The post-Civil War emergence of Appalachia as a "strange land and
peculiar people" troublesome to America's new consciousness of
national unity and resistant to notions of progress and prosperity
is the subject of Prof. Shapiro's intriguing excursion into
intellectual history. He draws his evidence from the "local color"
writers of the 1870s who first discovered Appalachian "otherness'
and the religious and philanthropic agents who proferred "uplift"
and regeneration to a culture that appeared in the 1880s and '90s
to be disturbingly deviant - almost America's opposite. Since
Appalachians were "pure" white, native-born Americans of British
stock the dilemma was doubly vexing. Prof. Shapiro (Univ. of
Cincinnati) moves with painstaking, sometimes irritating slowness
through the development of the corpus of "explanations" and
rationalization of Appalachian "otherness." These ranged from the
lack of roads and commerce, to the "degeneracy" of the
mountaineers, to the romantic embrace of the hills as "America's
Highlands" and the people as "our contemporary ancestors." Men such
as William Goodell Frost, the longterm president of Berea College,
and Joseph C. Campbell of the Russell Sage Foundation were crucial
to the gradual legitimatizing of Appalachia as a distinct regional
culture - a process completed in the first decades of the 20th
century with the acknowledgment of America's pluralism and the
discovery of indigenous Appalachian music and crafts. Through the
work of English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp, the view of
Appalachia as a "kind of folk society manque" took hold. What all
these changing perceptions of Appalachia had in common, Shapiro
suggests, is their self-serving nature; the identity of Appalachia
as a coherent region with a homogenous population was, and
continues to be, an article of faith. A sensitive contribution to
American Studies which uses little-known sources to good effect.
"Appalachia on Our Mind" is not a history of Appalachia. It is
rather a history of the American idea of Appalachia. The author
argues that the emergence of this idea has little to do with the
realities of mountain life but was the result of a need to
reconcile the "otherness" of Appalachia, as decribed by local-color
writers, tourists, and home missionaries, with assumptions about
the nature of America and American civilization.
Between 1870 and 1900, it became clear that the existence of the
"strange land and peculiar people" of the southern mountains
challenged dominant notions about the basic homogeneity of the
American people and the progress of the United States toward
achiving a uniform national civilization. Some people attempted to
explain Appalachian otherness as normal and natural -- no exception
to the rule of progress. Others attempted the practical integration
of Appalachia into America through philanthropic work. In the
twentieth century, however, still other people began questioning
their assumptions about the characteristics of American
civilization itself, ultimately defining Appalachia as a region in
a nation of regions and the mountaineers as a people in a nation of
In his skillful examination of the "invention" of the idea of
Appalachia and its impact on American thought and action during the
early twentieth century, Mr. Shapiro analyzes the following: the
"discovery" of Appalachia as a field for fiction by the local-color
writers and as a field for benevolent work by the home missionaries
of the northern Protestant churches; the emergence of the "problem"
of Appalachia and attempts to solve it through explanation and
social action; the articulation of a regionalist definition of
Appalachia and the establishment of instituions that reinforced
that definition; the impact of that regionalistic definition of
Appalachia on the conduct of systematic benevolence, expecially in
the context of the debate over child-labor restriction and the
transformation of philanthropy into community work; and the attempt
to discover the bases for an indigenous mountain culture in
handicrafts, folksong, and folkdance.
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