Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Outsider Views of Appalachia

I found this article reprinted on the West Virginia Culture and History Web site. Appalachia's Civil War Genesis: Southwest Virginia as Depicted by Northern and European Writers, 1825-1865. by Kenneth Noe, in West Virginia History, Volume 50 (1991), pp. 91-108. It's posted in its entirety, and provides an interesting and balanced look at past and current ideas about the "nature of Appalachia and Appalachians."

A persistent theme among historians of the American South has been the disagreement between those who stress continuity and homogeneity and those who see discontinuity and diversity in the region's past. Historians of the Appalachian region are no exception. For nearly a hundred years, interpretations emphasizing stasis held sway. Scholars described the southern mountains as an area increasingly separated from a developing United States after 1800 by physical and cultural barriers. Isolated mountain settlers maintained pioneer ways at best, and retrograded into poverty, ignorance, and degradation at worst. Negative stereotypes abounded, but the portrait was not completely dark. One positive characteristic writers pointed to was the mountaineer's individualism and love of liberty, which translated during the antebellum and Civil War years into an abhorrence of slavery and loyalty to the union. These qualities were seen as setting the region off as distinct from the South.

Dissenters like John C. Campbell occasionally challenged part of the orthodoxy, but only since the late 1970s has an alternative interpretation found acceptance. Using the methods and concerns of the "new history," revisionists began to argue that discontinuity was the central theme of Appalachian history. Specifically, proponents maintained that two distinct periods could be discerned in the region's past, a "preindustrial" era dominated by yeoman farmers with agrarian, Jeffersonian values, and an "industrial" period where the hallmarks of wage labor and a loss of individual liberty shifted control of the mountaineer's life to hostile, outside interests. Revisionists claimed earlier historians and writers essentially blamed the victim by cataloging the results of unbridled capitalism -- poverty, ignorance, violence, pessimism -- and projecting them into the past as innate characteristics of the "peculiar" if not "inbred" mountaineer. On the contrary, revisionists believed antebellum Appalachia, of all American regions, came closest to exemplifying the Jeffersonian ideal....the roads negated the isolation created by rugged terrain. Ties to the South were close, and slavery occupied an important place in the mountain psyche despite the smaller percentage of slaves in the population. Few mountaineers advocated abolition and many fought for the Confederacy when the Civil War began.

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