Category Archives: Appalachian History

“There’s no important human information being imparted…”

If you’re a Batman fan, you probably know that Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the definitive works in the canon.  (And if you’re not a Batman fan, I just told you.)

Via ign.com

Surprisingly, Moore himself isn’t a fan of TKJ.  Here’s what he told one interviewer (from The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, p. 123):

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted….It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

And from another interview, in which Moore compared TKJ unfavorably to some of his other work:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.

So Moore’s issue is that Watchmen and V for Vendetta touch on deeper themes and speak to the human condition, whereas The Killing Joke isn’t “about” anything except Batman and the Joker.  I’m not sure I agree with thatI think TKJ raises some interesting and provocative questions about madness and depravity, grappling with the senselessness of the world, and that old saying whereby those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

But The Killing Joke‘s profundity or lack thereof is a topic for another time.  What struck me about Moore’s comments is the implication that a work’s quality depends on it being “about” something deeper than its ostensible, immediate subject matter.

Maybe TKJ is “just” a Batman and Joker story, but it’s a superb Batman and Joker story, and one that’s had a lasting impact on the characters.  Isn’t it enough that for what it is, it’s one of the best?

I bring this up here on the blog because I think it bears on how we evaluate works of scholarly history.  Some monographs are “about” more than what their Library of Congress sub-headings would indicate.

Take Ron Eller’s excellent book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, for example.  As its subtitle indicates, it’s partly a regional history of the postwar era.

Via kentuckypress.com

But it’s also a critique of the ways we think about progress and development. We tend to associate these ideals with economic growth. We assume that “development” itself is an intrinsic good. We trust that it’s a remedy for poverty. We don’t stop to consider whether poverty might be rooted in structures that benefit some people rather than others, whether the remedies we propose will reinforce these structures, or whether the end goal of “development” is even desirable for the targets of our good intentions. We don’t question our assumptions about what “progress” means.

Eller’s work has implications that are relevant to much more than Appalachian history. It’s applicable to much of the recent past beyond Appalachia or America, and raises important questions for the present and future, too.

Stephen King has said that when you’re writing a novel, story comes before theme.  You tell the story first, and then later you can go back and figure out what the implications are and whether you need to tease them out more. I suspect something along those lines is true for most historians whose projects take on big thematic implications.  You start out with an interest in a particular topic, you investigate it, and only then do you figure out what the broader implications are.

I’m still trying to work through whether my current project will have implications for anything besides the American Revolution or the early frontier. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. For now, at least, I’ll be satisfied if I just end up saying something worthwhile about the topic at hand.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, Research and Writing

Upcoming symposium on the Tennessee frontier and the American Revolution

The East Tennessee Historical Society in Knoxville is hosting a really cool event on Saturday, April 21.  It’s a half-day symposium focused on the American Revolution on the Tennessee frontier, co-sponsored by Marble Springs, Blount Mansion, and the Department of History at UT.

It’s right up my alley, so I’m delighted to announce that I’m one of the speakers.  My presentation will deal with the ways settlers in the Tennessee country sought alliances with and protection from fellow Revolutionaries outside the region.  Here’s some more info:

The American Revolution created the United States of America. Tennessee’s rich history is linked to the very founding of our nation. Access to frontier lands and control over Appalachian territories were key factors that caused the Revolution. The Battle of King’s Mountain involved prominent frontier settlers such as John Sevier. The peace treaty that ended the war also paved the way for Tennessee to become the 16th state in 1796.

The History Department at the University of Tennessee is partnering with local organizations to make possible the first ever American Revolution on the Tennessee Frontier symposium. The event will be held Saturday, April 21, 2018 from 9am to noon at the East Tennessee Historical Society. Speakers from the Blount Mansion, the East Tennessee Historical Society, the Marble Springs State Historic Site, and the UTK History Department will talk about the Battle of King’s Mountain, John Sevier, William Blount, the Cherokee, and much more. The event is free and open to the public. Food and drinks will be served.

9:00 AM–Opening Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department
J. Tomlin, UTK History Department, “No Popery, No Tyranny: The Episcopacy Crisis and the Origins of the American Revolution”

9:30 AM–Lisa Oakley and Cherel Henderson, East Tennessee Historical Society, “The Revolutionary War through Artifacts and Family History”

10:00 AM–Michael Lynch, UTK History Department, “Declaring Dependence in Revolutionary Tennessee”

10:30 AM–Samantha Burleson, Marble Springs State Historic Site, “Marble Springs, Last Home of Governor John Sevier”

11:00 AM–Dr. Julie Reed, UTK History Department, “Willstown: Cherokee Casualty or Creative Adaptation of the American Revolution”

11:30 AM–David Hearnes, Blount Mansion, “William Blount: The Revolution and Politics”

NOON–Closing Remarks, Dr. Chris Magra, UTK History Department

This event is free, and they’ll be providing food and drinks.  I hope to see some of you there!

