Appalachia

the rural character of the Appalachians is revealed in a satellite image of night lights in urban areas - and where they are absent
the rural character of the Appalachians is revealed in a satellite image of night lights in urban areas - and where they are absent
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), GLOBE: A Gallery of High Resolution Images, Conterminous 48 USA states (with lights)

From a geological perspective, "The Appalachians" can be defined broadly as the mountains west of the Coastal Plain (starting at the Blue Ridge) or narrowly as the Allegheny Plateau, west of the Valley and Ridge physiographic province.

From a cultural perspective, the "mountain people" of the Appalachians often include the isolated homesteads in the Blue Ridge as well as the Appalachian Plateau.

After the Civil War, Northern social workers realized that poverty was common in the mountains of Virginia. Educational levels were low, some religious rituals bordered on mysticism, and disputes were settled by extra-legal processes rather than standard law-and-order techniques.

Hillsides provided thin soils in contrast to valley bottomlands or even the Piedmont, and poor roads made it very difficult to transport crops or products to market. The standard solution for compressing the volume of sorghum, corn, barley, and wheat was to distil the grains into alcohol, which created a high-value product that was far easier to load on a mule.

Rich Mountain and the valley carved out by Clear Fork of the Clinch River, in Bland County
Rich Mountain and the valley carved out by Clear Fork of the Clinch River, in Bland County

To generate donations to support various initiatives, the concept of Appalachia as a blighted, isolated region was popularized. That helped generate funds from donors, but the stigma of "poor Appalachian" became unpopular in the region.

In the 1960's, President Kennedy and the President Johnson sought to relieve poverty in the area, setting up the Appalachian Regional Commission to funnel grants for various social programs. The counties in the Shenandoah and Roanoke valleys had the opportunity to be included in the designated area for extra grant funding, but some declined. Being associated with "Appalachia" could be a deterrent, limiting the interest of private sector businesses to locate in the counties.

The jurisdiction most famous for moonshining in Virginia, Franklin County, ended up being excluded from the boundaries. In the end, the following counties were included:

Alleghany, Bath, Bland, Botetourt, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Henry, Highland, Lee, Montgomery, Patrick, Pulaski, Rockbridge, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe. In addition, the cities of Bristol, Buena Vista, Covington, Galax, Lexington, Martinsville, Norton, and Radford were also included.

The surprising election of President Trump in 2016 spurred interest in the region, as pundits sought to explain his support in southern Ohio and central Pennsylvania in particular. Many residents in those two areas migrated from Appalachia to find factory jobs, before globalization of trade led to factory closings.

In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis, J. D. Vance suggested that government programs to retrain and educate displaced workers was not the solution to high unemployment and drug use. He attributed much of the problem to family culture within the Appalachian region.

Historian Elizabeth Catte responded in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia that the book reinforced stereotypes about the region:1

There's an idea that Appalachia is not fundamentally part of the United States, that it's a place within a place, and it's not a place but a problem.

After Ron Howard announced plans to make a movie based on Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis, The Roanoke Times editorialized against it:2

Appalachia is so poorly-understood beyond its borders that it’s painfully easy to stereotype. We see that every time some out-of-town political candidate comes to Roanoke and starts talking about coal as if the mines were next door. Most of Appalachia — which culturally covers everything west of the Blue Ridge Mountains out to the foothills of Ohio — doesn’t even mine coal at all.

Appalachia is a far more diverse region than people give it credit for, sometimes even the people who live in it. That’s where “Hillbilly Elegy” the movie is likely to be so damaging. If people outside the region see Vance’s book brought to life — the drug addicts, the welfare cheats, the layabouts —and think that’s an accurate depiction of all of Appalachia, it will just become yet another stereotype for a region that’s been stereotyped long enough.

Blue Ridge

by the late 1700's, settlers referred to the Alleghenies rather than the Appalachians
by the late 1700's, settlers referred to the Alleghenies rather than the Appalachians
Source: University of North Carolina, A Compleat map of North-Carolina from an actual survey (by John Collet, 1770)

Links

References

1. "Historian Makes Case For 'What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia' In New Book," National Public Radio, January 31, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/01/31/582240482/historian-makes-case-for-what-you-are-getting-wrong-about-appalachia-in-new-book (last checked April 26, 2019)
2. "Editorial: Appalachia has a new story to tell, and it's not an elegy," The Roanoke Times, April 28, 2019, https://www.roanoke.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-appalachia-has-a-new-story-to-tell-and-it/article_fa2e9ee7-b089-504f-b9f2-6e1639a1d471.html (last checked April 29, 2019)
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