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You thought you knew Appalachia, and you were wrong | COMMENTARY

When I lived in Cincinnati, I was a member of a protected minority. The city had enacted an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against Appalachians because people from across the river who talked with That Accent were regularly denied service and accommodations.

When you grow up in Kentucky, you understand that more than a century of myth-making, in books, movies, and television shows, has established that Appalachians are illiterate, hostile to education and culture, and little better than barbaric, people that the rest of America sees as the other. And you are keenly aware that this is how the country sees you.

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Samantha NeCamp wonders just how accurate this distorting myth of Appalachia has been, and she has investigated the actual circumstances in Appalachia at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth as this myth was being established.

In Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspapers, and Writing in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky) she looks into what the preserved written record, in community newspapers, shows about the attitudes of the people toward writing and education.

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Poring over the archives of five of those newspapers — the Breathitt County News in Jackson, the Hazel Green Herald in Wolfe County, the Big Sandy News in Louisa in Lawrence County, the Clay City Times in Powell County, and the Mountain Advocate in Barbourville in Knox County — Professor NeCamp, who is on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati, finds writing, lots of writing.

She finds editors working to create an imagined community of readers with shared identity and values, relying heavily on local correspondents. The editors and the correspondents work in a balanced tension when they disagree, the editors needing the correspondents to produce copy and draw readers, the correspondents needing the editors to supply recognition of their status in their communities.

She finds lively responses from readers and exchanges in which differences are aired and considered without the resort to gunplay to which, in the mythology, hilljacks are invariably disposed. In short, the writing in those newspapers establishes and confirms what the communities see as valuable.

She also discovers a consistent emphasis on education.

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The public schools of the time were hampered not only by low pay and difficult living conditions, but also the state’s education system, in which the hiring and firing of teachers by local trustees led to favoritism and politicization. Nevertheless, the articles and comments from readers praise the teachers who work well with the students, and the private subscription schools also come in for praise and pride in their presence.

It is not a rosy picture. We know from Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, published in 1962, how the extraction interests despoiled the region, taking out the timber in the nineteenth century and the coal in the twentieth, leaving little of the profits for the people living and working there. We know how little headway has been made since the nation was astonished to discover poverty during the Kennedy administration.

But we can now see, thanks to Professor NeCamp, that the slack-jawed, moonshine-swilling, feuding hillbilly is just a caricature, and that there were people in central Appalachia earnestly seeking education and improvement for their communities, and who left a written record of their lives.

One final note: Professor NeCamp’s grandmother, Frances Dorsey, was my fourth-grade teacher at Elizaville Elementary School, where she did much to open up the wider world beyond Appalachia to me.

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