The Myth of Obsolescence: Writing Appalachia as Relic Culture
By Janet Feight
Appalachia and its place as an obsolete “Other” in the American cultural landscape has been the focus of some important work in the last twenty years: from Herbert Reid’s discussion of Appalachia as a “throwaway” region in twentieth-century drama, to Ronald Lewis’s historical debunking of the homogenous white pioneer origin myth to Emily Satterwhite’s more recent observations about America’s consumption of an “authentic,” anachronistic Appalachia in fiction, just to name a few. But, the scholarly work on this construct, and mainstream understanding of its spuriousness, is far from complete. So a few brief thoughts may be in order on the development and use value of what I call “Appalachia as ‘relic culture.’” By this, I mean the continued use in popular writing and academic discourse of Appalachian identity as an ideological touchstone of cultural and economic obsolescence, which has the effect of masking ongoing operations of sociopolitical and economic exploitation.
As Kathleen Stewart points out in her landmark 1996 text on Appalachian alterity, A Space on the Side of the Road, Appalachia in social discourse became, during the twentieth century, a cultural zone, perhaps the cultural zone, of the “left behind.”
In the United States, “Appalachia” became one of these “Other” places and filled the bourgeois imaginary with both dread and desire. In popular literature…people were portrayed as tough pioneers (“our contemporary ancestors”), grotesque figures (vicious, bestial, extravagant, eccentric), and tricksters (wily, survivalist, con men who were as much victimizers as they were victims)…. It became a distinct area marred by the culture of poverty. Trapped in its own contradictions and living within its own isolated ways it came to encode the “lowliness” of an intractable Otherness itself; under the signs of “rednecks” or “white trash” it became the site of a culture that was irredeemably white, poor, rural, male, racist, illiterate, fundamentalist, inbred, alcoholic, violent, and given to all forms of excess, degradation and decay (Stewart 118).
This characterization may seem all too familiar to a reader of contemporary journalism and fiction who, having a general knowledge of the popular conception of the social origin of Appalachia as an isolated geographical and anachronistic cultural area, might be nevertheless surprised to learn how it came to be fully articulated as such in the early twentieth century.
That it was never really as intensely homogenous or behind the times as many writers have suggested has been well established by historians like Ronald Lewis, whose essay “Beyond Isolation and Homogeneity: Diversity and the History of Appalachia” should be required reading on the topic. John Alexander Williams claims in Appalachia: A History that “Postmodern Appalachia is a zone where diverse groups have interacted with one another and with a set of regional and sub-regional environments over time” (12). And, according to Louis C. Martin and Ken Fones-Wolf, the focus “on a homogenous regional culture has largely obscured the history of African-Americans in modern Appalachia” (12). Nor were the diverse populations in the region completely isolated from national and global markets. Appalachians themselves, whether they sold cattle regionally, timber or fox fur nationally, or ginseng for export to Asia; whether they fought in the Civil War or the Iraq War, have always known that they were part of the present cultural and material reality of the United States. Strangely, though, the rest of America has never seemed to know this.
Eugenics and the Relic Culture
One particular set of social discourses that contributed to the cultural construction of relic Appalachia emerged as part of the eugenics movement and related social sciences in the early 20th century. These engagements with the region, along with the general proliferation of social scientific treatments of sex and studies of criminal deviance, contributed to a proliferation of Appalachian constructs of “white trash.”
As part of the mountain area of the South, of course, the area that became the “core” region of Appalachia had always been impacted by some version of such characterizations. Whether it was through notions of violent backwoods moonshiners or lazy mountain misfits such as those that appeared in the fiction of A. B. Longstreet, in the late nineteenth century, a new set of ideological constructs began to circulate and to gain momentum. These brought to bear the eugenics-oriented vision of degeneracy. By the late 1880s, in the words of cultural anthropologist Allen W. Batteau, “the literature of Appalachia began to dwell on the depravity and viciousness of the mountaineers: moonshining, family feuding, bushwhacking, inbreeding, and indiscriminate violence became important themes” (57).
Other early authors, such as Mary Noailles Murfree, had offered something of a limited humanizing counter-discourse this conceptualization, one that situated Appalachian mountain whites primarily within a milieu of quaint, if backward, frontier domesticity. This more compassionate, yet still problematic version of Appalachian identity continues to be embraced by fans of popular fiction, as Emily Satterwhite notes in her recent book Dear Appalachia. But, by the 1880’s there was a notable imbalance as more negative studies of certain “historians and social scientists” such as Henry Cabot Lodge and John Fiske came to the forefront. Rather than a quaint, backward people, these eugenics-influenced writers tended to see dangerous degeneration.
