Gene Hyde 2017-01-12 11:47:27
With J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy making The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2016, scholars of the Appalachian region are, once again, confronting Appalachian stereotypes in the national media. Sociologist Dwight Billings, founder of the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center and a respected Appalachian scholar, wrote this in a review of Hillbilly Elegy: “Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy . . . His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel . . . It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.” Billings’ comments are the latest in a decades-long effort by scholars, archivists, and librarians to confront Appalachian stereotypes. When President Lyndon Johnson came to the Kentucky coal fields in 1964 to announce the War on Poverty, the result was a national media blitz that presented Appalachia as a destitute region filled with poorly educated people lacking basic resources—a limited and incomplete depiction of a region that includes far more than coal fields. These representations were part of a long tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, of portraying Appalachia as a place of “otherness” that was culturally and economically apart from the rest of American civilization. In 1966, in reaction to these stereotypes, West Virginia University’s director of libraries Robert F. Munn issued a call to archivists and scholars. Commenting that “more nonsense has been written about the Southern Mountains than any comparable area in the United States,” Munn observed that the lack of good research about Appalachia was partially because “there is distressingly little in the way of useful primary and secondary material” about the region. Lamenting this “extreme paucity of reliable sources, both printed and manuscript,” Munn predicted an increase of archival collections within Appalachia: “It seems only a matter of time before we see the development of a number of comprehensive collections on the Appalachian region.” Good research required good primary resource collections, and Munn saw this interrelationship as critical in developing a body of credible Appalachian scholarship. Appalachian scholars echoed Munn’s cry. Cratis D. Williams of Appalachian State University was a key figure in the development of Appalachian studies as an interdisciplinary field. His dissertation The Southern Mountaineer in Fact and Fiction (New York University, 1961) is the definitive study of Appalachian fiction, and he is credited with teaching the first course in the field that is now Appalachian studies. Like Munn, Williams also called for the development of Appalachian archival collections. In his 1976 speech “The Role of Appalachia’s Colleges in Appalachia’s Future,” he described the importance of special collections for studying the region, citing existing collections at Berea College, Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, West Virginia University, and others as examples. He issued this call: Appalachian colleges should be the depositories of the history of Appalachia. Every college in the region should collect . . . Documents, manuscripts, diaries, and other evidences of the past history, culture, art, music, literature, religion, and social customs of the region served immediately by the college. Williams’ 1976 speech came during a decade of tremendous growth in Appalachian studies and collections. What would become the Appalachian Studies Association was formed soon after Williams’s speech. In 1978, Appalachian archivists and scholars met at the University of Kentucky for a conference on Appalachian sources with the intention to “explore the present status of Appalachian collections and to consider the problems of documenting and preserving the history and culture of the region,” and a number of Appalachian collections were founded or expanded during the decade. Scholarship also increased—a bibliography of Appalachian studies scholarship from 1994 to 2012 alone runs over a thousand pages. Robert Munn and Cratis Williams both recognized the importance of Appalachian archival collections to Appalachian scholarship. As Billings’ review of Vance’s book indicates, the need to confront whatever “nonsense” is written about the region is still very much alive.
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