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Toward a Post-Appalachian Sense of Place

  • ZACKARY VERNON (a1)

Abstract

This article utilizes recent developments in postsouthern theory to explore Appalachian literature and culture. Analyzing novels by Ron Rash, Terry Roberts, and Charles Frazier, I argue that Appalachian literature will likely follow a trajectory similar to the one identified by scholars in southern literature more broadly. Despite the seeming persistence of historicity among leading Appalachian writers, I anticipate that the homogenization of the region will increasingly lead writers either to commodify outdated notions of Appalachian exceptionalism or to rely upon an ironic, parodic relationship with past Appalachian literary narratives.

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1 Kreyling, Michael, Inventing Southern Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998). Kreyling's argument is similar to Batteau, Allen W.'s earlier study The Invention of Appalachia (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990), which is more specifically about Appalachia.

2 Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 21. Rash's, Roberts's, and Frazier's historicity, or at least perceived historicity, seems to stem from their personal and/or familial connections to Appalachian history.

3 Due to space constraints, my analysis of contemporary Appalachian literature is necessarily limited. I do not provide a sustained discussion of Rash's, Roberts's, or Frazier's other literary works, nor do I venture into the works of other Appalachian novelists, poets, short-story writers, or dramatists. Additionally, this essay may appear disproportionately weighted toward cultural and theoretical discussions rather than close analyses of the three novels in question. This is a deliberate choice, as my principal intervention in the fields of southern and Appalachian studies seeks to apply significant developments in “postsouthern” theory to Appalachian literature. Thus I utilize Rash's, Roberts's, and Frazier's most recent novels in support of this intervention, and my primary purpose is not to fully explicate these novels or these writers’ entire bodies of work.

4 Romine, Scott, The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008), 1.

5 Woodward, C. Vann, The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1960); Tate, Allen, Collected Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959).

6 Simpson, Lewis P., “The Closure of History in a Postsouthern America ,”in Simpson, The Brazen Face of History: Studies in the Literary Consciousness in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980).

7 Quoted in Martyn Bone, “Postsouthernism and the New Southern Studies,” keynote address, Tompkins Hall, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, 26 April 2012, 13.

8 Welty, Eudora, “Place in Fiction” (1959), in Welty, Welty: Stories, Essays, & Memoir (New York: The Library of America, 1998), 781–96, 793.

9 By “problematic,” I refer to the Agrarians’ well-known and well-documented reactionary attitudes toward race and class. The Agrarians are also guilty of promulgating many revisionist and apologist histories of the American South. For more information on this topic, please see my essay The Problematic History and Recent Culture Reappropriation of Southern Agrarianism,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 21, 2 (Spring 2014), 337–52.

10 Bone, Martyn, The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), viiviii .

11 Lytle, Andrew, “The Hind Tit ,”in Rubin, Louis D. Jr., ed., I'll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979, first published 1930), 201–45, 202–3. In the Appalachian context, the tendency to romanticize agrarianism far pre-dates I'll Take My Stand. Dunaway, Wilma, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 3, explains, “Despite its origins among the country's wealthiest planters, the ‘myth of the happy yeoman’ was well entrenched by the early nineteenth century, and the southern mountains have been idealized in the contemporary period as one of the strongest bastions of such self-sufficient farmers.” Building upon Dunaway's work, Satterwhite, Emily, Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011), 16, argues, “Belief in a persistent frontier in turn permitted widespread faith that the region sustained a populace of Jeffereson's beloved yeoman farmers shunted from more ‘civilized’ quarters of the nation.” Recent scholarship in Appalachian studies has been devoted to deconstructing myths about Appalachia's cultural, economic, and geographic isolation. Examining rural culture in the nineteenth century, Lewis, Ronald L., “Beyond Isolation and Homogeneity: Diversity and the History of Appalachia ,”in Billings, Dwight B., Norman, Gurney, and Ledford, Katherine, eds., Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999) 2143 , 22, states, “it is clear that much of Appalachia was neither unusually isolated, physically or culturally, nor was its population uniformly more homogeneous than that of other sections of rural America.” Cultural heterogeneity was particularly obvious in central Appalachia, which became heavily industrialized in the late nineteenth century: “Industrializing Appalachia was a matrix of cultural interaction among very diverse races and cultures” (ibid., 37). See also Whisnant, David E., All That Is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009; first published 1983), as well as Dunaway's The First American Frontier and Satterwhite's Dear Appalachia. Yet, despite these important scholarly interventions, popular perceptions of Appalachia often remain the same as they have been since the late nineteenth century, imagining the region as a refuge for Jeffersonian ideals, at the heart of which is the small-scale, self-sufficient farm. Even if such idealized farms were never pervasive in Appalachia (Dunaway, 20), they live on in the American imagination and are common, as Satterwhite, 2, suggests, in popular literature.

