Out of the Woods: Appalachia, Literature, and the American Dream

Portraying the misunderstood region from the outside in

Driving down I-79 the steel bridges of Pittsburgh give way to peak and valley country, more than rolling hills it’s the dipped land of heft and hollows. Less than eight miles over the border of Pennsylvania into West Virginia, the evidence of mining cuts through rock. Ten minutes south are exits for the state’s flagship university, brick and stone buildings built into hillsides. On game day, the football stadium is more populous than any other place within West Virginia. The further south one travels, the more extraction industries have left their mark, and south of the “chemical valley” tucked against the state capital, the southern coalfields of West Virginia show the scars of that industry, dotted with slurry pools and little towns that hang on by a prayer and a Wal-Mart.

The southern coalfields of West Virginia show the scars of that industry, dotted with slurry pools and little towns that hang on by a prayer and a Wal-Mart.

Where there are rivers, rafting or whitewater boating and other outdoor activities become tourist dollars in the temperate months. Rivers, like the Elk, can reflect pristine beauty or be polluted at a moment’s notice, smelling sickly of licorice. Even when 300,000 in West Virginia were without useable water, one has to wonder who outside really noticed. Two years after the Elk River spill, Flint, Michigan’s lead-tainted water is an eerie reminder that we’ve been poor stewards of our environment and our precious resource. Though not in the same region, the Elk River and the Flint River flow as ruined reminders of forgotten places, pitted by loss of jobs, economic uncertainty, longing for solutions but coming up short.

The West Virginia writer Ann Pancake writes of her home state, “The devastation of my place is bald, unambiguous, and impossible to explain away as ‘natural’ or temporary or repairable.” This was before the Elk River spill. She also writes, “I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads.” I think this view of art can be instructive not only in Appalachia, but in our larger American culture.

Often, I am reticent to write about West Virginia, because my view feels complicated, and I don’t want my words to ring inauthentic. In experiencing Appalachia my vantage point is outside-in; while I have family roots in West Virginia and have lived in the state for over ten years, I’m not a native and didn’t spend my formative years here. Still, there is something that pulls me in and I can’t fully explain why. A neighbor flies a Confederate flag, a symbol that chills me. In spring I eagerly await the thriving farmers market, which is about more than food; it is a vestige of hope and a sense of community. I visit whitewater-filled and mountain-peaked state parks, the closed insane asylum, the still-active Fiestaware factory, the World’s Largest Tea Pot, nestled in a roundabout where highways meet and a gas station offers the only available parking.

Often, I am reticent to write about West Virginia, because my view feels complicated, and I don’t want my words to ring inauthentic.

I see this place not solely from the outsider’s perspective and experience it not quite as someone from within the folds. Regardless of my vantage point, I am not immune to the derogatory stereotypes that allow those from outside the region to pass judgement upon it. The Appalachian Studies and History scholar, Ronald D. Eller traces many of these stereotypes back to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign in West Virginia, when the media portrayed the region’s ruralness and poverty as contradicting popular notions of an affluent America. Appalachia, in the minds of many Americans, failed to live up to the newly-consumerized American Dream, somehow blocked from the prosperity embraced elsewhere in the country. Many assumed it had to be the backward locals.

Eller wrote in his 2008 book, Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, that these now-ingrained cultural ideas of Appalachia as some “other place” that didn’t follow mainstream progress that has “allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.” He argues that “Appalachia was not different from the rest of America; it was in fact a mirror of what the nation was becoming.” That Eller’s history was published in 2008, as the nation careened into financial collapse, was perhaps, prescient, as the nation, much as we have experienced in Appalachia, continues to erode its middle class, lose its good, steady jobs, while the gulf between the small community of so-called one-percenters widens ever greater from the larger pool of have-nots.

Appalachia, in the minds of many Americans, failed to live up to the newly-consumerized American Dream, somehow blocked from the prosperity embraced elsewhere in the country.

In places like West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and eastern Kentucky, the inequities also played out in the use of land. One can hardly drive highways in this region without seeing “Friends of Coal” license plates or bumper stickers. We call the industry King Coal, and even as his reign showed signs of collapsed, our politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, bowed slavishly to the throne of black diamonds. Not just national but global demand for cheap energy led to hillsides dotted with “Coal Keeps the Lights On” signage, and in pursuit of “lights-on,” the mountains of Appalachia propelled surface mining and mountaintop removal at an unprecedented rate. Companies co-opted national pride, named themselves Patriot Coal and Freedom Industries, monikers meant to evoke patriotism to extractive not sustainable work. And they were, for the most part, owned from the outside.

Here, in Appalachia, to protect the environment became unpatriotic, against the values of growth, and against the national appetite for consumption, and certainly not in line with the American Dream’s myth of prosperity.

Here, in Appalachia, to protect the environment became unpatriotic, against the values of growth, and against the national appetite for consumption, and certainly not in line with the American Dream’s myth of prosperity. Eller reminds us that “In Appalachia, as much as in any other part of America, the false choice between jobs and the environment divided communities, pitting personal economic against the common good, short term gain against long-term survival.” During the Elk River spill, I remember a woman calling in to a West Virginia Public Radio program asking when people would stop having to choose between good water and good jobs.

Hope in Appalachia is imperfect and hard won, and recent fiction writing from the experience of the region depicts the difficulties of this region. Meet Dawn Jewell, the narrator and protagonist of Robert Gipe’s illustrated novel, Trampoline (Ohio University Press, 2016). Dawn is bright, funny, confused; she finds herself pulled into the fight to save a local mountain in her native (and fictional) Canard County, Kentucky in the state’s eastern coalfields. Her kin and community work the mines, her mother’s an addict after the loss of her father who was killed in a mine, and Dawn, only fifteen, finds her teenage confusion wrapped up in the blight of her community. “I was a freak, soft and four-eyed with black fingernail polish, a dead daddy, a drunk momma, a crackhead brother, outlaw uncles, and divorced grandparents who made trouble for normal people every time they come off the ridge.” It would be easy to place Dawn Jewell with other trouble teens of literature — a modern day, Hillbilly Holden Caulfield, pointing out all the phonies. That, perhaps, would lessen her impact. Dawn is a character drawn from the strife of Appalachia, and her appeal to us as readers — why we cheer her on — feels like the same reason we wish to show Appalachia as more nuanced and complex than stereotypes would suggest.

Dawn Jewell struggles to find her place in a place that struggles with itself. She is built from the strife, both being representative of her community and struggling mightily to find her place in it. She is the inside-outsider, one that is not wholly accepted by the people she most identifies with, and the conflicts of the region play out in her story. It isn’t as if Dawn wants to stay. “I was chickenshit was what I was,” Dawn says of herself, “That was why I was back in this shitty spookhouse county. Without the courage of my convictions, Mamaw would say.”

But later, she tells us, “I was never going to get out from under this place.” The American Dream, one might say, has passed her by, and her unwillingness to leave the place of her origin could easily be ascribed as culprit. Yet, in Gipe’s rendering, Dawn’s journey is as internal as anything else, and her desire to fit into her community is a strong theme of what it is to be American. There are places other than Appalachia where the people stay, despite hardship, because it is home. Being an outsider, and feeling dislocated even in a familiar place, becomes a key part of Dawn’s story.

Where does Dawn Jewell belong, if not as a member of her own community?

If we look to the literature of Appalachia, it’s not hard to spot this rub between being from a community and being at odds with it.

If we look to the literature of Appalachia, it’s not hard to spot this rub between being from a community and being at odds with it. Young people, in particular, find themselves in the crosshairs. In Jonathan Corcoran’s story collection, The Rope Swing (West Virginia University Press, 2016), we meet Christopher, a character in the book’s title story. Again, like Dawn Jewell, Christopher is teenaged, feeling trapped within his surrounding, which are also being destroyed through lack of land protection. “The new highway, on the other hand, just two miles to the east but out of sight, has four level lanes paved into the bombed-out heart of mountains. The ledges that frame both sides of that highway bear the jagged marks of explosives — artificial striations slicing across the once-impenetrable rock.” To get out of this place or to make one’s way through it takes environmental damage. As he considers the ways in and out physically, Christopher, who grapples with a growing understanding that he is gay, also understand that he, too, is both inside and out:

Just as soon as he imagines this life, he wills himself to forget it. The more time he spends at the river with Greg, the more he feels himself floating away from the things he understands. This is both exhilarating and painful. A moment of bliss, and then an evening of aching. He is a split self: his visible body and his hidden blood.

The split self — that which belongs to Appalachia and that which yearns to be free of it — can be seen as something particular to the region.

The split self — that which belongs to Appalachia and that which yearns to be free of it — can be seen as something particular to the region. With its above average poverty rates and lack of economic future, the closed feeling of its communities, it might be easy to say it’s an Appalachian problem. But if Eller is right, there might be more to learn from these characters that can speak to America proper. Who, in these times since the 2008 financial crisis, or perhaps even before that, felt a strong sense of belonging in these United States of America, to the communities in which they live? As people flocked to buy cookie-cutter homes, perhaps they spent in search of that sense of belonging, of community. When that crumbled, as foreclosures became a national discussion, perhaps a kind of erosion took place, and that characters like Christopher and Dawn offer a map as to how to confront it.

Ironically, it’s Appalachia’s “wild and wonderful” places that offer outsiders some sense of peace or fulfillment. Eller, in speaking about the region’s economic turn towards ecotourism, writes, “The flood of suburban tourists seeking to renew their relationship with the natural world passed young people along the highway leaving the mountains in search of better lives in the cities from which the urban refugees had fled.” Should we cheer Christopher and Dawn on to pilgrimages outside the region? One might say it would be impossible. As Eller reminds us, “Insiders and outsiders alike consumed the electricity generated by coal from surface mines that destroyed forest and decapitated mountains forever. Everyone searched for some connection to place.” Eller finds a name for folks like myself — neo-Appalachians, and along with new and old, suggests we’re tied together by the powerlessness caused by social, environmental and cultural consequences of rampant consumerism. We have become, he says, “voices of powerless people struggling to survive in a changing world.” Again, we cannot see the American Dream. Perhaps, though, if there is one overarching reason to read contemporary literature, is that the powerless find their voices.

