Appalachian Literature: At Home in This World
by Jim Wayne Miller
While the varieties of Protestantism found in the Appalachian region often differ sharply with regard to certain theological points, denominations share a decidedly otherworldly outlook. On this point sociologists, missionaries representing mainline Christian denominations, and others interested in programs of regional uplift have generally agreed. Jack Weller, a Presbyterian minister and missionary to Appalachia, has suggested that the different Protestant denominations in southern Appalachia constitute a single folk religion so otherworldly in outlook as to be an obstacle to progress and social action -- because believers look for a better life not in this world but in the next.1 The region's literature might be expected to reflect something of the thoroughgoing otherworldliness of the folk religion. Yet Appalachian literature is -- and always has been -- as decidedly worldly, secular, and profane in its outlook as the traditional religion appears to be spiritual and otherworldly.
The notion that Appalachian literature is particularly worldly in its orientation will strike most people as wrongheaded. Sut Lovingood, who puts the lizards up Parson Bullen's pants leg, is a worldly fellow, everyone will agree.2 The preacher himself, who is describing the agonies and sufferings of hell, is clearly Sut's opposite; the preacher is otherworldly in his view. But is he? A.O. Lovejoy maintains that talk of heaven and hell is this-worldly in the extreme, despite its ostensible vision of joys and agonies in a beyond:
To be concerned about what will happen to you after death, or to let your thought dwell much upon the joys which you hope will then await you, may obviously be the most extreme form of this-worldliness; and it is essentially such if that life is conceived, not as profoundly different in kind from this, but only as more of much the same sort of thing...3
Lovejoy's insight leads us to suspect that both Sut and the preacher share the same worldly view, the only difference being that the preacher has been constrained by occasion while Sut has not.
The religion of the frontier tradition only seems to be otherworldly. When people in this tradition think of heaven, not with imagery that has come down from impoverished desert nomads -- pearly gates, streets of gold -- but with imagery derived from their own experience, they imagine a heaven very much like the place they know and are content with. The preacher on the Kentucky frontier is revealing in this respect when, endeavoring to picture heaven to his congregation, he exclaims: "Why, heaven is just a Kentucky of a place!" Certainly that is the conception of Big Eif Porter in Jesse Stuart's "300 Acres of Elbow Room." Big Eif, contemplating death, wishes for nothing different from what he already knows. His heaven is a transplanted Kentucky. "I hope there is a farm in heaven where I can work and I hope they have winter, summer, springtime and fall just like we have here."4
But if heaven in traditional Appalachian culture is often no more than the familiar, known world, the important thing is that this world and the next are nevertheless strictly separated. The varieties of Protestantism that have flourished in the region quite logically assume, given the premise of a transcendent God, a clear demarcation between this world and the next. There's a better world a-waiting, but it's off yonder in the sky. In the meantime, we are here, in this life, and we should not expect much help from God. Religion and life in this world do not have much to do with one another. Religion certainly has nothing to do with "worldly" things, but rather with "spiritual" things. The strict division between this world and the next can be noted in the views of people who have moved from Appalachia to midwestern and northern industrial centers. Robert Coles' A Festering Sweetness, a collection of "found" poems taken from transcripts of interviews with Appalachian and other migrants, contains two revealing statements in this regard, one from a mountaineer's wife, a resident of Chicago since 1967, and another from a Kentuckian on his way to Chicago in 1970. In Chicago the mountain woman felt truly godforsaken: "In Chicago God isn't right at your side," she says. But then she expects little help from God, in Chicago or back home in the mountains, because "God has more on his shoulders/than us in Down Bottom Creek." The man's views are similar but even more explicit with regard to the division between this world and the next. Although he is a Bible reader, and although he prays on his way to Chicago, he does not really expect help from God, and repeatedly tells himself not to expect too much, for, as he says,"God looks after you in the next world."5
This world and the next are still for the most part separate in the contemporary folk culture of the region. Consider the contents of a program of country music. Most of the program will be given over to the alternating joys and sorrows of fornication and adultery, and to the celebration of place ("Good Old Rockytop"). The program concludes typically with a "sacred" or "spiritual" number. Lester Flatt could routinely sing "I Live the Life of Riley -- When Riley's Not Around," and close with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" There is no inconsistency here. The program reflects an assumption of two spheres, this world and the next; the lack of transition or middle ground between them suggests the two realms have little to do with one another in spite of the fact that they are juxtaposed.
