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Glimpses From a Teacher Historian: Another Elegy for Appalachia

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By Mark Banker

J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” spoke recently at the University of Tennessee. His visit to East Tennessee spurred me to share these thoughts about our similar – yet very different – journeys.

Mine began and continues in Roane County!

Vance’s ancestors settled in hardscrabble Eastern Kentucky at a time when coal was king. There, they developed traits that came to distinguish Appalachian: an isolated rural lifestyle, fierce independence and disdain for formal education.

After coal collapsed in the 1950s, Vance’s immediate forebears moved into a mill town in Southern Ohio, where the dysfunctional traits that captured nationwide attention in “Hillbilly Elegy” became yet another Appalachian marker.

In contrast, my late-18th century forebears claimed fertile bottomlands in the Tennessee Valley. When soil wore thin and inheritance practices shrunk farm sizes, my most immediate ancestors relocated to East Tennessee’s emerging urban centers. There, they pursued formal schooling, engaged in an array of professions, embraced many mainstream ways, and subconsciously distanced themselves from Appalachia.

Like most Americans, they most likely attributed the historic ills and dubious reputation of their less fortunate neighbors to isolation and cultural shortcomings.

In this context, my parents’ 1950 decision to abandon Oak Ridge’s suburban advantages for a rundown farm near Kingston confounded and alarmed my grandparents. As a child, I never considered my parents’ motives nor my grandparents’ dismay. More significantly, I never imagined that this intra-family disagreement would ever merit attention.

When I left home for college, I – much like young J.D. Vance a generation later — found distancing myself from embarrassing notions about Appalachia much easier than attempting to correct them. This impulse took me to New Mexico and Vance to California.

When each of us eventually heeded a call to come home, our paths again diverged. As a memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” barely draws from scholarship that over the past half century transformed academic understandings of our region.

I, in contrast, became engaged in the emerging field of Appalachian studies.

A decade before my 1987 return to East Tennessee, regional scholars angrily refuted notions about isolation and innate cultural deficiencies. Ironically, preoccupation with mainstream exploitation perpetuated notions of a static, uniform Appalachia. In this land of victims and villains, relatively successful regional residents — like my forebears — remained conveniently invisible.

As a historian who spent 12 years navigating New Mexico’s three-way cultural divide, I should have known better.

Freezing any people in a static, ill-defined past obscures history’s one constant: change. And diverse, selective responses to that change renders sweeping generalizations about any group suspect.

Still, the implications of these common-sense insights eluded me. Rootlessness was a small price for keeping personal and regional skeletons in the proverbial closet.

Fortuitously, several talented colleagues and bright students at the Webb School of Knoxville, where I began teaching in 1987, shared my affliction. With their empathy and encouragement, I cautiously began to reconsider what I thought I knew about my region and myself.

Greater Appalachia’s imprecise physical boundaries initially impeded my quest. But, one day as I glimpsed at a map, I realized that all East Tennessee – including Knoxville and my native Roane County — lies within agreed-upon Appalachian confines.

This unremarkable insight unleashed a host of provocative, potentially disturbing premises.

Eventually, many of them found their way into an elective course that explored the intertwined histories of three representative East Tennessee communities.

Viewed in isolation, Cades Cove in the Smokies and a string of hardscrabble coal towns in the Clearfork Valley along the Tennessee-Kentucky border are conventionally Appalachian.

Knoxville, our third representative community, is decidedly not.

But, recent revisionist scholarship allowed us to reconsider these assumptions. Viewed together, the three communities intertwined economically and demographically, and these connections contributed to complex, often contradictory identities. One unintended casualty of our glimpses was our own invisibility.

When relatively fortunate regional residents distance ourselves from less-advantaged neighbors, we unwittingly leave only them — and the most negative cultural markers they display — to define “Appalachia.” Not even our selective, nostalgic embrace of such elements of our inheritance as music and food ways overrides the pernicious effects of this Faustian bargain.

More broadly and deviously, this initiates a self-perpetuating cycle.

As my parents perhaps realized in 1950, when all regional residents — disadvantaged and privileged, native and newcomer, urban and rural — distance themselves from positive Appalachian attributes, we are all diminished.

With encouragement from students, dear friends and creative scholars and financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, these insights became “Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region.”

In December 2009, my manuscript awaited editing at UT Press when TVA’s Kingston coal ash spill affirmed its title and most fundamental premise.

Composing “Appalachians All” offered unforeseen personal reward.

For the first time, I glimpsed that my parents chose to raise their sons on a farm to acquaint us with hard work, personal integrity and other Appalachian values. One need not succumb to nostalgia to appreciate their wisdom.

Contrasting responses to the unorthodox, nuanced assertions of “Appalachians All” and “Hillbilly Elegy’s” more familiar images of Appalachia offer a sober message. Long-held, notions that have defined and diminished all of us who reside in this region will not be easily undone.

Still, I hope that “Appalachians All” contributes to more credible and constructive understandings.

May this ballast steady our region’s diverse residents for the challenges of modernity and the opportunities that await us on history’s ever-changing stage.

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Mark Banker is a historian and retired teacher who lives in Kingston. He may be reached at MTBanker1951@gmail.com.