Southern Appalachia Considered from a Postcolonial Perspective

Rodger Cunningham, Department of English, Alice Lloyd College

It is true that the Southern Appalachian region of the United States is basically a European settler colony like the rest of the country, albeit with significant Native survivals, an unusual degree of European-Native mixture, a significant (and often neglected) African population, and a number of old communities of obscurely mixed ethnic origins. However, from a postcolonial perspective, its main difference from the other regions of the United States lies in how it was both economically colonized and semiotically "othered" in interlocking movements both during and, mainly, after it was settled.

The process of othering and abjection began at the moment of first European settlement, if not indeed centuries before. In the early eighteenth century the Native population of Pennsylvania was growing restive under the pressure of an expanding population of Europeans; but the latter were hampered by their Quaker pacifism from responding in kind to Native counterpressure. At this point James Logan, the colony's Ulster Scottish Quaker provincial secretary, invited a large number of Presbyterians over from his native province of Ireland to settle on the frontier and deal with the Natives — in short, to fulfill a function the Quakers considered both necessary and yet morally offensive; to express the "dark" side of their own human natures. These Ulstermen and their Scottish ancestors had lived on the shifting border between state-organized "civilization" and chiefdom-organized "barbarism" since the twelfth century, and they were already despised by the groups on both sides of them — as semi-savages by the states that used them, and as colonizers by the chiefdoms they invaded. In Pennsylvania these "Scotch-Irish" did their job only too well, and when they got out of hand in the eyes of their Quaker betters, they began to be shoved into the mountains to reprise their necessary but detested role as the other of both sides — specially hated and feared by the Natives, and referred to by men like Franklin as "white savages."

Those of this group and others (mainly German and English) who settled in the Appalachian Mountains were further othered by the semiotic erasure of mountains as a site of human habitation in lowland epistemic schemes. In addition, the population of specifically southern Appalachia found itself doubly othered again as inhabitants of a region which had been transitional between North and South, as well as having its own characteristics (especially conservative ones), since far back into pre-Columbian times. These epistemic maneuvers had serious material effects during the Civil War and its aftermath, when Northern armies regarded the mountaineers as "Southerners" and destroyed their infrastructure, while post-1877 Southern state governments regarded them as "traitors" and refused to rebuild it.

It was during this postbellum period that outside observers began noticing Appalachia as such for the first time, writing of it as "a strange land and peculiar people" (Will Wallace Harney, qtd. In Shapiro 3) and trying to account in victim-blaming cultural terms for the poverty of what was in fact a recently devastated and de-capitalized region. Then in the 1890s came the wholesale invasion of the region by metropolitan timber and coal interests. This phenomenon coincided in time with the final defeat of Native resistance, the disappearance of the distinct frontier of settlement, the beginnings of American expansion into the Pacific, and the immigration of large numbers of Southern and Eastern Europeans into the Northeast. This temporal coincidence furthered the articulation of the Appalachian other on the one hand, negatively, as a new species of "savage" to be eliminated, or on the other hand (in a complex transformation of that image) positively as a "contemporary ancestor" (Frost, "Our" 311) to be dragooned into bourgeois "civilization" as a counterweight to "the hyphenated population" (Frost, "God's" 416). During this period, too, many writers, especially eugenicists, did everything they could to subject even the European Protestant majority of the Appalachian population to racial othering by emphasizing métis and "tri-racial" families and communities (cf. e.g. Engelhardt 81-87) (and even the "Celtic" bulk of the settler population [Matthews 14]) in disapproving contexts, and by greatly exaggerating the prevalence of incest, cousin marriage, and genetic defects. Forced and unwitting sterilizations became common in the mountain regions of lowland-dominated Southern states. At the same time, a strong strain of positive stereotyping of Euro-Appalachians as a supposedly pure "folk culture" showed all the earmarks of romantic primitivism as well as Anglo-Saxonist racism (cf. Whisnant 181-252). These othering constructions have ruled popular and even academic discourse throughout the subsequent history of Appalachia as a resource-extraction region. The 1960s War on Poverty did not dissolve these constructions but rather took them for granted and strengthened them, with the addition of such defining narratives as Jack Weller's Yesterday's People and Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

It was the critique of this Sixties "poverty" narrative by younger scholars of the time, native to the region, that developed into the postcolonial view of Appalachia. Concepts of the region as an economic colony, and of many of the cultural "peculiarities" of its people as responses to colonization, began to be broached around 1970 and culminated in the 1978 publication of Helen Lewis' groundbreaking anthology Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. In the same year, Henry Shapiro's Appalachia on Our Mind, though written from a very different theoretical perspective, broached for the first time the subject of the constructedness of "Appalachia" as a discursive entity. Since then many writers have refined these ideas, given them more historical and theoretical depth, and begun to apply postcolonial analysis to writings about the region by both outsiders and natives.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Batteau, Allen W. The Invention of Appalachia. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1990.

Billings, Dwight, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford, eds. Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1999.

Blaustein, Richard. The Thistle and the Brier: Historical Links and Cultural Parallels between Scotland and Appalachia. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.

Caudill, Harry M. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little, [1963].

Cunningham, Rodger. Apples on the Flood: The Southern Mountain Experience. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1987.

---. "Writing on the Cusp: Double Alterity and Minority Discourse in Appalachia." The Future of Southern Letters. Eds. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 41-53.

Dunaway, Wilma A. The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1830. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996.

Engelhardt, Elizabeth. The Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature. Athens: Ohio UP, 2003.

Franklin, Benjamin. "An Account of the Late Massacres, in Lancaster County, of a Number of Indians, Friends of This Province, by Persons Unknown." 1764. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin: London, 1757-1775 [online text].

Frost, William Goodell. "God's Plan for the Southern Mountains." Biblical Review 6 (1921): 405-425.

---. "Our Contemporary Ancestors in the Southern Mountains." Atlantic Monthly 83 (1899): 311-319.

Lewis, Helen M., Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins, eds. Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Boone, NC: Appalachian Consortium P, 1978.

Matthews, M. Taylor. Experience-Worlds of Mountain People. New York: Teachers C, Columbia U, 1937.

Shapiro, Henry D. Appalachia on Our Mind: The Southern Mountains and Mountaineers in the American Consciousness, 1870-1920. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1978.

Weller, Jack. Yesterday's People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 1966.

Whisnant, David. All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1983.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Themes

13 February 2006