Over the past four decades, the study of Appalachian literature has blossomed with workshops, conferences and summer institutes for teachers cropping up throughout the region.  

Many educators in Appalachia seem eager to introduce their students to the literary heritage of Appalachia. One problem, however, prevented teachers from instituting full-fledged Appalachian literature courses, particularly at the high school level. That problem was a lack of a textbook. “A Southern Appalachian Reader,” compiled and edited by Nellie McNeil and Joyce Squibb in 1989, fills that void.

This book is divided into two sections. Section I focuses on the past and moves from the oral tradition of ballads and storytelling to “local color” and modern realism that focused national attention on Appalachia. Pieces by contemporary writers like Lee Smith and Jim Wayne Miller are included and show the strong tendency to cast a backward glance, to reminisce.

Section II deals with the present and the impact regional institutions such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Highlander Research Center have had on Appalachia. Chapter 7 explores the phenomenon of Appalachian migration: the flight of mountain people to large urban areas in search of a better life.

Finally, this 530-page softback collection ends on the road home. A strong sense of belonging to a place, to its land and its people, is the focus of the last selections.

For most readers, this book will serve as a comprehensive introduction to the Appalachian region’s history and literature. The editors included as many writers as possible to give some overview of the richness of the region’s past. Most of all, this anthology is intended to help students and general public readers value the region’s heritage and traditions. This appreciation will help readers, whether they are native Appalachians or not, to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the forces that shape regional life.

The study of literature often makes people think about themselves. Regional literature, particularly, makes a person even more conscious of behavior, beliefs and other life patterns. As the poet and scholar Dr. Jim Wayne Miller said:

We should be concerned with teaching the history and culture of our different regions not for the past’s sake, but for the sake of the present and future. ... Such a view counters the rootless uniformity of popular culture with the realization of rooted diversity.

Every person who reads this wonderful collection of stories, poems and essays will gain an increased knowledge and understanding not only of the literature, but also of himself and his family. By including discussion questions, composition topics, suggestions for out-of-class activities, and lists of additional materials, this book will inspire students and general readers toward self-knowledge. As a person comes to value himself, he or she values others — another aim of this book.

The Appalachian region is broad and rapidly changing. The startling demands of the future will be met more effectively by those with a strong sense of history and a sense of responsibility to the land and its people. “A Southern Appalachian Reader” will be a starting point for a deeper study of our region and will encourage a lifelong interest in and concern for one of America’s most fascinating regions. In the pages of this book, Appalachia’s past and present intersect in essays, stories and poems, giving the book social relevance and literary charm.

“A Southern Appalachian Reader” is available at the Jesse Stuart Foundation Bookstore & Appalachian Gift Shop at 4440 13th Street in Ashland. For more information, call (606) 326-1667 or visit the website at jsfbooks.com.

DR. JAMES GIFFORD, Ph.D., is the CEO and Senior Editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

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