The Unquiet Stereotype

The Unquiet Stereotype

By Denise Giardina

Vol. 15, No. 2, 1993, pp. 6-10

These remarks were given by Denise Giardina in accepting the 1992 Lillian Smith Book Award for Fiction for her novel, The Unquiet Earth.

I am going to talk not so much about my book but about my place because you cannot separate them. One of the things that got me thinking about my subject was a book review that appeared in The New York Times Book Review not long ago. The book being reviewed is called Who Prospers? by Lawrence Harrison. The book apparently makes the point that, in the author’s view poverty is caused in large part not by structures but by the culture of people who are poor themselves. The reviewer took the author to task over this view and made the point that you would not want to blame Appalachian coalminers for the problems of Appalachia when you might more probably look at the coal industry and the economic structures that rule Appalachia. The author, Mr. Harrison, was angry at the review and wrote to the Book Review to defend himself and this is what he said:

The roots of Appalachian poverty trace back to pre-colonial north Britain whence came most of the backcountry settlers. They brought with them traditions of highly inequitable income distribution, little concern with education, and suppression of entrepreneurial activity which, coupled with the isolation that so often accompanies poverty, lie behind Appalachia’s distress.

Bigotry I would say to you comes in many flavors and this is one of them. It is a form of bigotry and victim blaming. It is also an attitude which applied to Appalachia is not a new one. The essence of the Appalachian stereotype in popular American culture has basically been twofold: one that we are simple-minded buffoons or the other that we are very violent people.

A few years ago I wrote a novel called Storming Heaven describing the early coalfields of Appalachia, of West Virginia and Kentucky. It was based on actual events that happened when coal miners were living in camps that were basically run like totalitarian societies. They had no First Amendment rights as we know them. They were totally under the control of the coal companies they worked for. If they decided to join a union they would be kicked out of their house that very day. Many people lived in tents during strikes. They would go on strike and they would be evicted from the coal company houses in the middle of the wintertime, sometimes for two years in a row trying to unionize the coal mines. I wrote about those events. They actually were also described in a report by the federal government which sent a commission in 1922 to investigate the situation in the coalfields at that time because there was quite a bit of violence. There was shooting back and forth. The commission concluded that “local traditions still exert a dominating influence and account very largely for the outbreaks of violence. Much of the violence had nothing to do with the coal industry but had to do with the nature and racial characteristics of the people.” The people they

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were talking about were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, were African Americans and were Appalachian mountain people.

The American public had already been well prepared for this conclusion which has continued to shape the American government’s and public response to problems in Appalachia. One early writer who helped contribute a great deal to stereotypes about Appalachia was Horace Kephart who is still considered a classic writer about Appalachia. In his book Our Southern Highlanders (1913), he wrote about mountain women:

…the mountain farmer’s wife is not only a household drudge but a field hand as well. She helps to plant, hoes corn, gathers fodder, sometimes even plows or splits rails. It is the commonest of sights for a woman to be awkwardly hacking up firewood. [Such treatment shows] an indifference for women’s weakness. A disregard for her finer nature, a denial of her proper rank.

I might add that this attitude of Mr. Kephart’s led him to the logical (for him) conclusion that the reason that the women were doing this hard work was because mountain men were shiftless and “afflicted with that malady which Wendell Berry calls ‘acute disinclination to work.'”

Another Kephart observation:

Every stranger in Appalachia is quick to note the high percentage of defectives among the people. However we should bear in mind that in the mountains proper there are few if any public refuges for this class and that home ties are so powerful the mountaineers never send their ‘fitified folks’ or ‘halfwits’ or other unfortunates to any institution in the lowlands so long as it is bearable to have them around. Such poor creatures as would be segregated in more advanced societies far from the public eye here go at large and reproduce their kind.

So much for the differently abled. I think most of us today would say that mountain people were well ahead of their time in including everyone in the life of the community.

By the end of the period in which Kephart was writing, however, American industry had used his writings and other writings similar to his to convince the American people that it was time for the coal industry to move in and save these poor people and bring them into the late

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nineteenth and twentieth century. So in a period of five years from roughly 1885 to 1890, the land of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky passed almost totally from the hands of people who lived on it to coal companies. Even today over 80 percent of this area is owned by outside corporations.

On September 2, 1890 The New York Times, taking note of this quick transformation, editorialized as follows:

…the buying up of the mountain lands has unsettled a large part of these strange people. But they may move at the approach of civilization to remoter regions where they may live without criticism or observation their hereditary, squalid, unambitious, stationary life.