12 Quoted in Bone, The Postsouthern, ix.

13 Increasingly, there are exceptions to the shift away from small-scale farming and toward industry and agribusiness. In the South and elsewhere, independent, family-owned and -operated farms – many of them organic and/or sustainable – are growing in number, making it not only possible but also popular to engage in a brand of agriculture that is functionally (if not ideologically) similar to the Agrarians’ dream.

14 Kreyling, Michael, “Fee Fie Faux Faulkner: Parody and Postmodernism in Southern Literature,” Southern Review, 29, 1 (1993), 115 .

15 Romine, Scott, “Where Is Southern Literature? The Practice of Place in a Postsouthern Age ,”in Jones, Suzzanne W. and Monteith, Sharon, eds., South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 2343 .

16 Bone, The Postsouthern, x.

17 I particularly appreciate Bone's complication of sense of place because it seems to be more in keeping with significant theoretical work done in the field of geography. For instance, Massey, Doreen, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 5, asserts the need to reexamine the “view of place as bounded, as in various ways a site of an authenticity, as singular, fixed and unproblematic in its identity.” Instead, Massey contends that places are always “open and porous,” and thus global forces, either cultural or economic, must be considered in relation to the local: “The identities of place are always unfixed, contested and multiple. And the particularity of any place is, in these terms, constructed not by placing boundaries around it and defining its identity through counter-position to the other which lies beyond, but precisely (in part) through the specificity of the mix of links and interconnections to that ‘beyond’.” Peacock, James L., Grounded Globalism: How the U. S. South Embraces the World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007), 104, makes a similar argument, although his is more specifically about space and place in the American South: “Combine global scope and dynamism, and you get a global force field replacing what may have seemed a smaller, more localized, and less changeable space.”

18 Bone, “Postsouthernism,” 9.

19 Romine comes close to acknowledging this lacuna in the introduction to The Real South, 20. After mentioning Fred Chappell, he states that “this project will have nothing further to say” about Appalachia.

20 Cunningham, Rodger, “Writing on the Cusp: Double Alterity and Minority Discourse in Appalachia ,”in Humphries, Jefferson and Lowe, John, eds., The Future of Southern Letters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4153 , 45, original emphasis.

21 For example, until relatively recently, many people, including scholars, believed that Appalachia possessed a certain racial innocence because it did not participate in the South's system of slavery (Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia, 16). In 1996 Rodger Cunningham, “Writing on the Cusp,” 43, wrote, “The defining social fact of the Appalachian South is that, as a whole, it was never part of the slave/plantation economy, whence most of its other differences from the Deep South.” However, more recently, Dunaway, Wilma, Slavery in the American Mountain South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1, has demonstrated that in the Mountain South, “slavery flourished amid a nonslaveholding majority and a large surplus of poor white landless laborers.” Furthermore, she asserts, “Southern Appalachia's largest group of unfree laborers were slaves who supplied long-term labor to one of every three farm owners and who accounted for one of every five agricultural laborer households” (ibid., 4).

22 Griffin, Larry J., “Whiteness and Southern Identity in the Mountain and Lowland South,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, 10, 12 (2004), 737 , 12–13.

23 Reid, Herbert, “Appalachia and the ‘Sacrament of Coexistence’: Beyond Post-colonial Trauma and Regional Identity Traps,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, 11, 1–2 (2005), 164–81, 164.

24 For another useful discussion of regional ontology, see the articles in Journal of Appalachian Studies, 18, 1–2 (2012).

25 Smith, Barbara Ellen, Introduction to “Appalachian Identity: A Roundtable Discussion,” Appalachian Journal, 38, 1 (2010), 5657 , 57.

26 Ibid., 56.

27 Fisher, Steve, “Claiming Appalachia – and the Questions that Go with It,” Appalachian Journal, 38, 1 (2010), 5861 , 58, original emphasis.

28 Obermiller, Phillip J., “Thoughts on the Importance of Identifying Appalachians,” Appalachian Journal, 38, 1 (2010), 6264 , 63.

29 Satterwhite, Emily, “Objecting to Insider/Outsider Politics and the Uncritical Celebration of Appalachia,” Appalachian Journal, 38, 1 (2010), 6873 , 68. In an editorial published in Appalachian Journal following the 2010 roundtable, Tal Stanley also divides the roundtable between Fisher and Obermiller on one side, and Whisnant, Satterwhite, and Cunningham on the other. However, unlike Smith, Stanley makes this argument surprisingly personal, blaming the latter group's disregard of Appalachian exceptionalism on their underdeveloped connections to place: “Fisher and Obermiller are of a place, not nomads, having not participated in the transient life fashionable in American higher education. Smith, Satterwhite, and Whisnant offer comments that often imply the values of a wandering, nomadic professoriate – values embedded in their critiques of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider.’” Stanley, Tal, “On Appalachian Identity,” Appalachian Journal, 38, 4 (2011), 356–61, 357–58.

30 Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia, 2.

