In my experiences during travel throughout both Western and
Eastern Europe, I am frequently asked questions about life
in the United States. Packed within many of the questions
are preconceived notions about what it means to live in the
US and what it is like to be an American. Almost consistently,
these perceptions categorize Americans as being similar or
exactly alike in their thinking.
Often European cultures do not recognize the regional differences
that comprise the different areas of the US When we cross
borders into different regions in Europe, we often find ourselves
exiting from one country and entering into another. The borders
and regions of the United States are decidedly different;
all regions use the same currency, speak the same language,
and share unencumbered borders.
The idea of small communities, regions, and towns is often
overlooked in American studies courses overseas. As Rob Kroes
in “The Small Town: Between Modernity and Post-Modernity”
discusses, American studies courses often focus on the big
city areas and broad regions of the United States and the
study of smaller communities and regions often gets marginalized.
Kroes asserts, “Currently themes like borderlands and
multiculturalism seem to carry everything before them. They
have become the buzzwords at learned gatherings of American
studies specialists, the signal codes for all those who are
interested in the de-centering of the American sense of self.”
What about regions and communities that do not exactly fit
into the current schemata? Kroes quotes Hollander who says,
“Community studies are still the best conceivable introduction
to the national culture of another country and it is a cause
for wonder that the study of America in Europe pays so little
attention to them.”
In American studies abroad, there are frequently recognitions
of the differences between the South and New England, for
instance, but when we closely examine how the regions of the
US are divided, there are marginalized regions that are often
dismissed or under taught within European and American colleges.
One such region in the United States is Appalachia.
In Appalachia Inside Out, Higgs, Manning and Miller
say, “We cannot define precisely where Appalachia begins
and ends geographically,” but the region usually includes
the mountainous regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky,
Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina,
Mississippi and all of West Virginia. Statistics from the
US government and other sources often represent Appalachia
as behind in education, employment opportunities, and culture,
among others things. Even in American Studies programs in
the US, Appalachia is often not studied as a unique region.
Higgs et al., in their introduction to their Appalachian reader,
state, “Like the issues of gender and ethnicity, the
question of region has entered the debate over what constitutes
the canon of American, and even southern, literature. Appalachia
Inside Out engages this issue of region, which major
American literature texts, focusing as they usually do upon
major authors and literary movements, fail substantially to
address.” Once we study the region closely, the rich
cultural heritage and history of Appalachia make for a multi-faceted,
unique area that deserves consideration in American studies
courses both in the US and abroad.
Originally Appalachian settlers came from many European lands.
According to Higgs et al., the original settlers of the Appalachian
mountains were “already on the fringe of their original
culture, displaced by war, economic conditions, or ambition.”
Settlers were Scotch-Irish, British, and Native American.
Even today, most of the inhabitants of the region are Caucasian.
I was fortunate enough to live in the Appalachian region of
Virginia for six years. During that time, I taught in a small
Appalachian public high school, conducted research with Appalachian
women at two community colleges, and read multitudes of literature
from and about the region. What I discovered about the people
of Appalachia is that family ties closely bind them, families
are hesitant to leave the area, and the people of the region
have a deep pride in their cultural heritage.
As a high school teacher in Shawsville, Virginia, located
in the Montgomery County region of Southwest Virginia, I had
my first encounter working with Appalachian students. My charges
were eleventh grade English students, who comprised all levels
of literacy. Shawsville is one of the poorest areas of Montgomery
County, Virginia. When I was hired, the principal told me
that over fifty percent of the students lived in trailer parks.
What I discovered at my first teaching post in Appalachia
was that the students were painfully aware of the negative
stereotypes and assumptions that surrounded them as poor Appalachians.
Sadly, their perceptions were often truisms.
In American culture, the Appalachian people, often synonymous
with mountain people, are portrayed as ignorant, incestuous,
and wild. Television programs such as The Beverly Hillbillies
cement the negative perceptions and stereotypes into
the minds of Americans. Possibly the most damming and hurtful
stereotypes came from the 1972 film Deliverance.
In the film “mountain men” are portrayed as uneducated,
dirty, and rapists of tourists. Even as recently as this year,
a television commercial aired showing some men getting out
of an SUV in the mountains, and when they hear the song “Dueling
Banjos,” the “theme song” of the mountain
men in Deliverance, they run to the car and make
a quick exit.
With such negative media portrayals, my students expressed
their disdain for their dialect and their geographical ties
to Appalachia. They perceived themselves as unable to do much
with their lives since they would always be hindered by being
Appalachian. Bill Best, in his article about Appalachian culture
and custom, writes that “the combination of shame, emotional
sensitivity, and artistic forms of expression makes Appalachian
children poor candidates for success in the public schools,
where almost all such attributes are not valued and where
very few of their strengths are perceived as such.”
My students’ concerns became my concerns. I dedicated
the following five years and my dissertation research to unpacking
the mysteries of Appalachia. My interests led me to study
the industrialization of the Appalachian region and, specifically,
how the continuous closing of factories affected the economy
and, more importantly, the workers at those factories.
