Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blethen, eds., High Mountains Rising (University of Illinois Press, 2004)
"Perhaps all the stereotypes of Appalachian folklife ought to be discarded. The culture of Appalachia is neither unique nor monolithic." Thus Michael Ann Williams summarizes her chapter on Appalachian folklore in High Mountains Rising, a broad, even panoramic study of the history, economy, and culture of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
This is a point that is made over and over again in this volume, from C. Clifford Boyd Jr.'s beginning chapter on the Native American context of early Appalachia through H. Tyler Blethen's description of the early white settlers, and perhaps most pointedly in David C. Hsiung's examination of stereotypes and Michael Montgomery's discussion of the language of the region. What we think we know about the region discussed in this book -- the southern mountains from West Virginia to Georgia -- is not always, or even nearly always, the case.
It is very difficult, in discussing a study such as this one, to point to specifics as illustrative of the whole -- in this regard the book's virtues are also its flaws, and it is perhaps more like its area of study than either the authors or editors had suspected. As Richard A. Straw notes in his introduction, this volume is both a culmination and a starting point: from a region that, thirty years ago, was described by one of his professors as a region that had no history, scholars have unearthed a complex, multifaceted historical and cultural phenomenon that we might, someday, understand. In working one's way through the various aspects of Appalachian studies represented here, one sees that Straw's conclusion, as noted in the quote that begins this discussion, is more than apt. As he says: "Appalachia was not an area discrete enough or even united enough to have a shared culture or past."
In fact, the southern mountains are almost dizzying in their complexity, so much so that one wishes, in several instances, that the obvious demands of space had not precluded several authors from pursuing their topics in more depth -- Williams' essay is only one of several that leave one hungry for more detail, more development.
In sum, we too often think of the culture and history of this region as being simply that of English and Irish Protestant immigrants settling in remote mountain valleys where they have been cut off from the larger world for centuries. We tend not to think of the interactions between the white settlers and the Cherokee civilization they found (foodstuffs new to the Europeans wound up being cultivated by the natives in land-use patterns adopted from the newcomers, who in turn adopted some land-use patterns from the natives), the influence of African Americans (the banjo, so much a Southern icon, is African in origin), the ways in which the ups and downs of economic fortune caused population shifts in the area, or the later influence of migrants from other regions of the U.S. and other parts of Europe (the Appalachian log cabin harks back to construction patterns native to Scandinavia and Germany, brought by settlers from those areas). The role of religion in the region is also important, in several regards, and not always in ways we would expect -- dancing, though frowned on by the Protestant settlers, made its way into the cultural life of the region from the Cherokees and the African Americans in what became another icon, team clogging, which lent itself to the spirit of community so important to the Christian settlers.
As in any study that tries to cover all the bases, there are sections of this that will not be particularly interesting to all readers. I found the sections on Native American contributions to the culture, folkways, and languge to be fascinating and wished for more; others might be equally enthralled by discussions of economic patterns in the nineteenth century and Appalachia's response to the Great Depression.
What it boils down to is that High Mountains Rising has something for nearly everyone, in just enough detail to whet your appetite for more. I think it does achieve its purpose of being both a summary and a starting point, and with its extensive notes and bibliography, is a valuable resource.
As for those of us who thought we had a handle on Appalachia -- who knew?