31 Rash, Ron, The Cove (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 43.

32 For more information on this topic see my interviews with Rash and Roberts, entitled Writing the Great War: Terry Roberts and Ron Rash Discuss World War I, the German Internment Camp in North Carolina, and the Historical Novel,” North Carolina Literary Review, 23 (2014), 3047 .

33 Rash, 20.

34 Hobson, Fred, The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 80, original emphasis.

35 Rash, 86. The use of the word “fife,” rather than “flute,” throughout The Cove is appropriate within the Appalachian musical tradition. Additionally, in the context the American South more broadly, the fife has been associated with African music performed by slaves. The complicated history of the fife in the South further demonstrates the cultural heterogeneity that Rash highlights in this subtly handled scene.

36 Ibid., 92.

37 Lytle, “The Hind Tit,” 244.

38 For a fascinating analysis of the commodification of Appalachian musical traditions, see David Whisnant's study of the White Top Folk Festival in All That Is Native & Fine.

39 Roberts, Terry, A Short Time to Stay Here (Banner Elk, NC: Ingalls Publishing Group, Inc., 2012), 9.

40 Ibid., 34–35.

41 Ibid.,12.

42 Ibid., 89.

43 Ibid., 133.

44 Ibid., 137.

45 Romine, The Real South, 25.

46 Roberts, A Short Time, 46.

47 Ibid., 47.

48 Charles Frazier, Nightwoods (New York: Random House, 2011), 9.

49 Ibid., 4.

50 Ibid., 12–13.

51 Ibid., 24.

52 Ibid., 141.

53 Ibid., 27.

54 Ibid., 30.

55 Ibid., 142–43.

56 Ibid., 24.

57 In the interviews mentioned in n. 32 above, I spoke with Rash and Roberts about the uses and limits of the historical novel, and both held to an unwavering belief that The Cove and A Short Time to Stay Here speak meaningfully to the present. For example, they contend that by commenting on American xenophobia in the context of World War I, they are drawing clear parallels with various forms of xenophobia in the US after 9/11.

58 I should note that that some of Rash's fiction is set in contemporary Appalachia  – for example, many of the short stories in Chemistry and Other Stories (2007), Burning Bright (2010), and Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013).

59 Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia, 2.

60 Romine, The Real South, 3.

61 Ibid., 9.

62 Ibid., 13.

63 Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia, 216.

64 To avoid such strict delineations, we could also seek to identify a “late Appalachia” as Romine identifies the “late South”: “I refer to the contemporary South as the ‘late South,’ a term that references simultaneously the condition of intensified continuity (as in ‘late modernity’ or ‘late capitalism’) and the condition of recent termination (as in ‘the late C. Vann Woodward’).” The Real South, 2.

65 Tate, Collected Essays, 292.

66 Bone, The Postsouthern, 20.

67 Hobson, The Southern Writer, 18.

68 Jameson, Postmodernism, 21.

69 Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 204–5.

70 Although many scholars have highlighted Appalachia's significant cultural and economic ties beyond the region that extend back to the colonial period, Ronald D. Eller has pointed out that in Appalachia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “travel was nonetheless always difficult and ensured a relative isolation.” See Lewis, “Beyond Isolation,” 22–23. While travel was certainly not difficult during the childhoods of Rash, Roberts, and Frazier, such a sense of “relative isolation” probably existed for their forebears, which may have helped local, often agriculturally based, folkways to endure.

71 Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia, 8–9, argues that “fans, critics, and scholars of regional and ethnic literatures have demanded that authors write from personal experience. Fans of Appalachian-set fiction wanted to believe that it was ‘true to life.’ The authorial persona therefore became key to the success of the fiction.” For more information on Rash's and Roberts’ personal and familial connections to their narratives see my two pieces “Writing the Great War” and The Role of Witness: Ron Rash's Peculiarly Historical Consciousness,” South Carolina Review, 42, 2 (2010), 1924 . In his review of Nightwoods, Caldwell, Wayne, “Book Review: Charles Frazier's Nightwoods ,” Appalachian Heritage, 40, 1 (Winter 2012), 9092 , 92, notes that “the town [in the novel] is reminiscent of Andrews, North Carolina, where Frazier, absorbing details, grew up.” Furthermore, many critics have pointed out that Frazier was uniquely well suited to write Cold Mountain, both because it was set in his native landscape and because it was based, at least in part, on his great-great-uncle William Pinkney Inman, a Confederate deserter during the Civil War.

72 Zackary Vernon, interview with Ron Rash, Clemson, SC, 12 Oct. 2006.

73 There are many names that could be added to a list of significant Appalachian writers, including both the generation of Rash, Roberts, and Frazier and the generation preceding theirs – for example Gurney Norman, Lee Smith, Jim Wayne Miller, Fred Chappell, Robert Morgan, George Ella Lyon, Jo Carson, Denise Giardina, Lisa Alther, Dorothy Allison, Chris Offutt, and many others.

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