Nor is it necessarily important whether the otherworldly or the worldly view predominates. Both views are present, and strictly separated. The religious tradition has tended to remain separate from secular traditions. In the lives of individuals, particularly men, one frequently finds a secular phase followed by a religious one. The energies and enthusiasms of youth and one's more vigorous years are devoted to secular pursuits: drinking, fighting, fiddling, "swarping around." Later a man may become exceedingly devout, moving from the world of "Old Joe Clark" to that of "Amazing Grace."
The most vigorous literature of the Appalachian region, the writing which is an expression of the region and not a report on it, is concerned very much with things of this world, situated squarely in the secular realm. Literature is not "spiritual." It is "worldly." The earlier literature expressive of life in the region includes Davy Crockett's autobiography, Longstreet's Georgia Scenes, Harden E. Taliaferro's Fisher's River Scenes and Characters, and George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood Yarns. It is a literature reflecting frontier conditions and attitudes, oral secular traditions and is most alive in print when it deals with worldly matters: bear hunts; politicking; horse swapping; whiskey; brawling; play-parties; quiltings; corn shuckings; land speculating; gander pullings; fornication and adultery.
It may be that literature in Appalachia had no choice but to persist in a worldly, secular tradition, since fundamentalist Protestantism had no place for it. Traditional ballads were popularly known as "love songs" and were frowned upon -- still are -- by the devout. And those caught up in secular pursuits thought just as little of the devout and their activities. Play-parties and camp-meetings, quiltings and prayer-meetings were indicative of the two traditions. And the worldly preferred fornication to salvation. As Sut Lovingood observes in "Mrs. Yardley's Quilting":"One holesum quiltin am wuf three old pray'r-meetins on the poperlashun pint..."6
Sut's dislike of preachers stems partly from his keen sense of hypocrisy and injustice. In "Rare Ripe Garden Seed" he asks a preacher why it is that he, Sut, feels so good knowing he could never become a sheriff and
sell out widders' plunder, ur poor men's corn, and the thought of hit gives me a good feelin; hit sorter flashes thru my heart when I thinks of hit. I axed a parson onst, what hit cud be, an' be pernounced hit to be onregenerit pride, what I orter squelch in prayer, an' in tendin church on colleckshun days. I were in hopes hit might be religion, or sense, a-soakin intu me.
But Sut's abiding hostility toward religion is based, ultimately, on a thoroughly worldly view of things, a view which can be grimly naturalistic or deterministic. Sut observes that where there is not enough to eat, bigger children take from the smaller ones. Thus it is the world over, he generalizes; bishops eat elders; elders eat common people; common people eat cattle such as himself; he eats possums; possums eat chickens; chickens eat worms; worms eat dust; and dust is the end of it all.7
Sut denies the existence of the soul, of a beyond. Man is an animal, as his comparisons of children to pigs at a trough, of widows to smooth pacing mares, of himself to a rooster or a horse imply. The burial of Mrs. Yardley, killed when run over by a horse Sut has deliberately bolted, is no more to Sut than "a durn'd nasty muddy job," no more than salting her down, "fixin her fur rotten cumfurtably, kiverin her up wif sile (salt), tu keep the buzzards from cheating the wurms."8 Sut's view is, to say the least, a view of this world and no other.
How is this situation best understood? What critical concepts would be most fruitful in dealing with such a literature? A useful approach is based on the distinction made in traditional societies between myths and tales. Anthropologists such as Malinowski and students of myth such as Eliade have long known that members of traditional societies are careful to distinguish between their myths, which they consider "true" stories, and tales, which they consider "false" stories.
Myths and tales deal with different kinds of reality, and narrate different kinds of "histories." Myths narrate sacred history; tales secular history. The former deal with the realm of the holy, the supernatural, the transcendent, things absolute, unconditional and beyond time; they tell of the other world. Tales are generally concerned with everyday happenings and events in time. The teller of tales may introduce elements of the supernatural or imaginary creatures such as fairies and giants, but even when these elements occur there is a matter-of-factness about the story. For even when dealing in fantasy, the tale tends to remain within the limits of the familiar, everyday world. Wondrous things may happen, strange beings may appear, but they do so in familiar surroundings and circumstances. The teller of tales delights in and illuminates this world and the things of this world, makes them stand out and shine in the foreground. Tales stand in a secular tradition, and their tellers, even when they are extremely sophisticated, are folk artists employing literature to reveal, through art, what reality may obscure.9
Our ability to distinguish between myths and tales, and between different kinds of reality rendered by these fundamentally different types of telling, suggest that we might consider works of literature as expressions of two different traditions, one concerned with sacred history, the other with secular history. These two traditions, although they co-exist in a society, require different critical standards of judgment for their proper understanding and appreciation.
