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Legacy 17.2 (2000) 199-212

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Exploring Contact:
Regionalism and the “Outsider” Standpoint in Mary Noialles Murfree’s Appalachia

Marjorie Pryse
University at Albany, SUNY

In her study of travel writing and transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt describes “contact zones” as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (4). In the United States, the region of Appalachia has been such a “contact zone,” beginning with the arrival of the mining companies in the late nineteenth century. From Appalachia’s earliest sustained representation in Mary Noialles Murfree’s fiction, the “contact zone” has involved what Pratt terms “copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power” (7), between the travelers, politicians, journalists, and corporations who have come into the Tennessee mountains from outside and the people who live there. Judith Fetterley and I have identified Murfree’s mountain fiction as regionalism, a term that, unlike “local color,” we argue, establishes itself as a site of critique. 1 In Pratt’s terms, regionalism locates its narratives within a contact zone, leaving open the possibility for critique by way of autoethnography, narrative that emerges from indigenous or regional subjects and that may challenge readers’ preconceptions about those subjects. As Pratt writes, “if ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations” (7).

     Regionalist texts may be autoethnographic or they may involve a narrator sympathetic to misconstruals and misrepresentations of regional people who attempts to locate herself, as does Murfree’s narrator in In the “Stranger People’s” Country (1891), in a middle ground. In this middle ground, the contact zone of Murfree’s regionalism, her narrator “encounters” the preconceptions outsiders have toward her Appalachian mountaineers and self-critically positions herself as sympathetic. Aware that urban readers view Appalachians as strange, she takes up the “stranger people’s” standpoint as her own and explores her own relationship to that standpoint. Set several decades after the Civil War during the period of the entrance of mining interests into Appalachia, In the “Stranger People’s” Country becomes Murfree’s most complex intervention into the outsider-insider binary that characterizes the regionalist’s approach to the mountaineers. In the essay that follows, I will trace Murfree’s novel as her attempt to [End Page 199] intervene into that binary in various ways, including considering evidence of early Indian tribes that predated the Cherokee, exploring conflict between science and legend concerning who has control over the remains of these Indians, representing tensions in Appalachian politics that emerged with the arrival of outsiders into the region, and constructing the novel itself as a contact zone between outsider narrator and the characters who inhabit the mountains. In addition, we can read In the “Stranger People’s” Country as Murfree’s preservation of the mountaineers in the way she advocates keeping cultural distinctions alive through linguistic variation, protects in her narrative the secrets of Tennessee antiquities, and argues against intrusion into the lives of her characters.

     In such a reading, Murfree becomes one of the originators of Appalachian studies, a field that scholars and activists have developed since the 1970s and that retrospectively offers useful directions for our attempt to reread Murfree’s fiction for our own time. 2 In an essay on Appalachia, David Whisnant cites television shows popular during the 1970s—Hee Haw, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies—as evidence of “gross insensitivity to the feelings of Appalachian people, to their spiritual and material needs, and to the richness and vitality of their culture,” describing the media as “agents of a broader pattern of cultural imperialism” (129). What Whisnant argues is needed in Appalachia, however, is already apparent in Murfree’s fictional opposition between the values of the mountaineers and the values of urbanites. In making space for this alternative reading...


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