Two Worlds in the Tennessee Mountains: Exploring the Origins of Appalachian Stereotypes.
Among Appalachian scholars the subject of Appalachian difference or exceptionalism has been a longstanding topic of argument and debate. Were the white people who inhabited this southern mountain region culturally distinct from other rural Americans, even as late as the 20th century? By the mid to late 19th century many Americans living outside the region thought so, if one can believe the way they were portrayed in newspapers and fiction. Largely a negative portrait in the early period, by the 1930s and 1960s the images had become more positive, associated with handicrafts and a rich folk culture. Whether positive or negative, however, the assumption of exceptionalism remained.
By the 1980s scholars began to question this assumption. Were Appalachians really different? Had they been, throughout their history, more isolated, more geographically stable, more cut off from commercial links to other regions, more violent than people in other regions? Scholars such as Dwight Billings, Kathy Blee, Paul Salstrom, myself and many others concluded that rural mountaineers were not much different than rural populations in the South and even the North and mid-west. But now David Hsiung has given us a book which focuses exclusively on the question of Appalachian difference or, as he puts it, the origins of Appalachian stereotypes. He has chosen to directly confront the issue of the truth behind the stereotypes and, if not, the reasons why such perceptions might have developed. To do this, Hsiung has chosen one county in mountainous East Tennessee and has carefully researched its history from white settlement to the Civil War. To address the question of the reality behind the stereotypes he examines late eighteenth century settlement patterns, the extent of connections with other regions through road building and later railroad construction, commercial activities, and population persistence. Hsiung hopes to give a final answer to the debate of isolation from other regions as well as the isolation of mountain families and communities from each other.
Hsiung begins with the earliest white settlers of East Tennessee in the period of the Revolution and finds that descriptions of the "over mountain" men by outsiders such as the British commander Patrick Ferguson did emphasize ignorance and violence but that these perceptions were shaped by the exigencies of warfare rather than the ordinary daily lives of mountain people. When Hsiung examines the communities of East Tennessee, however, he finds that they were not isolated commercially, socially or culturally from each other. In fact, he finds that the threat of warfare and Indian attacks made them much more connected than isolated. (For Hsiung the word "connected" represents a theory of family and community relations.) With the end of the Revolutionary War, Hsiung traces the commercial development of the region by carefully examining the roads which led to and from the mountains as well as local road networks. He also looks at commercial activities such as hog and cattle drives and the activities of local merchants. These chapters are painstakingly done and show Hsiung at his best, using fragmentary sources to piece together a picture of local networks. The conclusion he draws is not a surprise, given recent scholarship; that there was a high degree of "connectedness" both externally to non-mountain areas and internally, among families and communities. The myth of Appalachian isolation, it seems, must be finally laid to rest. However, Hsiung also shows that some Appalachians did move to more remote mountain areas where few roads penetrated; he speculates that this may have been by choice, but there is little evidence to indicate motivation.
Hsiung next tackles the question of population persistence. Many writers have assumed that the mountaineers were not as mobile as most Americans, so he sets out to compare population persistence in East Tennessee with other historians' work on other regions of the country. His findings here are a bit more surprising in that for most of his study region, persistence rates are not very different except in the most mountainous region. This a real contribution since it really does seem to confirm that rural Appalachia was similar to other rural regions in that population persistence was low. All this suggests that the stereotypes are completely invalid. So what did generate these tenacious images? According to Hsiung, the answer is to be found in the 1830s and 1840s when attempts at economic development were renewed because of the possibility of railroads through the region. As economic development proceeded, it was slower than in other regions simply because of the ruggedness of the terrain, but it had the very same effect that development has in almost any region one examines, which is that the population becomes more stratified economically and socially. In short, social classes become polarized and as they do, the elite begin to see their poorer neighbors as ignorant, lazy and backward. As in other regions, the elite tended to congregate in towns and adopt a cosmopolitan worldview while the impoverished lived in less accessible regions and adopt a parochial outlook. The differences are particularly clear in relation to railroad building. The elite had to plead and cajole their reluctant neighbors to vote subsidies for railroads while, at the same time, castigating them for their lack of foresight and ignorance.
Hsiung labels this social polarization "disconnectedness," arguing this process is what underlay the emergence of stereotypes. The use of the term "disconnectedness" is a bit puzzling since Mary Beth Pudup, among others, has clearly shown such stratification in several communities in Kentucky and the term class stratification seems more descriptive than "disconnectedness." Whatever the term, however, Hsiung's final argument regarding Appalachian stereotypes is rooted in this class separation. Economically and socially privileged Appalachians began to write about and describe their poorer and more remote neighbors as ignorant, lazy and violent so that when outside entrepreneurs arrived in the region to pursue economic development they picked up on those attitudes. However, when these attitudes were communicated through newspapers and novels, no distinctions were made between the wealthier and poorer classes. People outside the region gained the impression that all Appalachians fit the description. The stereotypes were so tenacious because they justified the exploitation of Appalachians, for example taking their land for coal mines and railroads and forcing them into low paid wage labor.
The last point is not well articulated by Hsiung. Since every region creates its own distinctions on a local level, one has to explain why these internal negative images had such staying power in American culture and folklore as a whole. For that, we need more than simply proving that these internal stereotypes existed. We need to know what purposes they served, both on the immediate and practical level and for mainstream American culture. The latter, Mr. Hsiung has left to others, but he has, indeed, shown quite systematically that Appalachians were not exceptional. For that, he deserves high praise.
Altina L. Waller University of Connecticut, Storrs
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|Author:||Waller, Altina L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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