Wednesday, September 21, 2011

appalachian man

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The Appalachian American


There is a culture and way of life very apart from mainstream America tucked away into the slopes and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains. This is a culture steeped in tradition and history since the revolutionary war, a culture which has retained its traditions despite repeated efforts from outsiders to either exploit it or to make it a more mainstream, in the foreigner’s mind more civilized, culture. It is something of an anomaly how this region has been able to hold on to so much of its lifestyle in the face of such radical economic changes around it. Therefore it is a culture still based upon hunting and fishing, extended families, living by oneself and for oneself, and a general do-it-yourself attitude.


My personal interest in this culture goes very deep. I have long loved the mountains in addition to a personal affinity towards bluegrass music, so interest in Appalachian culture was only a matter of time for me. I have read much of Appalachian literature, having taken part in the Appalachian literature course at Georgetown University under Professor Patricia O’Connor. I have spent a couple of weekends camping in the Appalachians, once in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia and once at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Yet the brunt of my analytical research comes from a week I spent in Cherry Grove, West Virginia as part of a Habitat for Humanity service project. During that week I had the privilege to meet and work with many native Appalachians, to attend their masses, to eat meals with them, and in general to live amongst them.


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In doing my research for this project, I was continually reminded of the essay “The Price of Progress” by John H. Bodley in the Applying Cultural Anthropology reader. In that he states, “tribal peoples have not chosen progress to enjoy its advantages, but … governments have pushed progress upon them to obtain tribal resources (Podolefsky ).” The Appalachian people have never before been referred to as a tribe, yet if we define that term as an autonomous group of people who sustain themselves amongst themselves within a larger organization of people, then the Appalachians of yore could very well be referred to as such. That granted, Bodley’s quote describes perfectly the intervention of big businesses upon Appalachia and its resources in the first half of the 1th century (Dunaway 65). Bodley also states that the imposed ‘change and improvement’ of governments for peoples or tribes who are not in need of that particular kind of ‘change and improvement’ more often than not results in “poverty, longer working hours, and much greater physical exertion (Podolefsky ).” This sounds very reminiscent to me of the move of so many Appalachian men from their family farms to the coalmines and timber fields of the entrepreneurs at the enticement of far greater wages yet on the bosses’ own working conditions. The big businesses continued to exploit and deplete the region’s natural resources, including manpower, in effect “forcing tribal people into participating in the world-market economy; thus leading to further resource depletion (8).” Some Appalachians were able to effectively amalgamate themselves and benefit from these economic changes, yet for the majority the situation only deteriorated as “they discover that they are powerless, second-class citizens who are discriminated against and exploited by the dominant society ().” This is exemplified in the many depictions in popular American media of Appalachians as stupid, rusticated, backwards, incestuous, ‘slack-jawed’, or so many other epithets. Yet I will come back to all of this later. For now I will describe the general characteristics of the Appalachian people as I saw them.


As I mentioned above, despite repeated attempts by outsiders to ‘civilize’ this culture, Appalachians retain their traditions as adamantly today as during the 1700s. Houses are still spread considerably apart from each other, barring the Habitat-related (outsider-influenced) community at which I worked, located along dirt roads right on the hillsides or deep in the valleys and in many cases set very far away from any sort of convenience store or supermarket. Therefore subsistence living is still a much-employed practice. One of the most striking characteristics of this culture is that hunting and fishing are still such integral parts of the Appalachian lifestyle. In fact, it seemed to me that every grown man owned at least one set of camouflage and one shotgun. There were never less than five men at a time at any local fishing spot. Men walking around town during business hours dressed completely in camouflage is a very common sight, to the extent that it made me realize that many of these men must employ themselves merely on the task of bringing home food at the end of every day. On one occasion a local under whom I was working expressed the utmost incredulity at the fact that I did not own even one gun. He told me that one of the biggest days in a young boy’s life was the day when his father would give him his first shotgun. The fact that I had not experienced that day appalled my friend.


