Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hillbilly Parfait Correlates Trashiness and Altitude

Locust Creek in the mist

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1898; America's first million-seller) is a novel, but John Fox Jr. takes pains to describe and explain the Kentucky countryside and inhabitants in long asides. Here he shares some eugenic and historic insights about Kentucky's mountaineers. The scene he describes is set around 1850, before the author was born.

When they arrived at the log school-house it was his turn to be shy and he hung back to let Melissa go in first. Within, there was no floor but the bare earth, no window but the cracks between the logs, and no desks but the flat sides of slabs, held up by wobbling pegs. On one side were girls in linsey and homespun: some thin, undersized, underfed, and with weak, dispirited eyes and yellow tousled hair; others, round-faced, round-eyed, dark, and sturdy; most of them large-waisted and round-shouldered -- especially the older ones -- from work in the fields; but, now and then, one like Melissa, the daughter of a valley farmer, erect, agile, spirited, intelligent. On the other side were the boys, in physical characteristics the same and suggesting the same social divisions: at the top the farmer -- now and then a slave-holder and perhaps of gentle blood -- who had dropped by the way on the westward march of civilization and had cleared some rich river bottom and a neighboring summit of the mountains, where he sent his sheep and cattle to graze; where a creek opened into this valley some free-settler, whose grandfather had fought at King's Mountain--usually of Scotch-Irish descent, often English, but sometimes German or sometimes even Huguenot--would have his rude home of logs; under him, and in wretched cabins at the head of the creek or on the washed spur of the mountain above, or in some "deadenin"' still higher up and swept by mists and low-trailing clouds, the poor white trash--worthless descendants of the servile and sometimes criminal class who might have traced their origin back to the slums of London; hand-to-mouth tenants of the valley-aristocrat, hewers of wood for him in the lowlands and upland guardians of his cattle and sheep.
(chapter III, page 34)

I'm fascinated by the correlation between genetics, trashiness and altitude. This looks like the sort of hypothesis we could test, provided we could quantify trashiness and identify genetic markers that would differentiate between Scotch-Irish, English, criminally servile Londoner, and "gentle" blood lines. Fox describes a three-tiered hillbilly parfait, with the white trash on top where the Cool Whip would go.

Whenever these blood line arguments come up (and they do oftener than a rational person would expect) I always hope that I'm a "worthless descendant of the servile and sometimes criminal class." People like that find a way to get along. Perhaps that's why I was immediately drawn to this narrow ridge that runs off the Droop Mountain plateau. It's the most "mist-swept" spot I could find for sale. (This is the view from my neighbor's yard. He has a few less trees than I do.)


Reya Mellicker said...

No one would dare write a book like this now, or actually should say no one would dare publish a book like this now. I'm sure this kind of narrow thinking still exists all over the place. The view from your neighbor's house is incredible. Beautiful. If the theory holds, then the white trash were the smartest of all, getting up above the mists for an eagle's eye view.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Sadly, a lot of these "hillbilly types" pop up in modern literature. I just read James Dickey's Deliverance, and he uses startlingly similar language. Less sophisticated writers (and screenwriters, especially) throw the stereotypes around unselfconciously, and some Appalachian writers accept that view of mountaineer heredity as true, although they put a positive spin on it, as you suggest. We smart people on the ridges come from resourceful stock--people that can't be held down!

On the plus side, a few people in Pocahontas County like the Deliverance stereotype; they believe it keeps the tourists nervous, and slows real estate development. Maybe we should all dress up and go hang around Snowshoe Resort.