Appalachian resources: independence, culture and enlightenment

The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America By Jeff Biggers. Shoemaker & Hoard. 238 pages. $26.00

In 1966, Appalachian scholar Robert Munn observed that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States.” In the years since Munn’s comment, scholars and activists have rectified this wrong, producing an impressive body of excellent research about Appalachia.

Despite the great strides in research on the Appalachian region, negative stereotypes persist – indeed, they sometimes seem rampant. I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard people associate Appalachia with hillbillies, moonshine, inbreeding, or the movie Deliverance. While much of the “nonsense” Munn identified has been rectified in the scholarly record, the message hasn’t always found its way outside of Appalachia.

Enter Jeff Biggers and his new book, The United States of Appalachia. With crisp, well-written prose, Jeff Biggers paints an overwhelmingly positive picture of the role Appalachian people have played in the development of America, dispelling myths and stereotypes along the way. ”In truth,” Biggers states, “Southern Appalachians have roamed to all ends of the United States and the rest of the world, spreading their traditions and changing the way we live.” He draws deeply from the Appalachian canon, pointing the reader to his sources in a series of brief bibliographic essays at the end of the book.

Biggers’ approach is three-pronged. First, he examines Appalachia within the context of the struggle for American independence. He then looks at the impact of Appalachians on American culture. Finally, he examines and expounds on the role Appalachians have played in developing American progressive thought and action.

Appalachia’s impact on American culture is widely known, and yet, it’s also obscured by myth. The impact of the Carter Family, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson on American popular music is common knowledge, but other Appalachians have also made their mark on American culture. In Biggers’ opening paragraphs, he notes that both ballet innovator Martha Graham and literary icon Gertrude Stein hailed from Pennsylvania’s Appalachian range. He also discusses many of Appalachia’s literary lights, including Thomas Wolfe and James Still.

One of the enduring misconceptions of Appalachia is that it embodies and perpetuates a largely white, predominately British culture. Biggers briefly outlines how this image came to be, then presents the case of two internationally famous African-Americans who shatter this myth. He paints an evocative portrait of Eunice Waymon, who was born in western North Carolina and rose to international fame as a classically trained pianist, singer, and activist under her stage name of Nina Simone. He also describes the career of the Bessie Smith, the “Empress of the Blues,” who was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Appalachian region has also been a seedbed of independence. Biggers outlines the history of the District of Washington, an independent political area in northwest Tennessee that predated the U. S. Declaration of Independence. He also describes the mountaineers’ role in defeating the British at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780.

Many Americans are probably unaware of the role Appalachia played in the antebellum abolitionist movement. A number of Appalachian abolitionists, including John Rankin, kept the abolitionist flame alive in eastern Tennessee through the publication of anti-slavery newspapers and writings. Their work was a major influence on New Englander William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most famous abolitionist of all.

Modern journalism owes much to Appalachia. Two of the nation’s first women journalists, Anne Royall and Fannie Wright, had roots in the region. The New York Times owes its present incarnation to an Appalachian journalist. Editor Adolph Ochs owned a newspaper in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and employed a philosophy of reporting on news in an unbiased fashion – a marked break from the largely partisan press of the era. He was so successful that a group of New York newspapermen asked Ochs to become the editor of the New York Times, which was struggling under pressure from other papers owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Emblazoning the motto “All The New That’s Fit to Print” on the front page, Ochs made the Times one of the best know newspapers in the world.

Biggers’ presents a brief but illuminating overview of the bitter mine wars and labor struggles that raged in Appalachia. He includes an enlightening chapter on Myles Horton’s Highlander School, which worked (and continues to work) tirelessly to spread racial and economic justice. In the 1950s, such luminaries as Rosa Parks, who attended a workshop at Highlander in preparation for her famous refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. In these and other examples, Biggers presents Appalachia as a fertile home for many trends in American progressivism.

Page after page, The United States of Appalachia provides solid and incontrovertible evidence that Appalachians were instrumental in bringing “independence, culture, and enlightenment to America.” Those versed in Appalachian Studies literature will find Biggers’ assertions and cast of characters familiar, yet delivered in fresh, accessible prose. For those unfamiliar with the region, this volume will be an eye-opening experience. All told, The United States of Appalachia is a concise, extremely readable work that dispels much of the “nonsense” about the region.

Gene Hyde is a librarian at Radford University


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment