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Dear Appalachia: New Book Explores Readers’ Reception of Appalachian Literature

By Niki King

Where do Appalachian stereotypes come from? It’s a question that gives rise to seemingly easy, immediate answers—movies, television shows and news media.

But what if they also come from our own imaginations? What if we seek cultural touchstones to create or reify identities for ourselves?  Could that be the underlying reason we find our way to Appalachian literature? Are we looking for ourselves in those pages, or more likely, the selves we’d rather be, selves with history and heritage, rooted in place and time, with a sense of community and belonging?

These are more complex, nuanced questions scholar Emily Satterwhite approached in her book Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878 recently published by The University Press of Kentucky.

Satterwhite used an innovative methodology, examining fan mail written in response to best-selling fiction set in Appalachia, to consider how readers imagined the region and what purposes these imagined geographies served for them.  She concludes readers who “embraced best-selling fiction set in Appalachia conceived the region as a rooted, rural place populated by simple whites with a rich and colorful heritage protected from mass culture.”

She narrowed her case study to blockbuster titles that ring familiar. Even if someone hasn’t read them all, they’ve likely heard of them: John Fox Jr.’s Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908), Catharine Marshall’s Christy (1954), James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970), Harriet Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1976), Silas House’s Clay’s Quilt (2002) and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (2006).

In recent years, regional literature has boomed in popularity for the same reasons it did in the late 1800s, she argues, when “once again the gap between rich and poor widened, concerns about immigration fueled nativist movements, imperialistic projects expanded overseas and Americans expressed dizzied alarm over their sense of distance from ‘real life.’”

Metropolitan elites in particular turn to Appalachian literature, she writes, assuming that it represents a more “authentic” culture than the one they encounter in their everyday lives. In the face of strip malls, big box stores, processed food and Facebook, they imagine Appalachia offers something different, a place where people live in small communities, close to the land and talk in centuries-old dialect and celebrate traditions unique to them. Migrants from the region, many of whom have no interest in returning, also take comfort in these books, nurturing homesickness with nostalgic, highly idealized visions of home. Publishers know this and market regional literature accordingly.

Even in cases where the literature offers other, varied interpretations of life in Appalachia, people still read into them what they want. For example, Gertie, the main character in The Dollmaker, suffers hardships in her rural life before moving to the city. But readers often ignored this fact, wishing that Arnow had, in the end, returned Gertie to the region.

The book is, at its core, a cautionary tale about how we use and process identity.

“My concern is not with the accuracy or inaccuracy of any given novel….but with the lack of a wide enough variety of stories to capture the complexity of Appalachian places and experiences,” writes Satterwhite. “…celebrations of Appalachia grounded in notions of authenticity and heritage may in some instances unwittingly endorse racism, nationalism and imperialism.”

Satterwhite’s writing is clear, succinct and approachable. The book’s finer points are made in the introduction and conclusion, but the middle chapters make for good reading also as they ground each novel historically, showing how current events affected how readers received them.

Dear Appalachia is right on trend with a larger movement in Appalachian Studies to illuminate how conceptions of the region have been limited, its diversity and complexity oversimplified.

It’s an important contribution, not just for Appalachian people, but anyone who has ever been influenced by regional literature. Its ideas can powerfully challenge how we view ourselves, which is by my estimation, the truest mark of a work’s worth.

Hear Satterwhite speak about the book Tues., Feb. 7 from 8-9 P.M. on Lexington, Ky.’s WUKY, 91.3. Listen live or stream it online.

Emily Satterwhite is an assistant professor of Appalachian Studies, American Studies and popular culture at Virginia Tech and has published in American Literature, Journal of American Folklore and Appalachian Journal.

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