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  • Trying to Get Appalachia Less WrongA Modest Approach
  • Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt (bio)

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The quiet presence of the mountains testifies that telling shortened and simplified stories of Appalachian people, places, and cultures might prove tricky. Few mountain ranges on the planet are older, have borne witness to more history, and have endured through more seasons of change. All photos courtesy of Roger May.

When the editors of Southern Cultures asked me to guest edit a special issue on Appalachia, I said yes immediately. Not only is western North Carolina my family home, but Appalachian Studies is my most long-standing scholarly home. Literature, music, food, art, entrepreneurship, and scholarship from and about Appalachia are energetic, diverse, robust, and prolific right now—and they have long been so. I am thrilled and honored to have helped create this issue you hold in your hands.

At the same time, when we began this process, my breath caught in my throat a bit. Because here's what I also know: everyone who has thought they could explain Appalachia—its places, people, or cultures—has gotten it wrong. Every ten years or so, Appalachia's people and culture figure in a national or international discussion—more often as pariahs than participants. Punch line and poster child, Appalachia has long been a cultural scapegoat for the environmental or societal [End Page 4] tragedies that people would rather debate or mourn than fix. All too often it is an empty vessel to be filled with whatever straw men (or women), unexamined assumptions, and a priori claims one wants to set up. Regularly, Appalachia is imagined to need a funeral, to be already gone, to cry out for remembrance. Especially when the discussions have aimed for uncomplicated or simple, the think pieces, talking points, and invocations fall frustratingly short.

Maybe this is true about most places, people, and cultures. Big hats or hair, cowboy boots, oil fields, and the ability to leave the nation stand in as an "explanation" of Texas, where I lived and taught for ten years. Reporters "capture" the upper Midwest, where my father is from, by finding casserole dinners, ice-fishing with beer, and river flooding. Places thought to be rural have their population subtracted and their diversity erased; urban spaces, however different from each other, are tagged with an identical set of adjectives. Perhaps this is especially true in the United States today. Fast-paced and wide-swinging pendulums of political, social, and environmental change have pushed 2016 into 2017 and as much guessing as there may be, the ground on which the nation sits feels uncertain and unfamiliar.

Appalachia stands out, however, in the sheer length of time that people have believed it could be explained simply, pithily, and concisely. Its land is "strange" and its people are "peculiar"—in speeches in the 1870s and the politics of 2016. Self-identified hillbillies, mountain men, moonshiners, and outlaws are sought to speak for everyone—in penny papers from the 1890s and on reality television today. Serious news stories extrapolate to the whole by focusing in on one industry, and assume that sorting out who is friend and who is at war with it will diagram its complex politics and economies—whether that be timber in 1900, textiles in 1930, or mining through the present day. Media coverage largely portrays one class (poor), one race (white), one religion (conservative Christian), and one world-view (narrow)—and assigns difference to so-called strangers or outsiders. Again and again Appalachia is relegated to the past tense: "out of time" and out of step with any contemporary present, much less a progressive future.

Simultaneously, commentators perform sleights of hand to embrace mountain landscapes, sounds, tastes, and fashions as if those have no human lives, trails of earth, or forgotten and erased counterparts behind them. Vacation getaways, popular musicians, newest food fads, and design styles are somehow of but not in Appalachia itself. They are wildly popular and loyally followed by fans around the globe, but they are never reconciled with those other, dark portraits of mountain societies. Whether emphasizing its problems or extracting its products (coal and creative...


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