Appalachia has always been a desired region for large, manufacturing
companies because of the powerful rivers, the vast expanses
of land, timber, and coal, as well as an available, cost effective
workforce. Perhaps the most affected industry, due largely
to the North American Free Trade Agreement, was textile and
garment manufacturing. M. Mittelhauser says, “Employment
in these industries has been projected to decline by about
300,000 jobs over the 1994-2005 period, compared to a net
loss of about 250,00 jobs over the previous 11-year period.”
The statistics were startling, and I was particularly concerned
about what happened to the women who were previously employed
in the sewing industry.
In the fall of 2000, I decided to attend a community college
developmental writing class with the intention of finding
out about the progress of displaced garment workers who would
be taking this class. Instead of just collecting data about
writing instruction, I found myself gathering information
about women’s lives - women committed to their families
and their heritage in a way I had never witnessed in other
American cultures. The women who participated in my study
have overcome incredible odds and hardships; the mere fact
that they have found themselves in college for the first time
(at the ages between 23 and 50) is an incredible testament
to the dedication and will power that many of the women of
During the time that I taught, researched, and lived in Appalachia,
I talked and studied with women who have made the study and
teaching of the region their life’s work. I discovered
authors like Barbara Kingsolver, who divides her time between
the American Southwest and Appalachia; Nikki Giovanni, who
as a Black feminist poet was born in and now again calls Appalachia
home; Sharyn McCrumb, who has penetrated the mainstream fiction
market; and Jo Carson, whose “found poetry” about
and from Appalachians gives a voice to people from the hills.
The rich tapestry of writers, musicians, and artists of the
region, in addition to the time that I spent with Appalachian
women, convinced me of the need to include Appalachian studies
in the American studies curriculum. Allison Ensor, in a discussion
of the importance of establishing a canon of Appalachian literature,
states, “Although I attended elementary school, high
school, and college in one of the Appalachian counties of
Tennessee, I heard virtually no indication from my teachers
that the literature - or the history or culture - of Appalachia
was of any importance at all.” Ensor, among other writers
and authors of the region, recognizes the tendency to ignore
Appalachia in the planning of American studies and literature
Once I left Appalachia and began teaching in New England,
I realized the study of the region did not often occur once
outside the region. Consequently, I created a critical writing
course that focuses on the history, culture, and literature
of Appalachia. Critical writing courses at my University are
sophomore level writing courses that focus on writing, researching,
and documentation. Each professor chooses a theme for his/her
course and the writing in the class revolves around that theme.
Within the course, I use the reader, Appalachia Inside
Out. We also read Jo Carson’s stories I Ain’t
Told Nobody Yet and a novel, Sharyn McCrumb’s The
Ballad of Frankie Silver. Additionally, I use a film
from the 1980’s called The Coal Miner’s Daughter,
which as far as Hollywood presentations go, does surprisingly
little stereotyping about the Appalachian culture.
In the beginning of the course, I spend several days unpacking
the stereotypes that my students have internalized about Appalachia.
W. H. Ward cautions, “The main obstacle here, of course,
is an abiding one in a great deal of regional writing still
deeply tinged with local color: the tendency of characterization
to run stereotypes.” It is exactly this caution that
encourages me to dispel the stereotypical information that
my students bring with them to my course. At first, they are
reluctant to admit that they have any stereotypes, but once
we open the discussion and I am frank about my own preconceived
ideas from my childhood, they open up. At the age of a freshman
or sophomore in college, my students are significantly impacted
by the media and what they see and hear from its sources.
They hold all the common stereotypes about “mountain
men” - moonshiners, incestuous, poor, dirty, shoeless,
uneducated. What follows next in the course is an exploratory
essay in which students not only identify their preconceived
stereotypes but also dig to find where the stereotypes originated.
If you speak to any of the students that have completed my
Appalachian course, you will hear that they have a newly gained
respect for its people and culture. They probably can hum
you a few bars of a bluegrass song, tell you about their Appalachian
penpal who is not a barefoot, wild rapist, and tell you how
they think the legend of Frankie Silver is one in which Frankie
was wrongly convicted for killing her husband. It is in the
teaching of the Appalachian focused course that I have affirmed
my belief that the study of Appalachia belongs somewhere,
hopefully in American Studies courses, within the University
It is not my intention to think that we should “save”
Appalachians, but instead to celebrate and study their culture
to increase its cultural significance and our understanding.
If an already marginalized region becomes further marginalized
by not being recognized within college curriculums, then the
region will continue to be negatively impacted. I think often
of the high school students that I taught in Shawsville. I
hope that they are in universities where their culture and
literature are celebrated. I also think often about the women
with whom I studied at the community college. I hope that
through their writing and in their new positions that their
culture is as valued as they value it.
From Katherine L. Hall, Assistant Professor of Writing Studies
at Roger Williams University