One might notice that in all this talk of hunting and fishing, I did not once mention women. In fact I never once noticed a woman walking around in camouflage. Hence specific gender roles are still very much in place here. Women for a great part have their jobs yet still keep care of the house and small children, a situation which at one point following WWII was forced to change because of outside influences, but we’ll come back to that later. Berry picking is still a very common practice, as is subsistence farming. All of this is indicative of the food eaten in a common household; namely, salted pork and other meats, fish, corn, beans, potatoes, berry pies, in general less processed foods. In fact, I do not remember seeing a single McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Burger King in all of West Virginia, staples of the mainstream American’s diet. This reminds me of the situation described by Maris Boyd Gillette in her book “Between Mecca and Beijing” between the diets of the Hui and Han populations in the Chinese city of Xi’an. These two populations live in such close proximity, yet have a vastly different diet due chiefly to the Hui’s strict adherence to the traditions of its religion, Islam, and conversely due to the Han’s desire to modernize in every respect, including diet. This in a way parallels mainstream America’s striving for modernization and convenience in every aspect including diet, the best example of which is fast food, as opposed to Appalachia’s striving to retain the self-sustaining lifestyle to which it has traditionally adhered.


This is not to say though that people of the Appalachian region are so tied to tradition that they do not partake of any of the amenities of modern-day American society. There are centers of commerce resplendent with a supermarket, gas stations, a couple convenience stores, and perhaps a regional fast food place, one in particular I remember was called Mean Gene’s. Yet these centers of commerce are located in some instances a good half-hour to an hour from some of the smaller towns, separated by unlit windy roads which no one should have to drive at night. The supermarkets are there for one’s use, yet they are never as crowded as they would be in cities or suburbs. There is simply less importance in this culture on material luxury goods and more importance on useful family heirlooms, such as guns, clothing, baskets and the like. There is a vastly different attitude towards nature in this region as well. Whereas in the city nature is built upon and used to the advantage of man, it is still for the most part intact in West Virginia. Nature is still used to the advantage of man here, but on a much more individual basis and with more attention placed on the integrity of nature itself. My work supervisor in West Virginia told me once that he, lacking a sufficient water heater and in keeping with the do-it-yourself attitude of subsistence living, built a water heater for his house that was fueled by burning wood. He said though that because it used up so much wood, he filled it up as sparingly as possible and never at night. In the same respect, in the process of our building of a nature trail through the woods, we needed to chop down some trees in order to build a bridge, but not a tree too much was cut down and what scraps remained he brought home for his furnace; in addition he encouraged us, untrained in such things, to learn for ourselves how to use a chainsaw to help him cut down these trees.


Another of this culture’s characteristics which jumps out at the outsider is the closeness of extended family. Families in some cases live most of their lives just towns away from parents, cousins, uncles, aunts, etc. There does not seem to be as much upward social mobility in this culture as mainstream America, yet people seem content with that. In many cases Appalachian people know who they are and what they do, and that fulfills them exponentially. Kin generally seem to help out kin in this society, as opposed to the commonly held view of the prevalence of family rivalries, e.g. the Hatfields and the McCoys (Weller 5). This misconception may very well have been propagated by the effects of the civil war, which pitted brother against brother and did much to harm familial Appalachian traditions. Unfortunately the precedence of domestic abuse and alcoholism in this culture, as evidenced by so many counties in West Virginia being ‘dry’ (unable to sell liquor), sheds light on the darker side of this situation.


A last defining characteristic of this culture is its emphasis on storytelling, in song but even more in common speech. Every time a new Appalachian were to come across our group of twelve, his/her introduction would consist of at least one short story, sometimes even five or six. It was a way of breaking the ice and producing a greater level of comfortability between them and us, yet what was most impressive was the fact that stories were never asked for in return. The same held at a local mass, at which the pastor gave mass in a very informal, storytelling style. This is evident in the folk songs of the Appalachian region as well. Although I did not encounter local music to a great extent in my week in West Virginia, the importance of music to this people has been well documented (Haddix ). These folk songs consist of two types, either gospel or storytelling; and the storytelling ones always seem to be of a rather depressing character, having been derived from the English ballads of old and having been birthed in a land riddled with struggle (). One example is Barb’ra Ellen


Then slowly, slowly she got up, And slowly came she nigh him,


But all she said when she got there, “Young man, I think you’re dyin’.”


“I know I’m sick, and very sick, And death is on me dwellin’;


And none the better will I ever be, ‘Til I have Barb’ra Ellen.”


“I know you’re sick, and very sick, And death is on you dwellin’;


No better will you ever be, You’ll not have Barb’ra Ellen.”


And she went wandering o’er the fields; She heard the death bell knellin’.


And ev’ry chime did seem to say, “For shame to Barb’ra Ellen.” (Haddix 5-60)


Yet this emphasis on storytelling does not come as too much of a surprise considering the isolation of this culture from the habits of mainstream America until the late introduction of TV and radio which was only beginning to catch in the mid-160s (Weller 15).