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

ETHS goes into the trenches and in search of Sgt. York

I highly recommend you visit In the Footsteps of Sergeant York, the new special exhibit from the Museum of the American Military Experience at the East Tennessee Historical Society.  It strikes a neat balance between an intimate portrait of York himself and a broader examination of Tennesseans’ mobilization in the Great War as a whole, and takes you from York’s rural Fentress County home…

…to the trenches of the Western Front.

The exhibition also chronicles the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition’s use of GIS and archaeology to pinpoint the precise location of his famous attack at Hill 223 near Chatel-Chéhéry.  (You may recall that the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch hosted this part of the exhibit a few years ago, although ETHS has augmented it with additional material.)  The machine gun below is reportedly one of the weapons York captured, while the rounds in front of the helmet are among the artifacts the SYDE recovered from the battleground.

Fire from the machine gun nest York took out cut down six of his comrades, and artifacts excavated from their original burial site are also on display.

As fascinating as the Chatel-Chéhéry items are, though, the object that struck me the most is this canteen carried by Fred O. Stone.  Like my great-grandfather, he was a Claiborne County, TN native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial University’s old medical school in Knoxville.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

First hero and Sevierville namesake

A lot of folks who visit Marble Springs from outside the area ask us, “Is this the guy SEE-ver-ville is named after?”

Sevierville is indeed named for John Sevier, who defeated a contingent of Cherokee warriors near the future townsite at Boyd’s Creek in December 1780.  And if you’re going to be in the Smokies this year, swing by the Sevierville Visitor Center and check out their new exhibit on the city’s namesake, John Sevier: Tennessee’s First Hero.  (The title might sound familiar.)

Marble Springs loaned some items from our collection for this project.  Since there are a lot of artifacts we don’t usually keep on public display, this is a great opportunity to see a few of the things we’ve acquired and dug out of the ground over the years.

And guys, it’s pronounced like “severe.”  Not SEE-ver.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

My guest post on manliness and the frontier Revolution at AoR

My contribution to Age of Revolution’s series on the Rev War in Indian country is now online.  If you’re curious about the kinds of questions I’ve been investigating for my dissertation, there you go.  I’m using gender to make sense of the Revolution on the Appalachian frontier, and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.

I’d like to thank the editors of AoR for inviting me to participate.  Some of my favorite historians wrote pieces for this series, so it was a tremendous honor.

And I apologize to all you folks for the scarcity of new posts here of late.  I’m trying to get a chapter knocked out, so I haven’t had much time to do anything online except tweet.  I’ll try to get back in the swing of things.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

A call to action on Blair Mountain

Quick: Name the biggest armed uprising in U.S. history since the Civil War.  Now name the largest labor uprising in America.  If you answered both questions with “Battle of Blair Mountain,” give yourself a pat on the back.

Adding Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places is a no-brainer.  Indeed, it was on the list until a judge decided to permit its withdrawal under circumstances that were—to put it mildly—rather shady.

Right now, we have a chance to help put Blair Mountain back on the registry were it belongs.  Between now and Oct. 26 you can email the keeper of the registry and let them know that this is a situation that needs to be rectified.  Drop them a line at Blair_mt_comments@nps.gov.

It will only take you a few minutes, but it’ll help save an indispensable part of American and Appalachian history.  This is one of the most imperiled historic sites in the country; it’s under imminent threat from coal companies who want to blast it to smithereens.  (No, seriously, they want to take the site of one of the biggest armed uprisings in the nation and blow it up.)

And if you’d like more information on what you can do to help and why the site is so important, check out Friends of Blair Mountain.

Fighting the Battle of Blair Mt. By Charleston Gazette [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation

Saving an East Tennessee cabin from the time of Jefferson

After all these hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes, we could all use some good news.  Here you go:

The two-story log cabin where Isaac Anderson lived before founding Maryville College nearly 200 years ago was slated for demolition until last week, when work began to move the structure from Knox County to Blount.

The cabin was built in 1802, shortly after Anderson’s father moved the family from Virginia to Tennessee, and in 2010 the nonprofit preservation group Knox Heritage named the cabin one of its “Fragile 15,” what it considers the most threatened historic structures and places.

Under pressure from Knox County code officials, the homeowners association for Shannon Valley Farms likely would have demolished the cabin along Creek Rock Lane within the next couple of months, according to HOA Board Member Patrick Klepper. “Our plan was to bring in some dumpsters and haul it away,” he said.

Although the HOA and Knox Heritage had tried to generate interest in the cabin for years, estimates to haul it offsite and restore it have been about $60,000 to $80,000.

Maryville College alumnus Cole Piper serves on the board for the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and brought the cabin to the attention of Director Bob Patterson.

Once Piper explained to him the significance of Anderson, the Heritage Center director said, “I wanted to make this happen.”

A Presbyterian minister, Anderson was called to be pastor of New Providence Presbyterian Church in Maryville in 1811 and moved his academy here, later founding a seminary that would become Maryville College.

 

An anonymous donor has provided funding to start the process of dismantling the cabin and hauling the pieces to the grounds of the Heritage Center, and a fundraising campaign is being planned for the cabin’s restoration.

It was headed for the dump, and now it’ll get all spruced up for visitors to the GSMHC to enjoy.  I call that a win.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation, Tennessee History