Degeneracy at this time, of course, was envisioned as a biological tendency of some families to regress both physically and morally. As anthropologist Allen Batteau points out in The Invention of Appalachia, the work of during the 1880’s was instrumental in establishing a “degenerate origin” for the southern mountain poor (61). It was, then, partly through a linkage with racial classificatory and early eugenics discourses of degeneracy that Appalachia began to be carved out as a space where an intensification of what might be called “white trash discourse” (a set of intertwined ideologies that helped to construct the typology of the Appalachian working class) could occur.
As the eugenics movement developed from the turn of the century on, it began to take up the Appalachian region more directly, usually under the auspices of northern-based social institutions. Two eugenic family studies about southern Ohio were written with guidance and support from the Ohio State Reformatory and the Ohio State University during opening decades of the century, studies that nervously contended with encroachment by inhabitants of neighboring Appalachian states and which referred to many of the Appalachian inhabitants of Southern Ohio as being or verging upon “feeble-minded,” the eugenics movement’s sanitized and pseudo-scientific term for “white trash.” And, according to sociologist Wilma Dunaway, a bit later:
Several writers focused on identifying the ‘ethnic bloodlines’ that accounted for variation from the Anglo-Saxon norm in physique, coloration, and inborn predispositions to cultural, moral, and behavioral patterns. Psychologists and social scientists of the 1920’s purported to be able to document the ethnicity of Appalachians by applying anthropometric measures to the skulls of schoolchildren, and they contended that poverty and other “character weaknesses” were directly linked to one degenerate Celtic root stock for all “mountain whites.”
From the late nineteenth-century through the early decades of the twentieth, the rise of eugenics-based social science in the U.S. drove a series of social reform movements, and while much of the thinking was deeply racist and class biased, the belief in the socially beneficent possibilities of this pseudo-science lent broad credibility to those thinkers who seemed to claim, paradoxically, that Appalachians were both entirely white and somehow racially questionable.
Missionaries, Social Scientists, and Anachronism
As this type of interest began to intensify in the nineteenth century, social reformists of a less disciplinary stripe, such as missionary college president William Goodell Frost (1854-1938) (who coined the term “Appalachia”) began to see the danger of the engagement with the region by such pseudo-sciences and attempted to counter them by attributing the traits being noted to a more positive origin: a nearly pure cultural throwback. He thus associated southern mountain culture strongly with what he called a sort of cultural “Rip Van Winkle” sleep.
Frost’s seminal article “Our Contemporary Ancestors of the Southern Mountains,” which appeared in the 1889 Atlantic Monthly, offers one of the more important and crystallized early statements arising from such a discursive impetus. Again, Frost’s purpose in his early essay on Appalachian identity is to offer an alternative to the theories of degeneration that were just beginning to take hold as part of the early rise of eugenics and which actually derived a good deal of their own force from older southern discourses of “white trash” that centered on male criminality. In response, Frost offered a well-intentioned and purposeful intervention into Appalachian alterity:
It is a longer journey from northern Ohio to eastern Kentucky than from America to Europe; for one day’s ride brings us into the eighteenth century. Naturally then, these eighteenth century neighbors and fellow countrymen of ours are in need of a friendly interpreter; for modern life has little patience with those who are “behind the times.” We hear of the “mountain whites” (they scorn that appellation as we would scorn the term “Northern whites”) as illiterates, moonshiners, homicides, and even yet the mountaineers are scarcely distinguished in our thought from the “poor white trash.” (92)
Frost tried to extract the mountaineers from what he saw as their mis-conflation with southern “poor white trash,” to create for them a specialized identity based largely on their association with the more positive, and nationally recognized, image of the “frontiersman” and “pioneer” that linked Appalachians directly and favorably to the nation’s forebears. Again, the reason that such an explanation for Appalachian identity was necessary at this time was that a strategy was needed in order to counter discourses that tended to seize upon or further the newer pseudo-scientific concept of “degeneracy.”
Toward the goal of countering the discourse of degeneracy, Frost made several effective rhetorical feints, such as his drastically over-generalized claims for the northern sympathies of the mountain people during the Civil War and that sympathy’s basis in deep historical ties to the early formation of the country. He thus linked Appalachians to the frontier as both myth and reality, as well as to what he characterized as geographical isolation and related cultural “backwardness.” This attempt was perhaps doomed to carry little real social weight partly by the fact that it strongly reinforced the conceptions of rural isolation that upheld the notion of degeneracy.
