Homeland history

One of the many pernicious stereotypes about Appalachia is the notion that the region is homogenous.  No matter how distinct different parts of the region or segments of its population are, many people have a preconceived notion of the whole entity, and they accordingly dismiss those aspects that don’t fit the image they’ve created in their own minds.  In truth, there are many Appalachias—small towns, big cities, agricultural communities, areas reliant on extractive industries, others based on manufacturing or retail, and so on.  Whenever somebody says something to me about “Appalachian culture,” my response is invariably to ask which one.  If you’re going to speak accurately about this region, you need to take all of its different manifestations and their relationships into account.

This is one of the central contentions of Mark Banker’s fine new book Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region.  It’s a scholarly book, in the sense that it’s the result of research and an engagement with the relevant literature, but it’s also meant to be accessible and highly personal.  Banker is, like me, an East Tennessee native, and this work is a result of his desire to make sense of his own past and that of his homeland.

Banker recognizes that Appalachia consists of various distinct but intertwined parts.  Accordingly, Appalachians All focuses on three different subregions of East Tennessee: the central valley metropolis of Knoxville, the “coal Appalachia” of the northern Clearfork Valley, and the “timber-tourism Appalachia” of the Smokies, specifically the now-extinct settlement of Cades Cove.  Incorporating his own family’s history into his narrative, he demonstrates that many successful Valley inhabitants and hinterland elites, such as his own immediate forebears, have long had an ambivalent relationship with traditionally “Appalachian” culture.  Despite the fact that Knoxville’s growth and relative good fortune has been deeply dependent on outlying, less-advantaged areas, many of these “successful” Appalachians have consciously distanced themselves from those subregions and the people who live in them.

Indeed, the interdependence of these different East Tennessee subregions is one of the central arguments in the book, echoing William Cronon’s examination of early Chicago’s relationship with its own hinterland.  Knoxville’s centralized location made it a clearinghouse for trade from outlying communities, such as the relatively comfortable settlement of Cades Cove and the more hardscrabble Clearfork Valley, where ever-shrinking farms eventually became so small and depleted that they were unable to provide a satisfactory standard of living.  Even in Knoxville, political and geographic forces combined to erode the city’s influence in both the state and the nation.  While some regional advocates argued for improved transportation networks to link cities like Knoxville to broader markets, this did not happen until 1858, on the eve of a war that further damaged the region’s economy.

After the Civil War, Knoxville experienced an economic boom with the expansion of rail networks and an influx of migrants, becoming an important wholesaling center for the larger region and a hub for the extractive industries that moved into areas like the Smokies and the Clearfork Valley.  This connection to its hinterland was the key to the city’s growth.  In those hinterlands, this very same era was a turning point of a more ominous kind.  As both regional elites and outside investors profited from the cutting of Smokies timber and the mining of Clearfork coal, these extractive industries devastated East Tennessee’s landscape and created a fresh set of economic problems for her inhabitants.

The postwar era was also the age of the “discovery” of Appalachia, when local color writers and missionaries crafted the canon of Appalachian stereotypes that continue to plague her people: isolation, backwardness, ignorance, violence, and so on.  The notion of Appalachia as a unique, peculiar, and monolithic region was partly the work of outsiders, but Banker (drawing heavily from the work of David Hsiung) stresses that elites within Appalachia share much of the blame.  By hastening to differentiate themselves from their neighbors whom they saw as less progressive and successful than themselves, they helped legitimize the stereotyping and exploitation of their own region.  Some longterm missionaries and scholars, whom Banker terms “insider outsiders,” offered more complex, subtle, and realistic appraisals of the region and its ills, but the simpler images put forth by less-informed observers proved more pervasive.

During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, this pattern in which some parts of the region benefited at the expense of others continued.  When tourism replaced the timber industry in the Smokies, residents of Cades Cove were expelled from their community, which became a hollowed-out shell of the vibrant community it had been as part of the new national park, surrounded by tourist traps that catered to stereotypical “hillbilly” imagery.  Wealthier owners of seasonal homes, meanwhile, secured more favorable long-term leases.  Meanwhile, America’s increasingly insatiable demand for coal, and the development of technology to enable surface and mountaintop removal mining, continued to wreak havoc in the Clearfork, although some locals managed to profit from setting up their own extractive businesses or by finding work in the industry.

The later twentieth century brought about an “Appalachian awakening,” with the emergence of more sophisticated scholarly appraisals of the region and the birth of activist movements that sought to alleviate environmental and economic ills as well as counter the bigotry from outsiders that helped these ills to persist.  Today, Banker argues, Knoxvillians remain ambivalent about “Appalachia,” although there is evidence of greater economic cooperation and regional awareness within East Tennessee as a whole.

Appalachians All is a unique piece of work, both scholarly and deeply felt.  Banker draws deeply from academic scholarship on the southern highlands—as mentioned, his account of the birth of Appalachian stereotypes owes much to David Hsiung, and he relies heavily on Durwood Dunn’s acclaimed study of Cades Cove for his sections on the life and eventual death of that Smokies community.  Banker also draws from other standards in the field of Appalachian studies, such as the work of Henry Shapiro, Allan Batteau, and John Gaventa.

Furthermore, he is careful to put the history of East Tennessee into its proper context within the history of America as a whole.  For example, he stresses that the complacency and conservatism that some critics of the region have noted during various time periods were actually quite normative for the entire country during those same eras, and at various points he notes the interplay between national and regional political and cultural forces.  This sensitivity to broader historical forces is one of the book’s great strengths, and distinguishes it from many other treatments of Appalachian history that are focused exclusively on regional “uniqueness” and the possible reasons for it.  Banker disagrees with both early observers who have attributed Appalachia’s supposed singularity to isolation and later commentators who have laid all the region’s problem at the feet of outside exploiters.  Regional interdependence, he finds, is a key that unlocks many doors in the surprisingly complicated passageways of East Tennessee’s history.

Despite his engagement with specialized scholarship, Banker seeks a broader audience.  The history of his own family and of his own life, interspersed throughout the book, make this a very personal book.  Banker realizes that it is difficult for those of us who are from this region to separate ourselves from images of its past and present, and so he yields fully to the need to integrate his own story with the story of his homeland.   Many Appalachian writers have grounded themselves deeply in a sense of place, but none to my knowledge has done so with the benefit of the insights of serious history as successfully as he has.

The result is a look at East Tennessee that is informed and balanced without cold, clinical detachment.  Banker realizes that his own forebears exemplify the desire of many “successful” Appalachians to engage in “successful acculturation,” to distance themselves from less desirable aspects of their own culture while holding on to others.  It is a process at which many Appalachians, always carrying the burden of coming from a misunderstood region, have become adept.  In some ways East Tennessee has suffered as a result, because by denying that they are “Appalachian,” some of her citizens have accordingly misunderstood their own shared history, leaving them ill-prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities of the present.

Appalachians All is being published by a university press, and that fact, combined with its regional focus, might unfairly limit its audience.  I fervently hope that doesn’t happen, because this is a book that needs to be widely read.  It synthesizes a great deal of important scholarship, and suggests ways in which we can apply insights from the past.  East Tennesseans and all Appalachians have allowed themselves to be told what “Appalachia” is and was for far too long, and they need to be reminded of the reality of the different Appalachias and Appalachians.  And outsiders desperately, desperately need a more informed and less prejudicial view of the southern mountains.  Banker’s book should help us East Tennesseans see ourselves and our past more clearly, with all its complexity.  It’s certainly done that for me, having grown up just east of the Clearfork and an hour’s drive north from Knoxville.  This book is a wonderful contribution to a conversation we Appalachians need to be having, and one that non-Appalachians need to join.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Tennessee History

One response to “Homeland history

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Homeland history « Past in the Present -- Topsy.com

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