Few places in the United States confound and fascinate Americans like Appalachia, yet no other area has been so markedly mischaracterized by the mass media. Stereotypes of hillbillies and rednecks repeatedly appear in representations of the region, but few, if any, of its many heroes, visionaries, or innovators are ever referenced.
Make no mistake, they are legion: from Anne Royall, America's first female muckraker, to Sequoyah, a Cherokee mountaineer who invented the first syllabary in modern times, and international divas Nina Simone and Bessie Smith, as well as writers Cormac McCarthy, Edward Abbey, and Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck, Appalachia has contributed mightily to American culture — and politics. Not only did eastern Tennessee boast the country's first antislavery newspaper, Appalachians also established the first District of Washington as a bold counterpoint to British rule. With humor, intelligence, and clarity, Jeff Biggers reminds us how Appalachians have defined and shaped the United States we know today.
In this pleasing if imperfect study, Biggers (editor of No Lonesome Road) argues that the roots of American politics and culture are found not in Philadelphia or New York, but in Appalachia. The North Carolina Patriots, who declared themselves free of British rule long before Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, anticipated America's revolutionary, republican spirit. And if you thought the antislavery movement was born in Boston, think again. In the early 19th century, Appalachians John Rankin and Benjamin Lundy advocated emancipation; indeed, Lundy was largely responsible for winning William Lloyd Garrison to the cause. Finally, noting the importance of the Highlander Folk School in training civil rights activists, Biggers credits Appalachia with significantly advancing the cause of school desegregation. Biggers has a tendency to overwrite (Nina Simone "celebrated a Cherokee great-great-grandmother, a Scotch-Irish elation torn into her maternal past..."). Still, this attempt to rescue Appalachia from its reputation as a backwater is likely to be a hit in the region it lauds. Map.