Thursday, March 09, 2006

Encyclopedia of Appalachia offers realistic picture of region

By Staff and wire report
Kingsport Times-News

Encyclopedia of Appalachia co-editor Rudy Abramson wanted a reference book that went beyond the stereotypical images of hillbillies and poverty.

"The place has this reputation of being just a different nation of poor people and strip mines and that sort of thing," said Abramson, an Alabama native and retired Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

He wanted to help create a more realistic picture of Appalachia's history and natural diversity. It was a project that took a decade to complete.

The finished work - the first general reference work on Appalachia - has just gone on sale through the University of Tennessee Press for $79.95 a copy. It's a single 1,832-page volume weighing nearly 8 pounds. 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.

"In subsequent centuries, even after the mountains came to be cherished for their awe-inspiring beauty and appreciated as places of inspiration and recreation, mountain dwellers themselves never fared as well as the scenery," according to the encyclopedia.

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 ETSU 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," Abramson said.

"I think the upshot of it is - the total picture - is a region that is a hell of a lot more complex and interesting than most people inside it and damn near everybody outside it think," he said.

The project abounds with ties to ETSU. Current CASS Director Roberta Herrin noted that the section editors include Dr. Theresa Lloyd of the ETSU Department of English, lending her expertise in literature, and Dr. Kevin O'Donnell, also of the English department, overseeing the section focused on the environment. Dr. Ted Olson, who teaches courses in Appalachian studies, English and the master of arts in liberal studies program, edited the music section, and Dr. Pamela Zahorik, former ETSU faculty member, was among those who helped shape the health category.

ETSU staff members Ned Irwin and Charles Moore, along with former staffer Nancy Fischman, contributed as assistant editors and researchers.

Johnson Citian Jill Oxendine served as the managing editor and handled day-to-day operations.

The advisory board includes former Sen. Howard Baker, author and Tennessee State Historian Wilma Dykeman, Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr., ETSU alumnus Bill Kovack, historian David McCullough, former ETSU President Roy Nicks and novelist Lee Smith.

Fund raising has begun to supply a copy of the encyclopedia to every public school library in the region, but there are no immediate plans for an online edition.

For more information about the encyclopedia or how it may be purchased, contact the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at 423-439-7865, by e-mail at or visit online.


  1. That looks like an interesting book.

    My sister had to take a course about mountain culture or Appalachian studies for her social work degree at ETSU. She said she thought it was kind of funny that she had to study it since she had already lived it, but that she learned some things too.