Encyclopedia tackles hillbilly image





Rudy Abramson wanted to publish a reference book about Appalachia that went beyond the stereotypical images of hillbillies and poverty and presented a more realistic picture of the area's history and natural diversity.

"The place has this reputation of being just a different nation of poor people and strip mines and that sort of thing," said Abramson, co-editor of the newly released Encyclopedia of Appalachia, a 1,832-page volume that weighs nearly 3.6 kilograms.

The work, which took a decade to complete, has just gone on sale through the University of Tennessee Press for $79.95 US a copy. More than 1,000 historians, folklorists, sociologists, geologists and journalists contributed.

"What we tried to do across the entire encyclopedia was to make sure the information was authoritative, that the writing was clear and engaging and accessible, and we had balance," said Abramson's editing partner, Jean Haskell, retired director of Appalachian studies at East Tennessee State University.

The authors note that debate continues over exactly where Appalachia is and even how the name is pronounced.

They accept the federal definition of Appalachia as comprising all of West Virginia and parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York, roughly following the spine of the ancient Appalachian Mountains.

But the encyclopedia also considers the impact of Appalachian migrants to other areas, including cities in the Midwest, and recent trends such as "urban Appalachia" in growing metropolitan areas and "rural sprawl" in expanding tourism enclaves of the Great Smoky Mountains.

As for pronunciation, it's "Ap-pa-LATCH-a" in the southern mountains, but more commonly "Ap-pa-LAY-cha" in the rest of the country, particularly north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The region was America's first western frontier and provided such noble mountaineer figures as Davy Crockett. But the book goes to great lengths to tackle the overwhelming image of the hillbilly.

The first reference appeared in 1900 in the New York Journal. The paper described the species as "a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him."

The image stuck. However, a watershed moment came in 2002 when CBS tried to remake the 1960s Beverly Hillbillies into a reality show. Public reaction was "swift, negative and revealing," the encyclopedia said, and CBS shelved the idea.

Started in 1996 with a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the encyclopedia became a joint effort of the Center for Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State and the UT Press. Its goal was to provide context to the notions about the region and "try where possible to explain how they came about, why they happened and whether they are valid any more," said Abramson, an Alabama native and former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

The upshot, he said, is that the region is revealed as more complex and interesting than most people think.



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