- Making Book: The Encyclopedia of Appalachia Takes Its Place in a Crowded Field
Having spent the better part of a decade compiling the West Virginia Encyclopedia, I have more than a passing appreciation for the accomplishment of the editors of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia. Years of painstaking effort, and endless patience are required to produce such books and do a good job of it. Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell share the credit for this one, and they have done a good job. With Jill Oxendine and other associates, they birthed a monumental volume, running toward eight pounds and nineteen hundred pages, with more than two thousand entries, hundreds of illustrations, and, I’ll guess, close to two million words. Nearly a thousand freelance contributors took part, including just about everyone who has written a word on Appalachia in recent times.
For the record, I am one of those contributors. I also served on the Encyclopedia of Appalachia’s editorial board and kept up at least a tenuous connection throughout the big book’s long gestation. My involvement goes back to the early days of the project, to a discussion at the 1995 Appalachian Studies Conference at West Virginia University in Morgantown. In the runup to the meeting I got a call from Professor Loyal Jones of Berea College, saying that there appeared to be two efforts afoot to produce a comprehensive Appalachian reference book, and asking me to moderate a session to bring everyone together at the upcoming conference. I did so, but any anticipated friction between the projects happily failed to materialize. Instead, we had a lively talk in a big room at WVU’s Mountainlair, and the two teams went ahead with their respective good works. (The other project, out of Radford University, resulted in the 2006 publication by the University of Tennessee Press of A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region, edited by Grace Edwards, JoAnn Asbury, and Ricky Cox.) [End Page 91]
The Morgantown meeting was especially felicitous from my viewpoint in that it was there that I first met Rudy Abramson, beginning a friendship that continued until his recent untimely death. Abramson and I commiserated on countless occasions as we worked to bring our separate encyclopedias to completion.
And yes, I suppose that is a further disclosure of interest. Connections of this sort are hard to avoid in reviewing books that draw so many contributors from a small field, but nonetheless they must be acknowledged. The advantage of personal association lies in the deeper knowledge one acquires. Call this the “I was there when it happened and I guess I ought to know” argument, to paraphrase the late Carl Perkins (the Memphis rocker, not the eastern Kentucky congressman who has his own entry in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia). The danger, of course, lies in whatever biases close familiarity may instill. The reader will keep both considerations duly in mind.
The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, published by the University of Tennessee Press, is Appalachia’s first broadly inclusive, authoritative, single-volume reference. It joins similar books, only somewhat smaller, for several individual states within our region. Encyclopedias for North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia appeared within a year of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, and others, for Kentucky and Tennessee, were already on the shelf. Perhaps the spate of encyclopedia making had something to do with the reflective mood engendered by the turn of the century and closing of the millennium, and in some cases with specific anniversary dates such as the 1992 Kentucky statehood bicentennial. Whatever the motivation, the forerunner volumes appeared in the closing years of the twentieth century, for our purposes including in particular the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1989, and subsequent editions) and the Kentucky Encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 1992). The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture (Tennessee Historical Society-Rutledge Hill Press) followed in 1998, two years after the Tennessee bicentennial.
The excellent new Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English merits at least a mention among these regional references. Properly a lexicon or glossary and calling itself a dictionary, it is of encyclopedic scale and of comparable quality to the recently published encyclopedias. Compiled...