As Allen Batteau notes, “Frost attempted to champion Appalachia and to negate the “degenerate moonshiner” image of the Southern Mountain Region by relying upon one of its own premises, claiming that Appalachians were “not a degraded people, but a people not yet graded up” (Qtd. in Batteau 77).
Unfortunately, Frost’s attempts to untangle the cultural conception of Appalachia from conceptions of Appalachian “white trash” only seemed to suture them more firmly together: whether Appalachians were degenerate or merely anachronistic, they were a culture of the past and therefore vulnerable to any discourse that premised its claims upon this historical/conceptual basis. Fiction writers of the early twentieth century sometimes produced confused amalgams of both images, as can be seen in Edith Summers Kelley’s novel Weeds. The novel’s portrayal of overpopulation and degeneration in rural Kentucky is both sympathetic toward mothers with no access to birth control and concerned about the quality and number of children born as the title suggests as an inbred and degenerate crop of Appalachian “weeds.”
It is important to see the manner in which, by claiming that Appalachia was a region populated by primitive ancestors, Frost actually created a discursive environment in which eugenics associations of degeneration could thrive. As Steven Stoll notes in Ramp Hollow, Appalachians were soon seen as incapable of historical change: “at best the makers of homely quilts and rough-hewn furniture, at worst moonshine-distilling insurgents and violent slackers against the social order.” They were categorized by the social science of the day as a “backward and changeless people” (17). And, what such people require, of course, is industrial capitalist innovation, “progress.” Over time, Appalachia intensified its identity as the characteristic U.S. region of ruthless resource extraction, absentee economic interests, and political scapegoating.
The useful notion of Appalachia as a “relic culture” or a people behind the times was a concept that carried at its inception, and still carries, a good deal of force. In understanding its staying power, we must take careful note of its emergence through connection with both late nineteenth-century notions of defective heredity and late nineteenth-century missionary rhetorics, and the fact that it later constituted a set of attempts to counter the force of eugenics-based “white trash” discourse as it was evolving at the turn of the century. At that juncture, social commentators and historians of two general types conducted a twofold backward-tracing orientation toward Appalachian social history that became particularly apparent into the early and middle part of the twentieth century.
Along with Frost, historian Steven Stoll rightly attributes some of the more sedimented notions of Appalachian obsolescence to Ellen Churchill Semple, a prominent geographer and writer whose “The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains: A Study in Anthropogeography,” asserted the now-familiar, albeit deeply questionable, claim that geographically isolated Appalachians spoke Shakespeare’s English in the early twentieth century:
In one of the most progressive and productive countries of the world, and in that section of the country which has had its civilization and its wealth longest, we find a large area where the people are still living the frontier life of the backwoods, where the civilization is that of the eighteenth century, where the people speak the English of Shakespeare’s time, where the large majority of the inhabitants have never seen a steamboat or a railroad, where money is as scarce as in colonial days, and all trade is barter. It is the great upheaved mass of the Southern Appalachians which, with the conserving power of the mountains, has caused these conditions to survive, carrying a bit of the eighteenth century intact over into this strongly contrasted twentieth century, and presenting an anachronism all the more marked because found in the heart of the bustling, money-making, novelty-loving United States.
As Appalachian studies scholarship by Dwight Billings, Ronald Lewis, and most recently Elizabeth Catte (What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) and Steven Stoll (Ramp Hollow) has argued, an overemphasis upon geographical marginalization and cultural and racial homogeneity in more contemporary writing about Appalachian history is a familiar ongoing product of the early twentieth-century movements that established “Appalachia” as a region set apart in space and time.
Stoll especially questions this, writing in Ramp Hollow:
Frost and Semple both believed that they heard Elizabethan English spoken in West Virginia and Kentucky. Words like afeared, and learn (for teach, as in “Learn me how to lose a winning match,” from Romeo and Juliet) are among the few cited as evidence. But there is no evidence. These words were common all over the South. They did not “survive” in the mountains. It isn’t clear why mountaineers would speak like Shakespeare anyway, given that they had stronger ties to Scotland and Ireland…. Neither Frost nor Semple knew of the Swedish and Finnish origins of the backwoods settlement culture or that the ancestors of the log-cabin folk had spent the seventeenth century at or near the seaboard, mixing with Delaware Indians. The contention that Appalachian dialect originated in early modern England, writes the linguist Michael Montgomery, “cannot withstand even a little objective scrutiny.”
In Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education, social critic Evan Watkins claims that narratives of social change, or the lack thereof, are crucial to the workings of power in a capitalist society through their setting aside of certain populations:
… the master narrative of a…coding of social position is a myth of survivals of the unfit, no longer integrally productive components of the present, those who failed to capitalize on the profit-bearing power of change. Survivals are relics, throwaways, isolated groups of the population who haven’t moved with the times, and who now litter the social landscape and require the moral attention of cleanup crews (3).
Watkins describes the way such cultural “relics” are useful to the operations of capitalist power structures through their masking of the ubiquitous operations of power by claiming that “…no present process produced the positional configurations of obsolescence” (3). Thus by shifting the causal ground of a social configuration, say of industrial exploitation or the poverty left in its wake, to the past, social responsibility for that configuration is shifted outside the social body, into the realm of yesteryear, and only a limited and well-defined action of intervention becomes incumbent upon the agencies of social welfare and reform to address a need for modernization.
No study of the present forces, economic, political, socially discursive, that produce the configuration is necessary because the configuration supposedly has little to do with the present. This concept of “the relic culture” provides us with a significant insight into the management of, and production of knowledge about, groups defined as socially obsolete.
Along the same lines, Dina Smith published a piece in 2004 in the Mississippi Quarterly determining that constructing a “consumable ‘white trash’ identity [creates] a form of techno-ideological obsolescence” that “obscure[s]” the present production of Southern working-class identities (Smith 370). Smith’s article takes up contemporary popular cultural manifestations like “white trash” cookbooks and television primarily. But, in spite of its general applicability to a hodgepodge of classed images in the larger contemporary society, Watkins’ concept of ideological obsolescence is far more strikingly relevant to the manner in which Appalachia, as a specific and quite large geographical/cultural swath within the nation, has been produced, and is still managed, through such a notion not only in popular cultural images but also in the serious discursive products of literature, history, and journalism.
In keeping with such thinking, we should particularly note Frost’s claim that “it will require a scientific spirit and some historic sense to enable us to appreciate [the Appalachians] situation and their character” (93). This call for scientific and historical study was not long in being answered, as studies soon appeared (and still appear) that based at least some of their assumptions upon Frost’s assertions that the “contemporary ancestors” of Appalachia required an interpretive appreciation in order both to adapt to modern ways and yet not to lose what was “characteristic” in their way of life (106). However, Frost’s fear that the culturally unique Appalachians might “melt away like so many Indians” if their problem was not handled correctly seems to have been radically unfounded. In spite of over a century of such well-intended study and intervention, as well as a century of economic exploitation, and two decades or more of significant counter-discursive studies in Appalachian studies, Appalachia not only still exists, it apparently exists more and more in the national imagination as a space “left behind.”
Such an intensification of perceived anachronism is perhaps not surprising when considered in terms of Watkins’ crucial observation that:
Obsolescence involves conditions of both cultural and economic production in the present, not what has survived, uselessly, from the past. Throwaway populations are not the survival of the unfit, the waste of social change. They are produced by and indispensable to the present social organization (7).
Watkins’ observation that social relics are not “survivals” but instead are “indispensable to” the present leads us to some sobering conclusions regarding the use-value of Appalachia as a “relic culture” for the contemporary social and political body of the U.S.
The conceptual touchstone of obsolescence has blamed and continues to blame working-class Appalachian subjects for what they lack in terms of current mainstream, middle-class normativity. But shifting the blame into the past does not address the need to see contemporary poverty, extreme class stratification, economic and environmental woes, and susceptibility to reactionary rhetoric as functions of the present society that continues to produce them. Or, put another way, attempting to offer a historical tracing narrative of Appalachia that focuses on the apparent backwardness of the Appalachian subject as opposed to engaging with the reality of a century of conflicting economic and political interests in the area, only serves to reinstate the obsolete subject as the center of the issue, and in so doing, reconnects Appalachia with a set of stereotypes that allow for Appalachian identity as the issue, a problem that mainstream America can only hope to understand through reference to a simple and mythic past rather than a very real and troubled present.
This essay is drawn from a paper originally presented at the Annual Conference of the Appalachian Studies Association, Shepherdstown, West Virginia (2016).
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