The Politics of Culture in an American Region

The Politics of Culture in an American Region

Reviewed by J.W. Williamson

Vol. 6, No. 6, 1984, pp. 23-24

All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region by David E. Whisnant. University of North Carolina Press, 1983. 340 pp.

The first time I ever laid eyes on David Whisnant was at a big conference in the mountains called “Toward 1984: The Future of Appalachia,” and he was making like the Prophet Amos even then. That was in 1974. He stood up in the concluding plenary session, conducted by “the Goals and Objectives Committee” of the conference, and told all those industry and government and think-tank types what he thought of their agenda for Appalachia. He didn’d want nothing those guys had to offer, no way they could preach it or talk it. Well, he slowed them down, but he didn’t stop .hem. They went ahead and adopted their “Goals and Objectives” for Southern Appalachia, one of which read–

3. Educational institutions in Appalachia must relate more consciously to the mountain experience. They must include a concern for the rich historical and cultural heritage of the region, an awareness of the relationship between human beings and their land, and of the alternatives for the future and for the human values involved.

Nice liberal-sounding words. So what’s so wrong with pasting this humanistic veneer of culture-salvation on top of your run-of-the-mill three-day conference?

One of the things wrong with it was that the people writing this agenda for saving mountain culture were also simultaneously in the service of the coal industry, the power industry, the petroleum industry, the land-development industry, the railroading industry, the steel industry, and the-ahem–higher education industry–all in their way and in their time exploitive of the place and the people. This iron y is also at the core of Whisnant’s new book, All That Is Native and Fine. What happens when agents of the dominant American, mainstream, middle-class, industrial society get it in their heads that they ought to help mountain people? What happened at Hindman Settlement School from the 1890’s on? What happened at the White Top Folk Festival in Virginia during the 1930’s? What happened, even, when as intelligent and wise a woman as Olive Dame Campbell decided to start a folk school in the North Carolina mountains? All basically liberal, benevolent “interventions” for the sake of doing good. But Whisnant’s attitude toward them is the attitude the Prophet Amos toward hypocrites of his own day–“Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols. But let judgment run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

In other words, All That Is Native and Fine is a tough book. It needles the reader with a profoundly disturbing vision of do-gooders doing mainly harm (or “young ladies with weak eyes and young men with weak chins. . . offering cocoa and sponge cakes as a sort of dessert to the factory system,” as one critic of settlement workers called them). Ironies and paradoxes breed in this book like mayflies on a humid night. For example. Olive Dame Campbell founded the John C. Campbell Folk School (named for her dead husband) on a rather naive and romantic notion that Appalachia in the early 1920’s was still an “isolated, preindustrial, premercantile society,” but Whisnant sets that notion against some sobering reality:

By 1925, however, even rural Cherokee and Clay counties were neither preindustrial nor premercantile. The local weekly newspaper regularly cataloged the arrival of mass culture in the late 1920’s: a traveling tent show was competing for an audience with “The

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Thief of Baghdad” (starring Douglas Fairbanks) at the Bonita Theater; an eight-story hotel was rising on Murphy’s main street; Parker’s Drug Store was installing a jukebox; private power companies were damming the Hiwasee River to run the electric refrigerators advertised alongside Fords, Whippets, and Hupmobiles. At the time the folk school opened, the other big news stories locally were the opening of the Appalachia Scenic High way from Atlanta to Asheville (via Murphy) and early plans for the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fly the spring of 1927 an automobile raced to Asheville in two hours, thirty-nine minutes–nearly fifty miles an hour. The annual Cherokee County Singing Convention, organized in 1894, was still drawing as many as fifteen hundred people in 1925, but the old ways were clearly dying

That paragraph alone is worth the price of the book.

Whisnant’s most concise statement of doctrine is this: intervention in a “culture” for whatever reasons is usually wrongheaded because “the ‘culture’ that is perceived by the intervenor (even before the act of intervention) is rarely congruent with the culture that is actually there. It is a selection, an arrangement, an accommodation to preconceptions–whether of mountaineers, or Indians, or Georgia blacks, or Scotch Highlanders. Thus the culture that is ‘preserved’ or ‘revived’ is a hybrid at best”–mountain people taught crafts and songs and dances that they ought to know and which they would have known if only they had had the good sense to be educated at, say, Vassar.

So what about the nice little ladies and the kindly gentlemen with big box cameras in their portmanteaus, all the ones who are unaware of the larger ironies of their undertakings–their interventions–in the mountains? Can’t we give them a break and say it’s all right what they did, so long as they thought they were doing good? Well, no. Whisnant is a stern judge; “Rescuing” or ‘preserving’ or ‘reviving’ a sanitized version of culture frequently makes for rather shallow liberal commitment: it allows a prepared consensus on the ‘value’ of preservation or revival, its affirmations lie comfortably within the bounds of conventional secular piety; it makes minimal demands upon financial (or other) resources; and it involves little risk of opposition from vested economic or political interests. It is, in a word, the cheapest and safest way to go.” Woe to them that are at ease in Zion!

Whisnant is careful not to offer comments on other culture-saving ventures of more recent vintage. On his three case studies, his research is exhaustive, and he doesn’t gallop beyond his research to phenomena like Foxfire, for example. But the message seems pretty clear if implicit: what they did then they’re still doing now, only their technology is better and sometimes their funding. People still come to the mountains and see what they want to see: cabins in the laurel and all that stuff. They don’t notice the plain truth–for instance, that the most ubiquitous feature on the Appalachian landscape right now is the satellite dish–and they certainly haven’t begun to deal with the reality of what that means. Whisnant says that the cultural objects, styles, and practices introduced by the little ladies and kindly gentlemen–the “intervenors”–have a nasty habit of taking on a life of their own, get imbedded in too many people’s minds as examples of what life in this region is all about, and then those false notions become the basis for public policy–governments at all levels deciding to do for and do to mountain people on the basis of a profoundly warped understanding of who those people are and what motivates them. That is the evil that comes from trying to save someone else’s “culture,” and those are the dangerous “politics” of Whisnant’s sub-title.

This is a sobering book. It needs study by a great host of “culture workers,” inside these mountains and out.

J.W. Williamson is editor of the Appalachian Journal.