One of the common misconceptions of the Appalachian people is that they have a strong animosity and distrust towards outsiders. This is a misconception well supported in Jack E. Weller’s ethnography, “Yesterday’s People Life in Contemporary Appalachia,” published in 165. Yet in my experience, I encountered no such animosity from any with whom I came into contact. Granted some things may have changed since Weller’s book and granted there is the possibility that I dealt primarily with people used to dealing with outsiders, yet even at a luncheon which I attended at the local church, I was in the company of mostly senior citizens whom I had never met before, and I still encountered nothing but good-will and benevolence. In this way I find Jack Weller’s book to draw many similarities to Ruth Benedict’s “Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” They are both in my opinion valuable sources of many insightful views, yet they are both obviously written by people who are not a part of the society of their subject matter. Therefore they both imbue a level of the biases inherent in their own host cultures and serve even to promote these biases to an extent. It is my opinion that animosity towards outsiders within modern Appalachian society no longer exists to nearly the extent that the media, e.g. Deliverance, will make it out to.


This is not the only misconception propagated by mainstream American media though. So many other stereotypes of this culture exist lack of intelligence, backwardness, alcoholism, distrust, incestuousness. However all of those with whom I had contact spoke in their own sort of Appalachian drawl, yet exhibited no lack of intelligence whatsoever and just seemed extremely comfortable in their own skin. These kinds of stereotypes have been propagated for centuries, because mainstream America has striven to exploit or change this culture rather than to understand it; and at the same time Appalachians throughout their history have seemed comfortable enough with themselves not to need to be understood by others.


The first colonists to the Appalachian region were mostly Germans, Scotch, Irish, Huguenots, and Quakers. Most were seeking seclusion from some sort of oppression, religious in the case of the Huguenots and the Quakers, escape from indentured servitude in some other cases, or simply escape from the slaveholding class descended from British predecessors (Inscoe 1). From the start, people of this region wanted merely to be left to themselves and their own farms, so they chose a region enclosed by mountains and not very fertile. In no short time these colonists established a culture quite distinct from the budding urban centers of post-revolutionary America.


One of the first intrusions into this set of circumstances was the civil war, which demanded that many young men be pulled away from their farms to fight and die for their country. The civil war forced Appalachia into the politics of the country for many Appalachian homes were even in the middle of battlefields. This war also split the Appalachian region with respect to whether one was for or against this war against the South. The closeness of Appalachian families, something which was necessary in such rugged terrain, was threatened as one brother in some cases was forced to pick a side contrary to that which his other brother picked. In the end West Virginia even ended up seceding from its brotherland, Virginia, because of this war (Inscoe 1). It is my opinion that this could even be the origin of the misconception of Appalachians as participating widely in family feuds and the like.


The so-called “discovery” of Appalachia began with a gold rush into Georgia in the 180s and 180s (Inscoe 4). This was soon followed by speculators searching for resources of timber and coal, of which they found plenty (Dunaway 5). Then in came the big business entrepreneurs to buy up land rich in resources from Appalachian farmers who really did not even know how much their land was truly worth (Kahn 5). These big businesses not only exploited the land’s natural resources but also the wealth of cheap workers. They lured Appalachian men off of their farms and into company towns, and at the enticement of big wages and material goods for their families these Appalachians were caught hook, line, and sinker. They were put to work in coal mines, salt mines and furnaces, and timber jambs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, but in many cases to receive this work they had to move their families from their farms and into company built towns, where the boss’ word sticks (Kahn 6). Men had to work long arduous hours, risk life and limb, and subject themselves to the whims of the bosses. In these towns, the high wages proved not as fortuitous as they had seemed. Mines were not open for work every day, workers had to buy their own equipment as well as pay other inane fees to the company, not to mention that they were paid merely in scrip, which was only good in the company store itself, so it was up to the company to set prices however high they wanted for workers could not go anywhere else to buy goods anyway (Kahn 6-7). In general, quality of life deteriorated exponentially for the Appalachians at this time. No wonder distrust of outsiders has been a characteristic oft used to describe Appalachians.


The Appalachian workforce to the south was not overlooked either as textile factories and cotton mills moved into Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Here the same practices of long, grueling work hours, pitiful working conditions, scrip, and endangerment of employees were also used (Kahn 6). Women were to work in these factories as well along with children when necessity demanded it from Appalachian families (6). All of this led to much effort on the part of the Appalachians to organize themselves into unions with the help of the United Mine Workers of America but in the face of big business’ efforts to keep them on the low end of the totem pole. Many bloody battles were fought in this war.





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