In 1934 the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote in A Study of History:

…the Scotch-Irish immigrants who forced their way into these natural fastnesses have come to be isolated from the rest of the world. They have relapsed into illiteracy and witchcraft.

It sort of sounds like Pat Robertson talking about feminists.

The Appalachian ‘Mountain People’ at this day are no better than barbarians. They are the American counterparts of the latter day white barbarians of the old world: … Kurds, and the Pathans and the hairy Ainu… Through one of several alternative processes, extermination, subjection or assimilation these last lingering survivors will surely disappear within the next few generations. It is possible that barbarism will disappear in Appalachia likewise. Indeed the process of assimilation is already at work among a considerable number of Appalachians who have descended from their mountains and changed their way of life in order to earn wages in the North Carolinian cotton mills. In this case however there is no corresponding assurance for the white barbarism of the New World differs from that of the Old World in being not a survival but a reversion.

That is Appalachia in the view of scholars of the past. Such views tend to linger and have serious consequences for the people of Appalachia today. One problem that Appalachian fiction writers have is with the image of Appalachian people as being simple-minded buffoons. It is similar to a comic actor who decides to take a serious

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role. If we portray intelligent mountain characters there are some people who are going to find them unreal or unbelievable. I have sometimes had the unsettling experience of reading from my work outside the region and reading very serious things and having people laugh.

Even more I am concerned with the image of mountain people being backward and violent. I was very privileged to spend quite a bit of time in southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia during the coal strike against the Pittston Coal Company two years ago. Some of you may have seen some things about it on the news. It was not very widely covered.

I had an NBC reporter call me after reading an article I had written and ask me if it would be safe for him to come to the coalfields and talk to people on the picket line or if he would be in danger. I watched a “60 Minutes” account of the strike which painted it as a totally violent situation when I knew it not to be. I read news accounts of dynamite explosions which the state police later backhandedly admitted had been set by the company itself. That part of the story was never brought out. I also watched another “60 Minutes” program just a few months later in which Dan Rather described Appalachia this way: “There is another America hidden in Appalachia’s hills.” He called the show he was about to introduce “a disturbing journey to a separate world.”

“Back in the hills of Floyd County, Kentucky,” he said, “you’ll find some of the poorest places in America. This is where Washington waged a war on poverty and lost. But that is not tonight’s story. The people here know they are poor. They know there is almost no work. But,”—and his tone of voice implied incredulity—”most of them say they want to stay here, get married here, grow old here. What is it that keeps them tied to a place that seems like something out of another century?”

All this leads also to a damaging counterreaction I think among those of us who live in the mountains. We tend to get chips on our shoulders. Many people also want to avoid looking at the problems that we do have, the problems of poverty, the problems of environmental destruction caused by the coal industry. I had a woman last week in Huntington, West Virginia, after a reading ask me when I was going to write about the pretty part of West Virginia. I run into that a lot.

Having said all this about stereotypes I do want to say, however, that I admit to my region’s eccentricity. I want to close by talking about some of that and what it means as far as being Appalachian and being Southern. One reason I am thrilled to have this award is that you have recognized West Virginia as a part of the South. There are those who would say that West Virginia is not a part of the South because they seem to think that being Southern means that you are white and that you supported secession and slavery. That was not West Virginia’s position. That is why West Virginia became a state. It was a position shared by fellow mountaineers in North Carolina and Kentucky and

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Tennessee who provided stopping places for the Underground Railroad, established abolitionist newspapers, and upheld a truly rebellious stance in the heart of the Confederacy.

My great-great-Uncle James Thornbury, who was from eastern Kentucky and served in the Union army, was captured and sent to South Carolina. He finally managed to escape and after his experiences wrote this very bad poem which I would like to share with you. He wrote:

My troubles there were great and not very much to eat In the sun we were kept and nearly died with heat… The Southern Confederacy, O I left it behind. And started up the river a better land to find. And when I arrived at Knoxville, Tennessee I was treated like a brother and set at liberty. And now I have met my friends in communion Where the stars and the stripes are waving for the Union.

I would like to stand here before you today and say I am proud to come from West Virginia, a state in the South that passed the ERA, a state in the South where in the capital city you can find several pages in the Yellow Pages listing unions, a state in the South with no right to work law, a state in the South that consistently votes against right-wing demagogic politicians, a state in the South which year after year has the lowest crime rate in the country and a state in the South with no death penalty. I am pleased and honored to accept this award on behalf of the people of West Virginia.

Denise Giardina is currently dividing her time between teaching literature and creative writing at West Virginia State College and work on a new novel.