The Appalachian Mountains rise like a spine down the back of the eastern United States, forming a distinct geographic, social, and political region that has come to be called Appalachia. At least since the turn of the 20th century this region of stark beauty, cultural diversity, and economic contrasts has fascinated Americans and has played a major role in how we see ourselves as a nation and how we relate to the land and to each other. West Virginia lies at the heart of this region, and is the only state wholly included within its boundaries. As the rest of America has struggled to define Appalachia and the Appalachian experience, popular images of this enigmatic region have fallen for good and ill on the Mountain State.
Geographically, the Appalachian mountain system extends southwest from New York state to northern Alabama. It is a region of topographic variety, reaching from the lofty Blue Ridge Mountains in the east to the rugged Appalachian Plateaus of West Virginia and Kentucky to the west. In the middle lies a fertile ridge and valley district split by great river drainages such as the Shenandoah, the James, the New, and the Tennessee. From prehistoric times a diverse people of mixed races and cultures inhabited the region, drawn together by their common relationship to the land. During the colonial period the mountains served as a barrier to the expansion of European settlement to the west, and after the Revolutionary War a backcountry economy and society survived in more remote parts of the region long after the passing of the frontier.
It was the survival of this backcountry society that eventually led urban Americans, struggling to find a national identity after the Civil War, to define Appalachia as a separate region inhabited by a distinct sub-culture. Writing for new national magazines such as Harper’s, Atlantic, and Cosmopolitan, journalists traveled into the mountains in search of local color material that might interest urban middle-class readers. An overwhelmingly rural place conveniently close to eastern cities, the region provided a dramatic landscape upon which to cast stories of violence and passion among a rustic people whose lifestyle contrasted markedly with urban perceptions of the national experience. Eventually these writers created a literary image of the mountains as a place inhabited by moonshiners, feudists, and other primitive folk.
By the turn of the 20th century the idea of Appalachia as ‘‘a strange land inhabited by a peculiar people’’ had crystallized in the popular mind. More than just a mountain range, Appalachia had become a distinct sub-region within America but somehow not of it. Implicit in the idea of Appalachia was the assumption that geography had isolated the region from the historical forces that shaped the rest of the modernizing nation. Appalachia was a ‘‘land where time stood still.’’ Like a mammoth in ice, the mountains had preserved therein an earlier stage of American civilization with all of its pastoral and savage qualities. For a nation conscious of the progress of its history, Appalachia became a counterpoint to contemporary definitions of the good life. If one valued modernization, Appalachia was a problem, a region in need of development and uplift. If one questioned modernity, the folk culture of Appalachia was a treasure to be preserved and protected from the surge of the mainstream. The region itself became an American symbol that could mean different things to different observers.
Ironically, at the same time that the idea of Appalachia was becoming part of the national consciousness, the region itself was undergoing the same process of economic change that was sweeping the rest of the country. The arrival of railroads, coal mines, and logging operations propelled mountaineers, like other Americans, into the machine age, expanding opportunities for public employment and integrating mountain communities into the consumer culture. Like other Americans, mountaineers struggled to maintain traditional values in the new order, but because of popular stereotypes, Appalachian resistance to industrial ‘‘progress’’ was often portrayed as backwardness or a cultural propensity for violence. Unlike other parts of the nation, the process of transformation left the region sucked of its wealth of natural resources and many of its people under-educated and dependent. The collapse of the new industrial order in the 1920s, during a regional depression foreshadowing the hard times awaiting the nation in the next decade, left much of Appalachia impoverished. Thousands of families returned to the land and to traditional patterns of life. Appalachia’s poverty, however, was not the result of its geography or culture but of the process of development itself.
After World War II, socio-economic conditions in the mountains continued to define Appalachia as part of the ‘‘other America.’’ When millions of mountain migrants fled to the cities in search of jobs, they joined a growing population of inner-city Americans who were bypassed by the arrival of the affluent society of the 1950s. Following the victory of John Kennedy in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary, a swarm of journalists descended upon the region to document its economic distress. Once again Appalachia was discovered as a place outside the current of American progress, and President Kennedy promised to do something to assist the mountain poor. An image of Appalachia as a place in need reinforced older images of the mountains as a land of violence and folk culture, and a spate of new government and private programs sought to assimilate the region into the mainstream. Appalachia became an important battleground in the War on Poverty, and because it was at the heart of the region, West Virginia received millions of dollars of federal support.
The rediscovery of Appalachian poverty and the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission to coordinate development also stirred the growth of regional identity within the mountains and a renaissance of interest in Appalachian culture, literature, and heritage. Today the folk arts, music, and crafts provide pride, continuity, and connection for a people and a region swept up in rapid change. For the nation, Appalachia continues to serve as a symbol of our continuing efforts to define America and to search for the good life in an ever-changing world.
This Article was written by Ronald D. Eller
Last Revised on November 14, 2012
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