Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there?” These haunting questions posed by William Faulkner in “Absalom, Absalom!” could just as easily be applied to Appalachia.
Where is Appalachia? On its surface, that seems like an easy question to answer. Geographically, Appalachia is a mountain chain that stretches from southern New York to the northern parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Appalachia includes all of West Virginia, and parts of 12 other states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. These mountains are called the Alleghenies in western Maryland, the Cumberlands in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, the Smokies in Georgia, the Blue Ridge in Virginia, the Catskills in New York and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They are all part of an impressive mountain chain — collectively known as the Appalachians — that parallels the eastern seaboard of the United States.
European settlers moved into Appalachia in the 18th Century and eventually drove out most of the original inhabitants, the Indians. Small groups of Scotch-Irish, Anglo Saxons, and Germans settled the region, cleared land and built log cabins on their small farms. They lived a resolute, independent and isolated life, and became known as “hillbillies,” Williams from the hills, with their own language, culture and religion. The descendants of these people lived on the same poor land when the Great Depression arrived in the 1930s.
Appalachia is home to more than 25 million people; about half of them are rural people, and many of them are poor. Historically, the Appalachian economy developed mostly from agricultural pursuits, the forest products industries, and coal mining. Today, the economy is more diverse because of relatively new manufacturing concerns, service industries and cultural tourism. The overall economy of the region is better, but there are still large pockets of intense poverty. When I pose the question, “Where is Appalachia” to people living in the region, many have responded, as did one Ashland resident, by saying that it was “south of here, a place where poor people have poor ways.”
“Who lives in Appalachia” is a tougher question to answer. From the colonial beginnings of American history, until the present, outsiders have defined Appalachian people and Appalachian ways in negative terms. As early as the 1720s and 1730s, William Byrd’s travel writings defined a back country where lazy people lived a primitive lifestyle. Generations of novelists, scholars, politicians and journalists wrote about Appalachia with the same analytical success enjoyed by three blind men who went to see the elephant.
In 1935, in the midst of the depression, the cruelest assessment of all was rendered by the great English historian Arnold Toynbee who compared the people of the southern mountains to the “barbarians of the old world,” calling them a people “who had acquired civilization and then lost it.”
The people who lived in the mountains of eastern Kentucky — along with all other Appalachians — suffered from the incorrect assessment of who they were (and who we are). Shakespeare lamented “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” In Appalachia, that translates to “after truth dies, lies and misconceptions live on.”
Those misrepresentations “about our mountain folk” prompted Knott County’s Verna Mae Slone to write a simple memoir, “What My Heart Wants to Tell,” because these lies and half-truths have done our children more damage than anything else. They have taken more from us than the large coal and gas companies did by cheating our forefathers out of their minerals, for that was just money. These writers (like Toynbee) have taken our pride and our dignity and disgraced us in the eyes of the outside world.
And so, at age 65, Slone sat down in her mountain cabin on Caney Creek in Knott County and began writing in her notebook. She was the 10th generation of Slones to live in Pippa Passes, Kentucky — within 2 miles of the place they had settled in 1790 — where she continued to follow family customs and traditions. The youngest of seven daughters, her mother died just after she was born, and she was raised by her father, “Kitteneye” Slone, who promised his dying wife to raise his daughter “with never a whopping.” Verna Mae loved her father and “was not willing for him to die,” so she wrote a memoir about him, never thinking it would be published, for her children and grandchildren.
In writing about her father’s life, she captured the people and culture of Knott County and southeastern Kentucky. A small, sturdy man, Kitteneye made barrels and split rails; he delivered mail, herbal medicine, and occasionally moonshine. He enjoyed hard work and reveled in the beauty of the land that surrounded him. Kitteneye Slone represented the independent, versatile, self-sufficient Appalachian people who for generations built their own homes, made their own furniture and tools, farmed their lands and kept their herds, cut and machined timber, made herbal medicine, wove their own clothes and devised recipes unique to their own resources.
One of the truths about life is that even when we know something is wrong, we still don’t know what is right. That’s the purpose of many of the books published and sold by the Jesse Stuart Foundation. I invite you to read books like “What My Hearts Wants to Tell” or “Hidden Heroes of the Big Sandy Valley” and discover the reality of a great regional people.
These books are available in the JSF Bookstore and Appalachian Gift Shop at 4440 13th Street in Ashland. For more information, call (606) 326-1667, email email@example.com, or visit the website firstname.lastname@example.org.
JAMES M. GIFFORD, Ph.D., is CEO & Senior Editor at Jesse Stuart Foundation.