Monday, March 12, 2012

Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia

While watching a U.S. military official apologize to Afghans on the news over the unfortunate burning of copies of the Koran, I was taken aback by the characterization of the Afghan protestors as "primitive." The official seemed to be attributing the protestors' reaction to the gaffe as illogical or intrinsic-- the kind of behavior one might expect from a people who are not totally civilized.

Yet, on our own soil, areas of the United States have been characterized over our history as innately more dangerous and primitive because of their supposed isolation or cultural proclivity toward violence. In Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia, Bruce E. Stewart, assistant professor of history at Appalachian State, collects essays from experts in the fields of political science, history, and literature to question the supposedly innate brutality of the Appalachian people. Published in January by University Press of Kentucky, this book examines cases of violence in the mountains from the late 18th Century through the early 20th Century, making the case that violence in the hills is not isolated or inbred, but reflective of deeper problems within the United States itself.

In his introduction to the essays, Stewart shares prevalent explanations offered by early scholars and writers about the causes of violent behavior in Appalachia. Among those discussed are rugged frontier individualism caused by living in the wilderness, Scotch-Irish descent, and geographic isolation.

Arnold J. Toynbee, in his 1946 work, A Study of History, characterized the (quote) "barbarizing effect of the American frontier" (end quote) on Appalachian residents. Toynbee's explanation follows the late nineteenth century popularization by novelists, missionaries, and scholars of a violent and lawless Appalachia. Toynbee argued that mountain violence was a product of living on the frontier. Forced to live in "the wilderness" where they had to defend themselves against Native Americans, Appalachian whites were thought to have lapsed into savagery, a condition that future generations presumably failed to rise above, according to this theory.

Many early twentieth century writers, however, argued that the Appalachian mountains were peopled largely with descendants of Scotch-Irish settlers who carried with them a "border culture" that included clannish behavior, and a cultural propensity to break the law and fight to defend property. Horace Kephart wrote in 1921, "They--the Scotch-irish--are a fighting race."

Stewart cites the most popular explanation for mountain violence accepted among early scholars as geographic isolation . By the turn of the twentieth century, most writers, educators and missionaries asserted that the mountains served as physical barriers keeping civilization out. C.T. Revere wrote in 1907 that mountain people "had never come in contact with the outside world, and are amazingly ignorant of anything which happens outside their immediate neighborhood." Revere and other writers of the time supposed that this isolation resulted in a peculiar mountain culture where highlanders became "extreme individualists."

Stewart goes on to present more recent challenges to these early theories about mountain violence, including the 1978 work of Henry Shapiro, Appalachia on Our Mind. In his book, Shapiro wrote that the notion of Appalachia as out of step with the rest of America was a post-Civil War construct to make Appalachia "the other," a fictional place filled with natural beauty and populated with backward people who did not embrace progress. This notion gave crusading Victorian Americans the incentive to intervene in the lives of the deprived other, uplifting them toward the civilized world of industrialization.

Shapiro's work inspired other scholars to take a closer look at the cultural explanations for violence in Appalachia. Studies found the region to be more culturally diverse than described earlier with inhabitants who had ancestors from not just Scotch-Irish descent, but also from Welsh, English, German, Italian, Native American, and African lineages, thus debunking the theory of a homogeneous Scotch-Irish "border culture" that espoused violence.

The thirteen essays in this collection serve to cast each instance of Appalachian violence under the prism of history, examining each for complex causes including racial tension, economic inequality, governmental instability, class struggles, politically-motivated infighting, and land disputes. In other words, the kinds of forces that have caused violence throughout our nation at large were also at work in the mountains.

There is an interesting discussion of feuding in T.R.C. Hutton's essay, "Assassins and Feudists: Politics and Death in the Bluegrass and Mountains of Kentucky" where politicians found it expedient to blame political violence on the reputation of "bloody Breathitt" in order to hide corruption. A very compelling account of the state of Franklin which was formed briefly in the 1780s from western North Carolina also makes for interesting analysis. On the surface, the secession of Franklin from North Carolina seemed to be over a federal law requiring states with substantial western lands to cede them to the federal government. But in a closer examination of the historic forces, Kevin T. Barksdale reveals clashes for land with the Overhill Cherokee and a "divide and conquer" policy by one of North Carolina's governors to be instrumental in the bloodshed that eventually ensued. Bruce Stewart's own contribution, to the collection involves the negative image of moonshiners painted by writers of the local color genre in the 1870s.

In fact, many of the contributors to Blood in the Hills credit national press and literary genres with perpetuating the stereotypes of mountain violence. By providing a more complete picture of one region where violence has been exaggerated and misunderstood, Stewart gives the reader a better understanding of violence throughout the entire United States.

This review originally aired on Around Cincinnati on March 11, 2012, WVXU 91.7. You may listen to the archived review at the audio link to the right of this blog.

No comments: