|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 8 (1991)|
Since the 1930s, when leading magazines and journals discussed
regionalism in its many manifestations, regional approaches to
American experience have typically been considered outmoded. In
the early 1970s an influential literary critic declared that there
were no longer any regions in America (Hoagland 17).
The conventional wisdom came to be that improved means of travel
and communication would eradicate any remaining regional differences.
Yet in the last years of the twentieth century we have less and
less reason to consider regions and regional variations to be
isolated, archaic survivals in a standardizing country. For not
only in America, but all over the world, people are rediscovering
their regions and provinces. Renewed interest in regions has been
characterized as world-wide "local centripetalism" (Troike
2). Throughout the 1970s, Joel Garreau discovered, new realities
of power and people were making the North American continent into
nine different "nations."
According to Harold Isaacs (1), new realities of power and people
are causing us to experience "on a massively universal scale
a convulsive ingathering of people in their numberless groupings
in kinds -- tribal, racial, linguistic, religious, national."
Isaacs finds that the relative positions of the individual and
the group have shifted in contemporary society, a fact which "touches
the bedrock of the whole American system..." While our system
is based on the rights of the individual, individuals are coming
to new perceptions of themselves as members of groups and claiming
rights, not as individuals, but as members of groups. This new
relationship of the one to the many has implications of regional
According to Rene Dubos, "we are beginning to witness a revival
of regionalism that will complement the global point of view"
(10). The world of forty or fifty years from now, Dubos believes,
will be One World, but it will include many local worlds within
it. We need these local worlds because "human beings require
more than health and emotional security." Human life is also
made up of "emotional and spiritual satisfactions that have
their origins in our contacts with our physical world and social
These local worlds are the immediate communities in which we live.
They are made necessary, paradoxically, because nation-states,
and the industrialized world everywhere, do not provide a sufficient
sense of community. E.D. Hirsch stresses this point in Cultural
Literacy when he writes, "Localism is constantly being
reinvented all over the world, since the large, modern national
state does not and cannot lend enough social glue or emotional
meaning to satisfy the human desire for community" (96).
Our communities are already, and in the future will increasingly
be what Habits of the Heart refers to as "communities
of memory," places whose people are bound together by an
understanding of a common past, a shared history and heritage.
The markers for such communities will continue to be, to varying
degrees, linguistic distinctiveness -- regional speech and dialectical
usage. For just as distinctive speech patterns constitute a boundary
that excludes some people, the same boundary includes others and
identifies them as members of a speech community. In the tenth
canto of The Divine Comedy, Dante, escorted through a region
of hell by Virgil, is overheard speaking in his Tuscan dialect
by one of the souls enduring torture there, who calls out to Dante:
"O Tuscan! thou, who through the city of fire/ Alive art
passing, so discreet of speech: / Here, please thee, stay awhile.
Thy utterance/ Declares the place of thy nativity." The condemned
soul is so charmed by the sound of his native speech that, for
a while at least, he is able to forget the tortures of hell as
he converses with Dante. Language, to a significant degree, defines,
creates, and maintains a sense of community, as the unknown author
of these doggerel lines on the expression "you-all"
You-all means a race or section,Often we are strangely comforted and reassured by the familiar way a person speaks, even if we disagree with what is said. "Home in the twentieth century," the journalist Dave Hickey observes, "is less where your heart is, than where you understand the sons-of-bitches" (Garreau vi).
Family, party, tribe, or clan;
You-all means the whole connection
Of the individual man. (Bartlett 922)
There are encouraging signs that American educators are more favorably
inclined to give serious attention to regional and local perspectives
than they have been within the past half century. In an essay
entitled "To Rootless Professors," Eric Zencey, a professor
of history and philosophy at Goddard College, signals a changed
attitude. For too long, Zencey writes, American college and university
professors have fancied themselves "citizens of some mythic
'world city' or cosmopolis." As a result, many professors
may be "systematically blind to some of the crucial elements
of an integrated life -- the life that is one of the primary goals
of a liberal arts education -- and to the values of connectedness
to place." College and university professors have typically
asked their students to "renounce citizenship in the political
and biotic communities of their homes and to embrace citizenship
in the world city of ideas and culture that their education offers
them," without realizing that they are asking students to
give up "real and immediate connections in favor of abstraction."
Zencey challenges professors to overcome their "prejudice
against the local and provincial"; to "take the trouble
to include local content in courses"; to "take more
seriously the regional branches of professional organizations
in our various disciplines"; and to acquire "dual citizenship
-- in the world of ideas and also in the very real counties, states,
regions and ecosystems in which we find ourselves." Zencey
calls for cosmopolitan educators who exemplify ...a successful
resolution of the tension between the local and the universal"
Zencey's views parallel those of the poet Gary Snyder, whose recommendations
for effective citizenship begin with a consideration of community
as a physical place. It is not possible, Snyder writes, to make
things better "without our feet on the ground. Stewardship
means, for most of us, find your place on the planet, dig in and
take responsibility from there." Snyder's conception of citizenship
assumes work at the community level -- the
tangible work of school boards, county supervisors, local foresters, local politics. Even while holding in mind the largest scale of potential change. Get a sense of a workable territory, learn about it, and start acting point by point. (101)The Appalachian region of America is a workable territory: it is a definable place on the planet where citizens can dig in and take responsibility, where work at the level of local community is compatible with national and international perspectives. The Appalachian region is one of those potential "communities of memory and hope" considered so important by Robert Bellah and the other authors of Habits of the Heart. This is especially true because Appalachian America, according to the historian Carl Degler, has an interesting and complex triple history. The region has the double history shared by all Southerners -- a history as Southerners and as Americans. Additionally, southern Appalachia has a history of its own, as neither North nor South, as a borderland America, a place between places.
