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romantic appalachia; or, poverty pays if you ain’t poor (1969) Editors’ Note: This essay expresses West’s devotion to the ingenuity of mountaineers and his growing dismay at outside intervention. It originally appeared in a slightly different version in the West Virginia Hillbilly on March 29, 1969. This influential Appalachian tabloid, which hailed itself as a“weakly” publication, was edited by the author and chronicler Jim Comstock, a lifelong resident of Richwood, West Virginia. The Appalachian Movement Press, launched in West Virginia by the former student activists TomWoodruff and Danny Stewart,reprinted the essay in their series of pamphlets in the early 1970s. West also included the essay in his collection In a Land of Plenty (1982). Almost every day we get letters from those wanting to come to Appalachia to “fight poverty.” They’ve read about the Southern Mountaineers. They’ve seen movies, comic strips, or TV (Lil’ Abner, Beverly Hillbillies). It’s not that there’s no poverty in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago , and other parts. There is. But Southern Appalachia has that “romantic” appeal. Just a few years ago it was the southern Negro, and dedicated (or adventure seeking) young “yankees” came trouping to the South on freedom rides,marches , and such. Not that racism, segregation, and even riots didn’t exist in the North. They did. But since the Black militants kicked the whites out, suggesting they go organize their own kind, the next most romantic thing seems to be the Appalachian South. So we are “discovered” again. It’s happened every generation, sometimes more often, since the Civil War. After a few people in the North, following Lincoln’s awareness, realized how the mountain South played a strategic role in defeating the Confederacy, there was a twinge of stricken conscience. First came the religious “missionaries” from New England and other parts North to lift us up and save our “hillbilly” souls. They brought along their “superior ” religion to do it—and were closely followed by corporation emissaries buying up mineral rights for 25 cents to 50 cents an acre. 01.Prose.1-blnk 96/West 12/2/03, 11:48 AM 66 selected prose 67 The Union General Howard, marching through the Cumberland Gap, had been so deeply impressed by the friendly spirit, aid, and support given his soldiers by the mountain people that he communicated it to President Lincoln . Lincoln himself vowed that after the war something should be done for “the loyal mountaineers of the South.” One eventual result was Lincoln Memorial University at Cumberland Gap.63 (We have degrees from that school.) Subsequently a whole passel of mountain missionary schools sprang up.The loyalty of the southern mountaineer,his anti-slavery sentiment and action,and the plight of the poor little mountain boys and girls in isolatedAppalachia were told in lurid details in the North.Many missionaries were New England women who, some of the romantic fables held, were disappointed in love. They came to the mountains to lose themselves. Nonetheless, they had “uplift” in their eyes. A few even married hill men. We reckoned maybe that was part of the “uplift” too. I attended one of these mountain missionary high schools. I remember so well how the New England “Pilgrims” used to come down each year. A special train brought them on a siding to the campus. All of us little “hillbillies” were lined up with candles lighted on each side of the dirt road for half a mile with carefully coached greeting smiles. It was a “great day.” We were supposed to be cheered when the “Pilgrims” told us how we were “the last remnants of the pure old Anglo-Saxons” who, of course,were the most superior of all peoples . This, maybe, ought to have made us feel good and “superior” in spite of our poverty.And we did have poverty then.It’s nothing new in the mountains. Our biggest show was reserved for the Henry Ford visits. The old oxen were yoked to a wagon loaded with wood to amble all the campus roads, managing to meet the Ford procession on numerous occasions. (Henry might give us a flivver, you see.) Oh, but we really got to do our stuff then, including the old mountain dances with Mrs. Ford and Henry. That, we learned, was Henry ’s favorite dancing, and he gave the school more than a flivver, too. Ford put millions into that school. He also gave jobs to graduates in his non-union...


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