The worldly, secular tradition of Appalachian literature, rooted in the frontier experience, persists in the work of those "native voices" who began to be heard in the 1930's: Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, and James Still. The essentially worldly view of Big Eif Porter in Stuart's "300 Acres of Elbow Room," noted earlier, is more explicit in Stuart's story "Snake Teeth," a spoofing of otherworldly visions and powers: the otherworldly beliefs of the pretty female preacher are destroyed when the young man lets her believe the snake that strikes her repeatedly is poisonous,only to inform her afterward that the serpent was de-fanged, and therefore, harmless.10 In Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker, a novel about mountaineer migrants,emphasis is increasingly on things of this world, not of the next. 11 Like the mountaineer migrants to Chicago interviewed by Robert Coles, the novel's heroine, Gertie Nevals, feels godforsaken. Increasingly caught up in a bewildering and brutal web of worldly circumstances, she makes dolls to earn money and is unable to finish her carving of Christ because she can no longer visualize Christ's face. The otherworldly vision is dimmed and rendered impossible, in an almost deterministic fashion, by harsh and unrelenting circumstances of this world.
In the poems, short stories and novels of James Still one finds the most artful expression of the worldly, secular tradition of Appalachian literature, as well as the clearest and most emphatic distinction between worldly and otherworldly views. Still's earthy hill folk typically assume the existence of a beyond. Brother Sim Mobberly, in the novel River of Earth, is a mountain preacher who, when he preaches the funeral of the Baldridge baby, says: "We have come together to ask the blessed Savior one thing pine-blank. Can a leetle child enter the Kingdom of Heaven?"12 But while the novel accommodates this otherworldly view, other characters offer little affirmation of it. The notion of a beyond is irrelevant to their immediate concerns -- and to the novel's thematic and imagistic structure.
Still's people are rooted in this world. No less than plants and animals, they are a part of the landscape, their lives shaped by natural forces, conditions and cycles. Their lives are dusty with the land. Their experiences are such that the notion of a beyond is necessarily peripheral to the press of immediate needs. They subsist, persevere, and survive in this world. The father in River of Earth assumes a beyond but advises his son, the narrator: "There ain't no sense trying to see afar off...It's better to keep your eyeballs on things nigh, and let the rest come according to law and prophecy" (p. 16) Anticipating her own death, the grandmother leaves instructions for her burial that are, like her son Jolly's view of death, matter-of-fact, and determined more by relationships in this world than by any considerations involving an afterlife. Feeling neglected by her family, she says bitterly:
When my dying day comes I'm right willing to be hauled straight to Flat Creek burying ground and put beside my man, buried down and kivered against (before) any o' my blood kin was told. My chaps won't come when I'm sick and pindly; they hain't use in coming to see me lay a corpse (p. 70)
When she dies, her grandson, the narrator, has no notion of her having gone to heaven. He can only visualize her "in the dark of my head where I could see her living face." He asks: "Grandma...where have you gone?"(p. 127)
Here the narrator echoes the word he used when his grandmother mysteriously disappeared from the house and he feared she might be dead. "She (the grandmother) was gone and I couldn't think where" (p. 77) The narrator's question, "Grandma...where have you gone?" also recalls questions asked by Brother Sim Mobberly, the preacher; by his mother; and by his Uncle Jolly. In a sermon Brother Mobberly speaks of the hills as "jist dirt waves" and asks: "...where air we going on this mighty river of earth....? Where air it sweeping us?" (pp.42-43). The mother complains of "Forever moving yon and back, settling down nowhere for good and all, searching for god knows what....Where air we expecting to draw up to?" (p.30). While teaching the young narrator to plow, Uncle Jolly asks: "What's folks going to live on when these hills wear down to a nub?"(p. 71)