In southern Appalachia, America's first frontier, many different
groups came together: the English and Scotch-Irish, the Swiss,
the German, the French, together with Native Americans and Blacks.
In southern Appalachia two different economies and cultures mingled:
the planter economy and culture of the lowland South, and the
economy and culture of the small, independent farmer. This mingling
of economies and cultures, nationalities and ethnic groups, made
the region, according to the historian T.J. Wertenbaker, "a
test laboratory of American civilization" (219).
Southern Appalachia was and still is a test laboratory for American
life. In the nineteenth century Cassius Clay considered the people
of the mountain South supporters of freedom because they owned
land but few slaves (Peck 4, 64). And today one of the things
being tested is whether or not -- as Robert Coles suspects --
there is something redemptive for all America in the experiences,
the values, the culture, the "community of memory" known
as southern Appalachia.
In years past many young college- and university- trained people
from southern Appalachia have had to go outside their region to
find opportunities in professions. Regrettably, higher education
has often effectively cut these persons off from their communities
and people. A mother from Blackey, Kentucky, expressed what many
parents have felt over the years when she said, commenting on
the exodus of young people: "We lose our purpose when we
lose our children... they...become citizens of nowhere" (Reck
In recent years, it has been increasingly possible for college-
and university-trained people from the regions to find opportunities
within southern Appalachia. This may become increasingly the case,
for southern Appalachia has many needs -- health care professionals,
teachers, nurses, trained professionals in local government, community
workers of all kinds. The efforts of humanities educators in the
southern Appalachian region can contribute to a "community
of memory and hope." As teachers of history, literature,
economics, political science, and other disciplines associated
with the humanities, the region's educators can help replace "citizens
of nowhere" with citizens of somewhere -- citizens of communities
constituted by both space and time, and by a sense of history
and collective experience, ultimately creating an understanding
that individual good and the welfare of the total community are
Our writers contribute significantly to our awareness of ourselves
as people of a region and of a particular community. For in contemporary
America, just as they have done in all times and places, writers
function as creators and sustainers of communities of memory.
Writers, John Updike has pointed out recently, instruct the community
in matters of tribal identity: "Who we are, who our heroic
fathers were, how we got where we are, why we believe what we
believe and act the way we do -- these are all questions the writer
deals with, whether in poems, songs, or stories that serve as
memory banks" (23).
A recent collection of stories by Wendell Berry provides a contemporary
example of this ancient function of the writer as creator and
sustainer of the community. Berry's collection, The Wild Birds,
bears the sub-title, "Six stories of the Port William Membership,"
an allusion to the collection's theme of interdependence, the
notion that the people of Berry's fictional Port William are all
responsible to and for one another, and to their place. In these
stories, not only those who happen to be living at the moment
have a say in things, but also the dead and the yet unborn. They
are all -- the living, the dead, and the yet to be born of that
place -- part of a membership. As a character, Burly Coulter,
observes in the title story, "We are members of each other.
All of us. Everything. The difference ain't in who is a member
and who is not, but in who knows it and who don't" (136-37).
It is from such communities of memory as those found in the writing
of Berry and other American writers with a strong sense of their
place and their connection to it that we are most likely to recover
and carry forward our sense of community.
These writers may hasten the collective realization that our regions
are as much a part of our present -- and future -- as they are
of our past. Our regions may yet come to be seen, as Donald Davidson
saw them, "as a process of differentiation within geographic
limits...predestined in the settlement of our continental area"
(243). Both writers and humanities scholars can contribute to
a cosmopolitan regionalism whose outlines we are beginning to
see -- a regionalism combining real and immediate connections
with globally applicable ideas, a regionalism which requires of
each of us a dual citizenship in the world of ideas and in our
communities, localities, states, regions, and countries.
Bartlett, John. Familiar Quotations. Edited by Emily Morrison
Beck. 125th Anniversary Ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980.
Bellah, Robert, et al. Habits of the Heart. Individualism and
Commitment in American Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Berry, Wendell. The Wild Birds. San Francisco: North Point
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy. Tr. Henry F. Cary.
New York: P.F. Collier, 1937.
Davidson, Donald. The Attack on Leviathan. Gloucester,
MA: Peter Smith, 1962.
Dubos, Rene. "Recycling Social Man." Saturday Review/World
24 Aug. 1974: 8-10.
Garreau, Joel. The Nine Nations of North America. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Cultural Literacy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
Hoagland, John. "But Where is Home?" New York Times
Book Review 32 December 1973: 17-19.
Isaacs, Harold. Idol of the Tribe. New York: Harper &
Peck, Elizabeth S. Berea's First 125 Years: 1855-1980.
With a final chapter by Emily Ann Smith. Lexington: UP of Kentucky,
Reck, Una Mae Lange, and Gregory R. Reck. "Living is More
Important than Schooling: Schools and Self Concept in Appalachia."
Appalachian Journal 8.1 (1980): 19-25.
Snyder, Gary. Turtle Island. New York: New Directions,
Troike, Rudolph C. "The Future of English." The Linguistic
Reporter May 1977: 1-5.
Updike, John. "The Writer Lectures." The New York
Review of Books 16 June 1988: 23-27.
Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson. The Old South. New York:
Cooper Square, 1963.
Zencey, Eric. "The Rootless Professors." The Chronicle of Higher Education 12 June 1985: 72.
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Dr. Harold D. Tallant, Department of History, Georgetown College
400 East College Street, Georgetown, KY 40324, (502) 863-8075