This week on Blue Ridge Public Radio, we’ve been looking at the complex cultural identity of Southern Appalachia. In our first installment, we examined the 1972 film Deliverance – which presented some very negative stereotypes of the region.
That wasn’t the first time it happened, and it wouldn’t be the last.
In the early 20th century, Pennsylvania-born novelist Horace Kephart introduced the rest of America to the rugged mountainous region known as Southern Appalachia. In addition to providing invaluable insight into its fauna and flora, he also helped perpetuate the 19th century stereotype of an ignorant, violent, depraved people.
“Kephart, I think, went overboard not often, but a lot of times, with his depiction of the people,” said George Ellison, a longtime Bryson City naturalist, historian and writer who with Janet McCue recently released the most comprehensive biography of Kephart ever produced, Back of Beyond. “Those types no doubt existed, but they weren’t the dominant types,” Ellison said. “The storyline with them would sell better to an editor, or to an audience. He was not writing for people here, he was writing for people elsewhere.” Kephart died in 1931, just before the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park he’d advocated for.
Ellison became attracted to Kephart’s work in graduate school at the University of South Carolina in the late 1960s, where he would encounter yet another towering literary figure who would unwittingly help define Southern Appalachia for another two generations. “For one semester, I had this really fancy office,” he laughed. “And next to me was an even bigger office. It was a big corner office.”
A big corner office, home to a larger than life personality.
“One day I was listening. The semester had just started. I heard someone saying ‘You’re either gonna pay me $2,000 or I’m not coming.’ And I said, ‘Gosh that’s a lot of money.’ So I went around the corner,” he said, “and there was James Dickey.”
Big, bold and brash, the hard-drinking James Dickey grew up in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, played football at Clemson, served in the Army, and earned his bachelors and master’s degrees in English from Vanderbilt. At the time he met Ellison at the University of South Carolina, Dickey had just come off a two-year stint serving as the U.S. Poet Laureate, and had also begun working on a book called Deliverance.
Ellison said the James Dickey he knew wasn’t the type to look down on anybody. But like it or not, Dickey’s novel and the subsequent movie perpetuated the Kephart stereotype that introduced audiences across America to Cowboy Cowart and to the “paddle faster, I hear banjo music” bumper sticker.
Appalachian writer Ron Rash says those characterizations don’t come without consequence.
“I think it very important that we let people understand the complexity of the region and that the region is not these crude stereotypes,” Rash said. “I think it has a real impact on what happens in the region.”
Rash is currently the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. “Sometimes I will see students who are a little bit ashamed of being from the region,” he said. “They're a little bit ashamed of their accent. I think when they hear my accent sometimes, maybe it's a little bit reassuring that I haven't lost my accent but I've done pretty well in the world.”
And he has. Along with Charles Frazier, author of the novel Cold Mountain, Rash is a well-known Appalachian storyteller who’s been cranking out award-winning poetry and novels since the mid 90s. Like Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Rash’s Serena recently became a movie, starring Jenifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Many of the important voices in Appalachian literature – people like Charles Frazier, David Joy, Mark Powell and Wilma Dykeman – have figured out how to portray accurately the proud, independent people of a rural, poverty-stricken region that finds itself naturally inclined to noir.
“That, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the trickiest questions for me personally as a writer,” Rash said. “If I sentimentalized the people and make them all good, suffering humans – or not even – they become something just as unreal as the crude stereotypes.”
That question would pop up again just a few years ago, after a novel by Ohio-born Yale law school grad J.D. Vance spread like brush fire following the 2016 election.
“Exploring Southern Appalachia” is a Blue Ridge Public Radio series on how the 1972 Burt Reynolds’ film “Deliverance” touched Southern Appalachia. This series will explore the film’s mark on literature, whitewater, music, academia and the cultural identity of the region as a whole.