Rejecting the hillfolk

As mountain fiction grew in popularity during the early decades of the 20th century, so too did the number of attempts at "serious" study of the southern Appalachian hillfolk. Some of these attempts were more successful than others. Horace Kephart's classic work, Our Southern Highlanders, written in 1913, remains one of the most widely read and respected books on southern Appalachia to this day. Others, however, tell more about the biases of the writers than about the mountain folk they presumably set out to analyze. In this category I would include the overly romantic Land of the Saddle-bags (1924), which describes "numberless young Lincolns" in Appalachia. On the other end of the spectrum is the overly contemptuous The Hollow Folk (1933), which describes a "steady deterioration" of the mountain residents. Although the scholarship may be wanting, such books reveal an interesting debate about the degree to which the hillfolk of southern Appalachia could be incorporated into American culture. The critical pieces are especially useful in setting out the numerous obstacles to aligning the people of Appalachia into the American ideal.

Mandel Sherman and Thomas Henry are the authors of Hollow Folk, a book title with an intentional double entendre. They describe numerous small communities in western Virginia, among them Colvin Hollow, a place with "no community government, no organized religion, little social organization wider than that of family and clan, and only traces of organized industry." The authors are not hesitant to write that its residents exist "at the lowest level of social development" and are culturally backward. "Social evolution presumably still goes on but so slowly do groups go forward under their own power that no movement can be discerned through generations." The mountain folk, according to them, are generally helpless and would be terminally so were it not for the help of outside missionaries and traders.

A similarly critical treatment of the Blue Ridge people can be found in a 1925 Master's thesis written by Freeman Junior Daniels from the University of Virginia. He is blunt in his condemnation of the hillfolk's lack of industriousness, morality and etiquette. Daniels found the people "respectable looking, although ... devoid of taste." In a particularly charitable observation, he concedes that "the mountaineer is not as dumb as one would suppose. He is a good judge of human nature considering his limited knowledge." Other mental characteristics include a penchant for "hate," "excitableness" and "jealousy." One particular "mental deformity" of the mountaineer is his apparent obstinacy: "He will argue with you but will not give in when he ordinarily should be convinced he is wrong." Like Sherman and Henry, Daniels has little hope for the hillfolk's innate qualities, concluding sharply: "The mountaineer needs to be taught how to live."

This criticism of the southern Appalachian hillfolk provided considerable obstacles to transforming their regional culture into a national symbol. In the 1930's, however, a new emphasis upon the folk, as well as a commodification of their culture, encouraged the incorporation of the image of Appalachia into mainstream America.

Proceed to "Reclaiming the hillfolk"