Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 by Ronald D. Eller (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 102-103
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 102 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY A ppalachian history is undergoing a new wave of interest, with much of the scholarship focused on the second half of the twentieth century. Recent case studies, syntheses , and edited works about that period reflect a great currency and relevance for the issues in today’s Appalachia. Scholars of Appalachian history must confront many of the same writing and research challenges faced by historians studying the American South. Their parallel issues revolve around defining geography, culture, and economics , while addressing regional comparisons (especially to the industrial northeast), demographic shifts, the changing political landscape, and the recent past in light of the present day. However, the most important challenge for historians of southern and Appalachian history is to recognize the people who in fact define their regions; their voices are crucial to understanding the complexities of their regions. Ronald Eller, former director of the Appalachian Center and professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is a well-established scholar in the field of Appalachian history. He broke significant ground nearly thirty years ago with Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: The Modernization of the Appalachian South, 18801930 (1982). That work has spawned a new generation of scholars in the field of Appalachian studies. Through scholarship and presentations he remains an active voice for the region, and many have eagerly anticipated his latest book on Appalachia since World War II. In Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945, Eller approaches the historical challenges of defining , describing, and assessing the recent past of Appalachia. He begins with the post-World War II period as the starting point for the region’s modern disconnect with the rest of the nation. Unlike other regions, Appalachia did not experience high levels of prosperity, mostly because of out-migration , a lack of infrastructure, and entrenched local political systems. Eller demonstrates that at midcentury the southern mountains lagged far behind the rest of the nation. By the Kennedy era, national figures and social activistshad“re-discovered”Appalachiaandlabeled it as a backwater in need of relief, reform, and reconstruction. These outside reformers believed that the region was not depressed, just underdeveloped . As part of the War on Poverty, the federal government sponsored a host of agencies, commissions , and programs to assist Appalachians. However, policy makers and agency administrators unfamiliar with longstanding issues in the mountains—government dependence, a culture of Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 Ronald D. Eller Ronald D. Eller. Uneven Ground:Appalachia since 1945. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008. 376 pp. ISBN: 9780813125237 (cloth), $29.95. BOOK REVIEWS SPRING 2010 103 poverty, environmental ruin in favor of economic gain, and the importance of the extended family network—oversaw often nearsighted efforts. More successful, Eller explains, were local grassroots groups who had a clearer understanding of the region’s flaws and a greater vision for the future. Student-led groups, including the Appalachian Volunteers, registered important progress in combating poverty and pushing for restrictions against extractive industries, especially mining companies . Many present-day mountain activists cut their teeth during the 1960s as members of these community-based organizations. While Eller recognizes the accomplishments of the more localized groups, he explains that the influence of the coal industry, corrupt politics, and internal squabbles diluted many of their achievements. During the 1970s, Appalachia caught the attention of a new range of scholars, researchers, and activists. Dozens of colleges and universities embraced Appalachian studies as a distinct academic program, while government investigators launched new social and economic studies of the region. As a result, Appalachia developed a regional consciousness and external groups once again attempted to modernize the mountains. During this renaissance, legislators placed greater restrictions on mining and activists led programs to alleviate poverty. In the twenty-first century, however, the region still has deep pockets of poverty, unregulated mining operations, and political systems heavily influenced by outside economic interests. This ongoing cycle of outside interest, sporadic reform, and uneven progress marked Appalachia during the second half of the twentieth century. Eller attributes Appalachia’s modern condition to poor leadership, especially from federal government programs. He argues that these external “experts” relied on the misguided post-war principle that development and growth equals progress. When applied...