Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia (review)
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Reviewed by
Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia. By Bruce E. Stewart. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Pp. xii, 325. $50.00 cloth)

Bruce E. Stewart’s compact study considers two broad issues: the gradual rise of antidistiller movements in western North Carolina and the emergence of negative Appalachian stereotypes. Stewart suggests that prohibition sentiment and the notion of the Appalachian “other” developed jointly over the course of the nineteenth century and that each was a homegrown phenomenon. In so doing, Steward builds on works by historians such as David Hsuing and Richard Starnes who contend that highlanders actively participated in the formation of Appalachian stereotypes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, while Stewart argues that scholars of American prohibition movements have overlooked social reformers’ antidistiller rhetoric, he convincingly demonstrates that distillers were central to prohibitionists’ efforts and the creation of Appalachian stereotypes.

Stewart begins his analysis in 1790, a time when highlanders thought of distillers as legitimate businessmen who manufactured [End Page 204] a product that many considered “a vital element of their economy and culture” (p. 30). While Stewart acknowledges that building antidistiller sentiment in the mountains “proved difficult,” he asserts that the effort to prohibit alcohol in western North Carolina was “locally driven and predates the Civil War” (pp. 3, 215). During the late antebellum period, the middle-class townspeople of the region began to advocate temperance in order to appear “refined, cultivated, and fashionable” and to distinguish themselves from their seemingly ignorant and intemperate rural neighbors (p. 35). However, few highlanders outside the cities were willing to renounce alcohol at this time, leading reformers to blame distillers for intemperance in the region.

According to Stewart, the distiller became embroiled in the political upheavals of the sectional crisis: he was maligned during the Civil War for turning potential food crops into alcohol and then celebrated as a “folk hero” who rejected federal authority during Reconstruction (p. 88). As Southerners began to anticipate the birth of a New South, Appalachian elites also began to promote “industry, agricultural efficiency, and cheap labor,” while rejecting such “preindustrial practices” as alcohol production and consumption that might endanger economic progress (p. 118). It was the transition of western North Carolina to an industrial economy in the 1890s that “sparked a social revolution” among the rural population, who finally came to share their urban counterparts’ belief that moral reform would promote economic prosperity (p. 183). Once a majority of mountain residents turned against distillers, reformers “witnessed the elimination of the final obstacle to statewide prohibition,” which passed in 1908 (p. 191).

Stewart’s study has done much to enhance Appalachian historiography. Stewart adds to the already-plentiful evidence that dispels the notion of Appalachian exceptionalism, as he carefully notes that “the same forces” responsible for the rise in prohibition sentiment elsewhere in America drove prohibition sentiment in western North Carolina (p. 217). Furthermore, Stewart does a fine job of revisiting the well-worn, local-color literature and refocusing readers’ attention [End Page 205] on the moonshiner. In his deft use of this material, Stewart makes a compelling case that the moonshiner and the violence surrounding him became “a symbol of what was wrong with Appalachian society,” thus helping to encourage reform and uplift movements in the region (p. 170).

Yet despite such achievements, Stewart’s study leaves readers with a lingering question. Stewart contends that the “urban elite” and “professional middle class” of western North Carolina were the catalysts for much of the social change of the region, yet their identities remain unclear (p. 34). Were they all members of wealthy local families, or did some of them migrate to the towns of the region from elsewhere? A closer examination of local elites’ backgrounds would benefit Stewart’s arguments that prohibition sentiment and Appalachian stereotypes originated within the region. Despite this minor quibble, Stewart’s study will be valuable to scholars of reform movements, the formation of Appalachian stereotypes, and social change in the industrializing New South.

Jessica L. Gillespie

Jessica L. Gillespie is a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her research focuses on Progressive...


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