- Studying Appalachian Studies: Making the Path by Walking ed. by Chad Berry, Phillip J. Obermiller, and Shaunna L. Scott
Chad Berry, Phillip J. Obermiller, and Shaunna L. Scott have compiled eight essays that evaluate the field of Appalachian studies. The contributors [End Page 741] consider Appalachia’s past, present, and future from a range of perspectives: history, sociology, regional and rural development, literary criticism, and economics. The collection is thus indicative of how interdisciplinary Appalachian studies has become since its incipiency in the late 1970s.
Historians of the American South will find many of these essays informative. Barbara Ellen Smith recaps the significance of representation in this seemingly anomalous region. She calls on scholars to further disrupt the myth of Appalachia as an overwhelmingly white and homogeneous outpost. For Smith, historians must complicate the normative notions of gender and sexuality that have inflected even the most progressive interpretations of the region. While many studies illustrate the complexity of life and demographics in the mountain South, Smith argues that scholars can do more to locate the experience and the resistance of marginalized people who occupy “multiple social positions” across the region (p. 56).
Two essays, one coauthored by Donald Edward Davis and Chris Baker, the other jointly written by Amanda L. Fickey and Michael Samers, survey the history of the dysfunctional development schemes that have defined much of Appalachia’s relationship with state and federal governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations. In their sober assessment, Davis and Baker explain how ambitious and mostly well-intentioned programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and other public-private partnerships have yielded mixed results. Fickey and Samers explore the legacy of the Appalachia Regional Commission, still another developmental agency that promised prosperity in the hills. At their best, these programs alleviated poverty within some counties and communities. At their worst, outside developmental efforts reproduced top-down organizational structures and unresponsive bureaucracies, disempowering poor people, aggravating entrenched problems, and perpetuating systemic inequality.
As the essays demonstrate, many of the same issues that animated activists and academics at the discipline’s founding remain central to it today. With the proliferation of fracking and mountaintop removal mining, understanding the history of environmental spoliation in the region is as crucial as ever. Growing economic disparity, which is key to understanding modern American history writ large, has an even more acute resonance in Appalachia. At the same time, the region’s politics have become more divisive and reactionary. For certain, progressive outposts persist, and antiracist, environmental, and labor activism remain touchstones of the region’s history and have extended into the present. The collection details some of these efforts.
Still, a virulent strain of nativism and racism must be confronted and further understood. One need not look closer than the results of state and federal elections over the past ten years to see a striking rise of reactionary politics throughout much of the mountain South. Here the resentments and anxieties of a large percentage of the region’s poor and middle-class whites have come to the fore. While there have been numerous studies of the rise of modern conservatism and its confluence with white nationalism, Appalachia is fertile ground for understanding such phenomena. This ugly side of the region is not well represented in this collection, but it offers a pathway toward vital new scholarship in the future. [End Page 742]
Finally, the book could have profited from a deeper articulation of how Appalachian studies stands apart from other area studies. For example, one might argue that Appalachia shares a history and faces problems similar to other predominantly rural regions. Population decline, lack of economic opportunity, increased levels of substance abuse, environmental exploitation, and a reliance on a single or narrow set of extractive industries sadly typifies many places in the United States besides Appalachia. The contributors would certainly acknowledge...