Brother Mobberly's vision of a "mighty river of earth" and of this hills as "jist dirt waves, washing through eternity" may seem quite otherworldly in contrast to the very practical and worldly concerns of the narrator's mother, who longs to settle down, and of his Uncle Jolly, who speculates about the effects of soil erosion. Yet while Brother Mobberly in his person and actions represents an otherworldly point of view -- namely, fundamentalist Christianity -- his words actually express a natural cycle of birth, reproduction and death -- a cycle which requires no other world, no beyond, for its completion. Mobberly's vision is, futhermore, of a river of earth. Death does not translate people into another realm; rather, the dead continue on the river with the living. Mobberly describes humanity as moving on "this mighty river of earth, a -borning, begetting, and a-dying -- the living and the dead riding the waters" (p. 43)
The young narrator's question at the end of the novel, "Grandma...where have you gone?," seems already to be implicitly answered in Mobberly's sermon and by the cumulative impact of detail woven into the cyclical structure of the novel. Early on the narrator witnesses the birth of a colt and knows for the first time "the pain of flesh coming into life." The colt dies, leaving him "bitter with loss" (p. 20) At the end of the novel, when his grandmother's coffin is hauled away, he observes wagon tracks that mark "where death had come into our house and gone again" (p. 127). At that moment a new-born baby cries in another room of the house. Between these two scenes -- the birth of a colt, followed by its death and the death of the grandmother, followed immediately by the birth of a child -- between these two scenes the natural cycle of birth, reproduction and death described in Brother Mobberly's sermon is repeatedly emphasized. Because the family is on the verge of starvation, the father hunts rabbits in the spring. While cleaning a rabbit the father has killed, Eulv, the narrator's sister, finds "four little ones in its warm belly" (p. 10). This interruption of the natural cycle serves to emphasize it. The father, in response to his wife's complaint about the difficulty of raising guineas, generalizes about the inevitability of premature death: "Bounden to lose some," he says. "It's the same with folks. Hain't everybody lives to rattle their bones. Hain't everybody breathes till their veins get blue as dogtick stalks" (p.32). His observation is borne out in the death of one of his own children, from croup, the following spring (p.88). Shortly before the grandmother dies, the narrator, living with his family in a coal camp, goes to a neighbor hoping to see two blind mules. But the mules have "been tuck away," he learns. They were "Old, blind, and puny," the neighbor explains, and because they required so much feed and times were hard, they had to be "put out of their misery." The narrator is disbelieving. "Gone?" he asks. (His question anticipates "Grandma...where have you gone?") Again he asks, "Gone?" and the answer comes, "Gone to dirt." The repetition of the word "gone," together with other verbal echoes (the mules are "old, blind, and puny," the grandmother is "sick and pindly") link the death of the mules and the death of the grandmother (p.119)
Closely identified with the earth, the hill people of James Still's poems and prose narratives are subject to the same natural conditions -- often harsh and perilous -- as plants and animals. People and place are rendered as parts of one subtly interdependent whole. The condition of people in the poem "Spring on Troublesome Creek" resembles that of the animals and plants that have also endured winter: "We are no thinner than a hound or mare,/Or an unleaved poplar.We have come through/To grass, to the cows calving in the lot."13. Such consistent identification of people with their natural environment serves to root people in this world no less than trees. Still expresses this sense of identification with a particular spot of earth, this sense of rooted attachment, in the poem, "Heritage:""Being of these hills, I cannot pass beyond."14
Though rooted in a particular environment, Still's people are forever journeying through the world. (The motif of the journey is implicit in the central "river of earth" vision). Still's characters are frequently eager for a view of the wider world, for the experience described in the poem "Apple Trip" as "a worldly wonder."15 The young narrator of River of Earth models himself after a local legendary figure, Walking John Gay, described as "traipsing and trafficking, looking the world over" (p. 30). The boy dreams of "going to the scrag end of creation" (p. 76). After his father moves the family into a coal camp, the narrator says: "I tramped the camp over. I saw what there was to see" (p. 116).
