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  • Front Porch
  • Harry Watson, Editor

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Appalachia is deeply like and deeply joined to larger worlds, but also still unique, still partly meshed in creative tension with its special past. All photos courtesy of Roger May.

As far back as colonial days, all the experts agreed that the Mountain South was different, even when they couldn't explain how or why. Observers often blamed degenerate settlers. Royal governor Alexander Spotswood claimed that Virginia's mountaineers wanted "all the necessarys of life with little labor" and sneered that "it is fully well known what morals such people bring with them hither." Two centuries later, sociologist Rupert Vance chose his words more carefully but still endorsed the conventional wisdom that Appalachia was unique. In traveling from Grandfather Mountain to the Mississippi, he declared in 1932, "It needs but a customs barrier and a varying language to mark the limit of two cultures." Unlike Spotswood, the social scientist denied that mountain people were inherently backward. Instead, Vance diagnosed Appalachia as an "outstanding study in isolation," and a "retarded frontier," where self-sufficient farm families still consumed more of their crops than they sold. As a result, he claimed, poverty reigned and "the cash income per farm is as low as anywhere in the United States."1

Other observers were more colorful and less kind. Only three years earlier, Howard Mumford Jones (another Chapel Hill professor) had declared in a popular [End Page 1] magazine that "The simple southern highlanders converse among themselves in sentences impartially compounded of "hit," "you uns," and "tote," a "vocabulary which they find sufficient for all ideas." "Their babies cry for moonshine as soon as they are born," he continued. "By day their chief occupation is to sit; by night they sleep seven in a bed, though they will promptly vacate the bed on the approach of a furriner and migrate to the floor which they prefer. They never wear nothing but sun bonnets and blue jeans." When they weren't "singing ballets," mountain people might "shoot everybody in sight." And so on. Even Howard Odum, Vance's Chapel Hill mentor, could not look past the implications of seven-to-a-bed, and drily noted that Appalachian birthrates could be twice as high as neighboring counties'. More bluntly, Dolly Parton wisecracks that her parents had twelve children because they were "horny hillbillies."2

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Even as these pieces return to familiar images, each refracts and transforms them to teach us something new and different from what we thought we knew about their subjects. Hackneyed and abused or sensitively reimagined, the old images still convey a reality about mountain people and the mountains that even our biggest innovators cannot entirely escape.

Pushing back against these stereotypes, some in the field of Appalachian Studies have come close to denying that Appalachia is different at all. In this view, the Mountain South is not isolated and never has been. Early settlers were as fully involved in distant markets as anyone, they insist, and modern mining and timber interests are more to blame for the region's problems than subsistence farming. [End Page 2] But here the region's defenders may prove more than they mean to. If Appalachia is not exceptional, why do we still notice it? What about Professor Jones's "ballets"; that is, the rich heritage of music, crafts, and folklore that so many of us love, both inside and outside the region? Where does all that come from if Appalachia is no different from everywhere else? And if we minimize the uniqueness of mountain cultures (note the plural, please), what's left? It's the same problem that faces the South as a whole. If the South becomes just like the rest of the world, does it still exist?

Elizabeth Engelhardt, guest editor of this special issue on the Appalachian South, has recruited an exciting set of authors who tackle these conundrums head on. A mountain native and a specialist in Appalachian Studies, she knows that "everyone who has thought they could explain Appalachia … has gotten it wrong," precisely because the pull of regional stereotypes is so...


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