Anthologizing Appalachia

Anthologizing Appalachia

Reviewed by Tal Stanley

Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 17-18

Appalachia Inside Out. Volume I: Conflict and Change; Volume II: Culture and Custom. Edited by Robert J. Higgs, Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995, 741 pages).

Attempting to anthologize creative and critical writing about a region as diverse and conflicted as Appalachia is a daunting task. How can the geography, grassroots politics, society, folk and popular cultures, collective struggles for social justice, fiction, cultural analysis, unrecorded lived experiences, and a host of other aspects of this region be anthologized in a way that gives justice to Appalachia’s complexity?

Such were the challenges facing the editors of the two-volume anthology, Appalachia Inside Out.

Inside Out is generally successful at facing the challenges of anthologizing a growing body of writing about Appalachia. With more than two hundred critical essays, reviews, poems, short stories, autobiographies, articles, vignettes, and excerpts from longer works, the collection’s greatest assets are its focus on more contemporary writing and the diversity of persons included. With selections from such writers as Booker T. Washington, “Mother” Jones, Pinckney Benedict, Myles Horton, Theodore Roosevelt, Lou Crabtree, David Whisnant, Tom Wolfe, Nikki Giovanni, Edward J. Cabbell, Marilou Awiakta, the editors offer a historical range of reflections on Appalachia’s social and cultural diversity. This Appalachia appears not as an isolated backwater, but as a region shaped within the context of social and cultural forces broadly active throughout the South and the United States. Across this range of work there are Appalachian and non-Appalachian writers who complacently remain within the limits of regional stereotypes and the marginalizing conventions of race, class, and gender. There are other writers, both Appalachian and not, who question those easy answers and push us to think in new ways about ourselves, Appalachian regional identity, and political understandings of the region.

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Of particular interest to persons working for social justice in the South and in Appalachia are essays by Steve Fisher, Marat Moore, Laurie K. Lindberg, Mike Yarrow, Judith Fiene, Helen Lewis and Rich Kirby–to name several. A project of this scope cannot do everything and every significant aspect of Appalachian culture and experience cannot be given equal weight; however, largely missing from Inside Out are writings that have emerged from grassroots struggles for social change.

Good sources for these writings would have been the Appalachian Women’s Alliance and the Mountain Women’s Journal, or even the old issues of The Plow.

While several selections seem not to have been printed elsewhere, by concentrating on already published works, Inside Out sometimes fails to represent the creative expressions of Appalachian collective politics. This is particularly damaging in the anthology’s concluding chapter, “Regional Identity and The Future,” for it is generally around questions about a place’s future that these Appalachian collective politics and a sense of regional identity emerge. Instead, this chapter, like the anthology itself, is often constricted by abstract definitions of place and a lack of attention to more political visions of an Appalachian future.

For this, readers should see other recent work such as Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change (Steve Fisher, editor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), and It Comes From The People (Helen Lewis, Mary Ann Hinsdale, and Maxine Waller. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).

By and large, Inside Out is a helpful addition to the Appalachia studies library. Sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with bitter satire, sometimes with insightful analysis, this anthology always refuses a “consensus view” of Appalachia culture.

This collection represents a regional culture shaped among a broad diversity of people, often divided and fragmented by racism, class prejudice, and traditional gender roles. Editors Higgs, Manning, and Miller have worked to complicate the easy definitions of Appalachian culture and stereotypes of Appalachia.

Tal Stanley is a graduate student at Emory University in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.