Monday, April 30, 2012

Dear Appalachia

In Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction Since 1878,  Assistant Professor of Appalachian Studies, Emily Satterwhite, explores the responses of readers to best-selling fiction set in the region.  Published in November 2011 by University Press of Kentucky, Dear Appalachia uses an innovative research method--that of sifting through fan mail and reviews to better understand the relationship between reader and text. Satterwhite, also a teacher of American studies and popular culture at Virginia Tech, discovers how readers have imagined the region and what purposes these imagined geographies have served for them.

Satterwhite received the Weatherford Award March 23rd at the Appalachian Studies Conference hosted by Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  This award is given for the best nonfiction book in Appalachian studies published each year. Her colleague at Virginia Tech and department chair, Anita Puckett, congratulated her at the gathering of academics by explaining, "there is no higher award for scholarship in Appalachian Studies."

This scholarly work is organized into five chapters, each dealing with best sellers during a particular historic framework, a conclusion that sums up the author's assertions, and an impressive appendix which includes a methodological essay, notes, bibliography and index.

Chapter One, entitled "Charm and Virility," offers a fascinating discussion of fan reaction to a literary surprise in the late 1800s.  When popular local color author, Charles Egbert Craddock who readers and editors alike assumed was a "strapping six-foot Tennessean," turned out to be Mary N. Murfrees, "a genteel, delicate-looking lady." the editor of The Atlantic Monthly was astonished. Satterwhite examines reviews of Murfree's work and charts fan mail from her readers to show differences in how the author was perceived by her audience. Metropolitan readers tended to construct the author of In the Tennessee Mountains as a virile, self-taught adventurer who provided a masculizing frontier for "his" readers. Murfree's writing style--even after it was well-known that she was a woman--was praised by metropolitan reviewers for its "force" and "masculinity" of style.  City dwellers during the 1800s were worried that men were too coddled by cities and looked to local color writing for something not "namby pamby," as one reviewer classified Murfree.

Fan mail from small town readers often testified to the authenticity of Murfree's jargon and the distance these small town elites felt from the quaint character of her collection.. Many of these letters were written by aspiring local color writers who saw the author as a member of their own elite circle. Satterwhite concludes that both groups of readers seemed to be drawn to the local color genre because it provided a kind of vicarious tourism to the mountains.

Chapter Two looks at the popularity of John Fox, Jr.'s The Trail of the Lonesome Pine circa 1908. Satterwhite examines two prevalent views of this book through the filters of three categories of readers: nationally identified readers, locally identified readers, and transitional readers.  A prevailing view of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is that it promotes imperialism by painting moonshiners as inferior but redeemable. Another view holds that the author possesses "an intimate knowledge of mountain people." While Satterwhite acknowledges that she tends to agree with Fox's detractors, she investigates why the book struck a chord with so many early 20th Century readers.

She finds that nationally identified readers turned to Fox's work as an anti-modernist tonic. The books seems to celebrate mountain quaintness for these readers while nationalizing industrial intervention.  Locally identified readers saw themselves fictionalized as stereotypical buffoons and were offended. Much of Chapter Two develops an interesting theory--based on the novel's fan mail--of why this book gained tremendous popularity among migratory readers who felt ambivalence about "home" vs. "the industrial world." Fox's authenticity and the book's wide appeal seem to come from middle class readers who had sought to better themselves by leaving home, and then felt homesickness, a conflict Fox understood well from his own displacement from small town Kentucky while searching for upward mobility.

Chapter 3 entitled "Country to City" discusses the work of Harriet Simpson Arnow, in particular her two novels, Hunter's Horn and The Dollmaker.  Even though both works are characterized by Satterwhite as unlikely best sellers since they are, in her words, "long and bleak," an analysis of fan mail reveals that readers' needs were met by Arnow's authenticity. Arnow was credited by scholars as capturing an accurate vision of mountain life while attracting readers who identified with her characters, particularly the large group of Appalachian migrants who moved to the cities for work in the 1940s and 50s. Her fiction also served conventional readerly desires for authentic places, belonging and a sense of power.

Chapter 4 entitled "City to Country" examines the turbulent period of 1967-1970 and the wildly popular best sellers, Christy and Deliverance.  These two pop culture touchstones, as different as two novels can be, still continue to shape national perceptions of the Appalachian region. Fan mail indicates that both books served white, high middlebrow readers in the same way that local color fiction worked for the Gilded Age and Neo-Gilded Age audiences. These readers wanted the production of region as authentic, the construction of identity and belonging by way of geographical affiliations, and the circulation of power.

Fan mail for both books confirms that readers saw Appalachia as a distinctive world apart.  The novels provide mountaineers who relate a supposed colorful collective past for white culture through preservation of folklore and music. While Christy's 1912 pastoral setting provides a quiet place of God-fearing self-reliance, Deliverance  readers sought titillation and reassurance that Appalachia permits  the primitive to endure in the modern world.

Chapter 5 looks at the resurgence of local color writing beginning with the 1985 publication of the best-selling Lake Wobegon Days by public radio icon, Garrison Keillor. Satterwhite points to a second Gilded Age from 1985-2008, called by some scholars the Neo-Gilded Age, which shares with the first Gilded Age certain historic qualities. Among these are large gaps between rich and poor, high levels of unregulated corporate power, conspicuous degrees of consumption, influxes of immigration, and expanded U.S. activities abroad. In both the Gilded and Neo-Gilded Ages, high middlebrow readers expressed concern for loss of local cultures.

In this chapter, Satterwhite uses online reader reviews to examine how four best-selling novels set in Appalachia touch a nerve with a wide swath of readers. In particular, she looks at how At Home in Mitford, Big Stone Gap, Clay's Quilt, and Cold Mountain meet reader needs for authentic place, community, belonging and identity.

Emily Satterwhite warns in her concluding chapter of some unintended consequences of the imaginary versions of Appalachia created by readers, such as the potential to reinforce white nationalism or endorse problematic images of so-called primitives around the world.  Moving beyond traditional examinations of regional fiction, Dear Appalachia is an innovative study that reveals how narratives function in the lives of readers.

***This review aired on "Around Cincinnati" on April 29, 2012, WVXU 91.7.  You can listen to the review here:

1 comment:

Wayfarin' Stranger said...

Just discovered your blog while searching for reviews of books featured for the coming KY Book Fair. Enjoyed your review of Dear Appalachia; I'll have to order it. Jim