But for all their interest in "Worldly wonders," Still's people do not wish to pass permanently beyond the boundaries of their familiar, known place. In fact, journeying out into the world serves only to heighten the sense of belonging to one familiar spot of earth. Leaving home, the narrator of Sporty Creek says: "I experienced a yearning I could not name. I knew that Sporty Creek would forever beckon me."16 In the poem "White Highways" the speaker has "gone out to the roads that go up and down/In smooth white lines." But like the mother in River of Earth, who yearns to "set down in a lone spot, a place certain and enduring," he has come home with a sense of the wider world, happy to live quietly now in peace "curved with space/Brought back again to this warm homing place."17
The attempt to reach a "warm homing place" is the subject of one of Still's finest stories,"The Nest." A little girl, Nezzie Hargis, becomes lost trying to cross a ridge to stay with her aunt and uncle. The actual terrain Nezzie covers is limited; she is never far either from her home or from that of her relatives. Yet her small world symbolizes the great world, her failed attempt to cross the ridge capsulizes the metaphorical journey from childhood to adulthood. ("Be a little woman," her father had told her when he sent her over the ridge.) Nezzie dies from exposure on the ridge, where wind "flowed with the sound of water" through trees, and within sound of her father's fox horn -- details suggesting she is one with the living and the dead riding the waters" of the river of earth.18
Even when journeys to imaginary or otherworldly places are dealt with in Still's work, he renders them (in the tradition of the teller of tales or "false" stories) in familiar worldly terms. The imaginary Biggety Creek in the story "Mrs. Razor" is a whimsical parody of a very familiar world. For Biggety Creek, the father tells his children, is a place where "heads are the size of water buckets, where noses are turned up like old shoes, women wear skillets for hats, and men screw their breeches on, and where people are so proper they eat with little fingers pointing, and one pea at a time."19 In Jack and the Wonder Bean, Still's re-telling of Jack and the Beanstalk (a quintessentially "false" story), the giant, though he lives in another world at the top of the beanstalk, is rendered in terms familiar to an Appalachian Jack. The giant has "feet like cornsleds, hands like hams, fingernails to match bucketlids, and the meanest eye ever beheld in this earthly world."20 As a critic has pointed out, the use of such details to describe this "larger-than-life creature allow the giant to come closer to the familiar, making the story more of this 'earthly world."21
In one instance Still deals with a situation in which the distinction between "this earthly world" and the next is brought into question. The result is a short story, "The Sharp Tack," which is both humorous and instructive regarding the worldly orientation of Appalachian literature. Jerb Powell, a mountain preacher, writes to Talt Evarts, who has recently returned from service in World War II, to warn the returned soldier he is within "singing distance of hell-fire and eternal damnation" for claiming to have been to the Holy Land. The Reverend Powell is upset by Evarts' claim because, as he explains, he has spent half his life preaching that "only the dead and the saved ever journey to that Country....The Holy Land is yonder in the sky and there's no road to it save by death and salvation."
For the Reverend Powell the Holy Land is one of the "true" stories -- a sacred myth; it is, in fact, the most important of the true stories. He is not distressed by other tales returning soldiers tell. For instance, when Powell's grandson claims to have climbed a tower in Italy called Pisa, that was "out of whanker, leaning on air, against nature and the plan of the Almighty," or when others tell stories of seeing twenty-foot snakes in Africa or of a tombstone in Egypt that covers thirteen acres, the preacher is tolerant and understanding. These are just exaggerations. "Wonders grow a mite big in their mouths." The soldier boys are just "trying to see how big (they) could blow the pig's bladder before it bust." These are "false" stories (like Jack and the Beanstalk, or like the father's tale of Biggety Creek in "Mrs. Razor"), relatively harmless because they do not blur the distinction between things of this world and the next.
The Reverend Powell's geography and general knowledge of the world may be imperfect, but his theology is sound. His God is transcendent (The Man Up Yonder). and everything associated with Him, the Holy Land included, belongs not to this world but to the next. When the Reverend Powell loses the respect of local people as a result of his interpretation of the Holy Land, he seems to modify his view. He writes to Evarts:
I'm not claiming now you didn't go to a country bearing the name "Holy Land." I'm a fellow with brains enough to turn around when I've learned I'm headed in the wrong direction. What lodges in my craw is the mixing of Up Yonder with a place in this world.
His way out of this personal and theological dilemma is to conclude that "the Holy Land on earth is a namesake of the Country above," an interpretation which saves face yet preserves the all-important distinction between true stories and false stories, and between this world and the next.22
Still's "The Sharp Tack" suggests that the firmer and more fervent the belief in the next world, the starker will be the distinction between things of this world and those things which have to do with the beyond. In such a situation, a worldly literature of "false" stories will be worldly with a vengeance (though Still's Reverend Powell is dealt with more gently than is George Washington Harris's Parson Bullen, who must endure the merciless Sut Lovingood and his lizards).< br> But from its beginnings in the frontier experience and in oral traditions, literature of the Appalachian region has been a worldly literature in the tradition of the "false story or secular "history". From Sut Lovingood's revenge on Parson Bullen to the Reverend Powell's theological dilemma (posed by Talt Evarts' visit to the Holy Land) the literature of Appalachia has persisted in the folk mode, very much at home in this world, concerned with what Fred Chappell has called "the literary possibilities of the obvious." The poems, short stories and novels of James Still are a distinguished, unified body of work, at once unique and universal, illuminating a particular place, people and way of life by providing a poetic vision of the facts. Still's Appalachian hill folk, swept along the "mighty river of earth," constitute a metaphor for the essential human experience.23
1. Jack E. Weller, Yesterday's
People (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1965). See
also Weller's "Salvation is Not Enough," Mountain Life & Work,
(March, 1969), pp.9-13.
Thanks to Sandy Hudock for sharing this essay, which can also be found on her website for James Still.