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THOMAS F. HADDOX University of Tennessee Myth as Therapy in Lee Smith’s Oral History TO JUDGE FROM SCHOLARLY CRITICISM, POPULAR REVIEWS, AND THE responses of my own students, the audience for Lee Smith’s novels consists primarily of two groups with distinct, though often overlapping, commitments. Members of the first group identify themselves as Appalachian or Southern and wish to acclaim Smith as a major Appalachian or Southern writer. Seeking markers of Appalachian or Southern distinctiveness, such readers are often delighted with the granny women, coal miners’ daughters, snake-handling preachers, and irresistible fiddlers who populate Smith’s novels, and with her characteristic affirmation of continuities of place and family in the face of significant social and economic change. The most sophisticated of these readers profess not to subscribe, as Martha Billips puts it, to a “static, preconceived notion of Appalachian culture” (“Wild” 28): they also endorse something like Fred Hobson’s claim that in Smith’s work, “the ‘mountain people’ are like other people, no more and no less ‘sweet’ or ‘simple’” (29). Yet the very sophistication of these responses masks a tension: how can one affirm Appalachian distinctiveness as anything but an expression of personal taste, tribalism, or branding, if in fact Appalachianpeopleandplacesarejustlikepeopleandplaceselsewhere?1 Much of this tension can be traced to the problem of how to recognize and evaluate stereotypes. When Billips refers to a “static, preconceived notion” of Appalachian culture, she marks this tension precisely, for she evidently means “static because. preconceived.” Billips implies here an intellectual-cum-moral admonition: because readers under the spell of stereotypes fail to see the dynamic reality before them, more astute reading demands a continual effort to root out such preconceptions and to let the text itself communicate its more complex 1 Jon Smith provides a useful discussion of branding as “a more inclusive and hybrid range of participation in ‘imagined communities’ ranging from nations to veterans’ groups to tractor fans to whatever sort of community consumers of a product imagine themselves participating in by buying into it” (109). Unsurprisingly, readers committed to Appalachian identity tend to resist the notion that it is not significantly different from a taste for Cheerwine Cola. 258 Thomas F. Haddox picture of things. In the case of Smith’s Oral History, for instance, the belief that Appalachia constitutes “an intact folk community being exploited first by outside capitalist and industrial forces and later tainted by a pervasive popular culture” proves erroneous because the novel in fact shows “an Appalachian community already affected by a kind of ‘cultural hybridity,’ and in the midst of a consensual/conflictual relationship with the outside world” (“Wild” 31).2 But even though preconceptions demarcate limits to what we can know about a text (especially on a first reading), it is impossible to approach any text without them, for in their absence the possibility of intelligible knowledge would disappear altogether. Moreover, stereotypes are not necessarily “static”—fictional characters often change in stereotypical ways, whether the distinctiveness of these changes is compounded more of consent or of conflict. Put another way: stereotypes can involve change, buttheirdistinctivenessmustberelativelystableacross multiple examples if they are to be identifiable at all. The rhetorical war against stereotypes may spring from a laudable impulse, but the ideal that it seems to enshrine—a studied refusal to abstract any distinct characteristic across a group of people or object of study—would be anti-intellectualifitwerepossible.3 Indeed,evenwhenmystudentsnote with bemusement or discomfort the way Smith’s novels traffic in Appalachian stereotypes, their own assessments often reproduce the same insider/outsider binary that they feel pressured to repudiate in other contexts.4 2 Billips’sappropriationoftheterm“hybridity”fromHomiBhabhaillustrateshowthe suppression of one form of distinctiveness—“an intact folk community”—regularly produces a different form—“cultural hybridity”(31). Hybridity, however much it evokes constant process and unpredictable melding, depends on opposition to a putatively unhybridized binary to maintain its intelligibility. For a more thorough critique of hybridity along these lines, see Robert J. C. Young’s Colonial Desire. 3 Stanley Fish’s argument on this point in Professional Correctness (19-39) still seems to me unanswerable twenty years later. But as soon as one attributes value to the distinctiveness of a given object...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 257-275
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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