I can’t return to my idyllic mountain childhood, so what would the region become for me? Could the beauty of the landscape and the proximity to family cancel out the lack of jobs and the tension of prolific political views antithetical to my own? Like Gertie in The Dollmaker, what must I sacrifice in order to return?

As Wallace Stegner writes in “Wilderness Letter,” “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

As I contemplate my homesickness and the reality of the region, one important takeaway I have from Dear Appalachia is this: “We owe it to the region and to our organizing efforts to see Appalachia in a more complicated way, and to notice when celebrating it risks doing more harm than good” (217).

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