Changes in Appalachia

Once in a while a story comes along that reminds me to be careful about making sweeping generalizations about people. Take Appalachia, the rural and mountainous region that spans many states in the southeastern United States. While a place of great natural beauty, it has long been poor and rural. But ever since the hit 1972 film Deliverance came out, the people of that region have also suffered under the impression that they are uneducated, narrow-minded, inbred, hillbillies. Who can forget the famous dueling banjos scene from the film that cemented this impression?

The southeast part of Ohio is Appalachian country and is the location of the story about how changes in social attitudes are penetrating everywhere. It turns out that the small town of Pomeroy (population 2000) hired a new policeman who was gay. The 78-year old mayor Mary McAngus was not happy about this and shared with the police chief Mark Proffitt her concerns.

“I don’t like a queer working for the Village,” she said, according to a six-page statement Proffitt sent to village council this month. “I might be old-fashioned but I don’t like it.”

Some years ago, nothing may have come of this or the gay police officer may even have been pressured to quit. But in this case the police chief backed the officer because he supports gay rights and has openly an openly gay niece and nephew. As a result it was the mayor who had to quit and the new acting mayor has vowed to heal the community saying, “It just seems so absurd, even in our town in Appalachia, that this could still happen.”

So changes have happened right under our noses, to the extent that the new mayor is surprised that anti-gay attitudes are still present in her community.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Just as in the Deep South, in Appalachia there is a vigorous and passionate progressive movement. The big issue right now is mountaintop removal mining. It provides jobs, but more and more local inhabitants are coming to realize that the jobs aren’t worth the enironmental and scenic devastation that are produced.

  2. Mano Singham says

    I read a good novel a couple of years ago on this very topic. It was Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been.

    It tells the story through one family’s eyes of the deep love that the people of Appalachian West Virginia feel for their land, and their despair at the collusion of coal companies and government to destroy the mountains with strip mining and mountain top blasting that pollutes their waters, damages their houses, and threatens their lives.

    It captures the atmosphere of the place and the dignity of the people who live there.

    The writing is excellent and it gives a good understanding of a region and community of people who are either ignored or looked down upon as ignorant, with epithets like rednecks, hillbillies, and white trash hurled at them.

  3. says

    Small nit: it’s the southeast part of Ohio that is Appalachian, not the southwest. Southwest is the Blue Nose portion of the state.

  4. flex says

    Not having read Ann Pancake’s book I can’t say how it compares (although I will add it to my list), but I have enjoyed some literature in Appalachian settings over the years. None of it ever reminded me of deliverance. The closest I’ve found was the H.L. Mencken essay about visiting a hills revival meeting during the Scopes trial. Here’s the obligatory link: Yearning Mountaineers’ Souls

    (Note: I’m trying to learn to embed links, and while I think I’m doing it right, the preview is showing up rather screwy. It’s showing up like a title rather than in-line as all the references I look at suggest it should. Testing it on a HTML testbed it worked fine. My apologies if the final result does not look like I think it will.)

    I would recommend Manly Wade Wellman’s, John the Balladeer. They are ghost stories set in Appalachia which also feature Appalachian music. I wouldn’t expect them to be really representative of the life, but they are a good read. Written in the 1950’s (mostly), they are a bit more mythologized than real.

    Also Sharyn McCrumb has written a very enjoyable series, appropriately enough called the Ballad series, which combine Appalachian history with Appalachian music in both modern and historical settings. There are nine books in the series thus far, and I’ve only read four. I got some catching up to do.

  5. Henry Gale says

    I always find it interesting when a “progressive” person, who would immediately take someone to task for using any term that may offend a person of one ethnicity or another, uses a term like redneck or poor white trash or blames some event on ‘inbreeding.’

    It’s even more interesting when I take them to task for it 😀

  6. coragyps says

    “the H.L. Mencken essay”

    Sweet Jebus!
    I’d give a gonad to be able to write as well as one of his toenail clippings!!!

  7. says

    I’d give a gonad to be able to write as well as one of his toenail clippings!!!

    My fantasy dinner party would consist of Mencken, Twain, and Hitchens.

  8. flex says

    However, I would hate to let people think that Mencken was entirely without bias in his description. He was writing for a newspaper, and strongly partisan on the side of Scopes. This doesn’t mean that his descriptions are inaccurate, only that a single essay may not reveal the entire character of the people.

    I would bring this passage from Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes trial to your attention:

    These Tennessee mountaineers are not more stupid than the city proletariat; they are only less informed. If Darrow, Malone and Hays could make a month’s stumping tour in Rhea county I believe that fully a fourth of the population would repudiate fundamentalism, and that not a few of the clergy now in practice would be restored to their old jobs on the railroad. Malone’s speech yesterday probably shook a great many true believers; another like it would fetch more than one of them. But the chances are heavily against them ever hearing a second. Once this trial is over, the darkness will close in again, and it will take long years of diligent and thankless effort to dispel it — if, indeed, it is ever dispelled at all.

    I believe that the changing attitudes illustrated in the OP are an indication that the darkness described by Mencken almost 90 years ago is not quite as impenetrable as it once was.

  9. Brian M says

    Hitchens fell pray to his own kind of fundamentalism. His fervid warlust would make him a poor thrid for the trio.

  10. Frank says

    As flawed as Hitchens was on some issues, he was always interesting to listen to. And he would probably bring the whiskey, which has to be worth something.

    Since we’re talking about fantasy guest lists, could I add Ambrose Bierce? I see him listening to the others for hours, and then besting them with one sentence.

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