The Mountain People

5 Great Books on Appalachia - Selected by Choice Reviewer Fred Hay

Appalachia is the mountainous region of the southeastern United States. Various boundaries have been proposed, but currently the most commonly used is that of the federal government’s Appalachian Regional Commission (southern New York to northeast Mississippi). Various monolithic stereotypes of region and people (e.g., “hillbillies”) are common but, in fact, it is a diverse and very complex area geographically, culturally, and in terms of ethnicity, resource availability, plant life, and geology. In addition, the different parallel mountain ranges and valleys that constitute Appalachia each have their own geologies and histories.

Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance, by Phil Jamison. Illinois, 2015.
Jamison’s history of traditional Appalachian dance defies the old stereotype of it being solely of European origin by identifying other ancestral traditions, including African and Native American. This book is a fine example of the multiethnic origin of Appalachian culture and an in-depth examination of an Appalachian folk tradition.

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Modernizing the Mountaineer: People, Power, and Planning in Appalachia, by David E. Whisnant. Rev. ed. Tennessee, 1994.
Whisnant discusses the role of often well-meaning outsiders to modernize, educate, and reform Appalachian people. He demonstrates how outside and ethnocentric agencies catering to dominant stereotypes of the region attempted to destroy traditional Appalachian culture.

Rural Community in the Appalachian South, by Patricia D. Beaver. Waveland Press, 1992.
This well-rounded, comparative ethnography of three western North Carolina communities is an exceptional and well-written study of representative communities in a non-coal mining area. It is a very accessible account of culture— community, kinship, religion, etc.—typical of rural Appalachia.

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The Southern Highlander & His Homeland, by John C. Campbell. Kentucky, 2004 (c. 1921).
Starting early in the 20th century, Campbell conducted a geographic and cultural survey of the region that has been the foundation of all future scholarship. He was the first to describe the area now known as Appalachia in any detail. Though dated, Campbell is essential reading.

The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America, by Jeff Biggers. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006.
Biggers describes Appalachia as a source of revolutionary zeal and of many of the US’s most cherished values. Appalachia is the foundation of much of the country’s folk and popular culture, home to some of its greatest writers (Thomas Wolfe, Willa Cather, Cormac McCarthy), and where Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks trained for their heroic fight for racial equality.

About the author:

Fred J. Hay is the Anne Belk Distinguished Professor and Librarian of the W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection at Appalachian State University.