In one of her illustrated panels, Dawn Jewell says, “I wanted out of the woods.” As she makes her walk, Dawn shows us what she sees:

A field opened up in front of me. It was the last beautiful bottom in Canard County, the last place to see how it was for the first white people, the last pocket pasture with its deep dark dirt, the last one that wasn’t road, wasn’t trailer park, wasn’t cigarettes for sale, wasn’t fucked-up mining equipment piled all archeological. But this last one was going to be our new high school football field. I crossed the field, climbed the horse fence that bound it, thinking how if you, if I had been a Cherokee, a Shawnee, we would have dreamed to see buffalo, to see elk, on that field and would have through a farmer’s field no better than a car wash.

I crossed that field, done thinking I could see my happiness by the week hour waterlight.

In this soliloquy, Dawn forces herself and us by extension to take stock of what we have lost in pursuit of the illusive American Dream. She finds her most true self in confronting this loss, a cold comfort for one who defines herself so much against all that is around her. And yet, in this imagining, she finds a sense of calm. Otherwise, Dawn is surrounded by chaos, and it is imagination that allows her respite. She can’t relate to her brother, her mother, her uncle, or even in the grassroots activism of her Mamaw. Thought connected to each, her sense of self reaches beyond what her family or community can give her.

At school the popular click brands Dawn a freak, which isn’t so much different than the view of her family. So completely isolated, she muses that her mother’s laugh had once been pretty, but that memory, like others, is tainted, “the past came in on me like the smell from a busted sewer line.” Soon after she falls asleep, Dawn awakes to her own Momma stealing her paycheck from a part-time job at a fast food joint.

While many of the stories in The Rope Swing show a view of Appalachia through the lens of characters who are also gay, it wouldn’t give the book it’s just due to call it only a view of “gay Appalachia.”

While many of the stories in The Rope Swing show a view of Appalachia through the lens of characters who are also gay, it wouldn’t give the book it’s just due to call it only a view of “gay Appalachia.” In fact, it speaks to the same gutting of community we see from Gipe’s Trampoline. In “Hank the King” Corcoran paints the descent of a town alongside the descent of one of its citizens. Hank, the protagonist, has lost his pawn shop, his youth and health, and his way of life. “His dominion was crumbling: the buildings of the town and his body. He was drawing social security, neck deep in bills, and trying to find what little pleasure was left in the world.” Much like Canard County, the fictional Kentucky locale of Trampoline, Hank Burkham’s small West Virginia town doesn’t serve up hope for a better future. “The downtown had become a big sea of nothing: the only thing bustling was the dollar store,” Corcoran writes. From his pickup truck, Hank witnesses the results of its decline:

…those sad men wandered up and down the streets of the downtown all day, blowing their money at the Legion or the Moonshiner Tavern. If they were more adventurous, or maybe just bored, they’d cash their disability checks, run into the old Green Valley Hotel — the marble lobby cracked and stained — and buy a bag of weed or some pain pills. People would do anything to feel numb.

Just as in Dawn Jewell’s Canard County, Hank’s world fills with addicts and trailers, and Hank himself keeps out of the house that is on the brink of foreclosure. At his family’s graveyard, Hank implores his dead mother, “I feel like life’s over, and I’m not even dead yet.” Those outside Appalachia might be tempted to think that these feelings, brought on by the problems of places like West Virginia are her problems alone. But in December 2015, Pew Research published an astonishing truth. “After more than four decades of serving as the nation’s economic majority, the American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it.”

Perhaps more are like Hank than feels comfortable. Just like Appalachia, the haves are growing in small numbers and large amounts of wealth, while the have nots continue to grow in number while they dwindle in fortune. Given this, can we continue to see Appalachia as other, or can we confront its issues and problems as the image in the mirror, reflecting the larger issues facing America? It might be tempting to see in Appalachian literature only the hopeless, but in this case, as in others, there are the glimmers.

In what feels like a jump ahead in time from “The Rope Swing” Corcoran gives us “A Touch,” the story of a West Virginia transplant in New York City. The unnamed narrator, fresh off a breakup, meets up with Darren, a friend in the city originally from rural Kentucky. In describing the friendship, this narrator tells us:

He called me “Mountain Boy” and I called him “Kentucky,” a reference to our shared former geography. We were careless with our freedom, burned through everything we touched: the money, the booze, the boys we thought we loved the most. But he was always my constant. We formed our little band of orphans, even though he had living, breathing parents back home. We said we would make our own families, with ties that had nothing to do with blood, and wouldn’t we be so much stronger because of it?

Place, to these men, is something shared, and perhaps, forges a bond beyond their new locale. Our unnamed narrator, admitting that he’s not been home in fifteen years, also admits to Darren his homesickness. He is as lonely even in the populous and prosperous New York City as he was back home in West Virginia. As a bit of folk wisdom says, we often bring our troubles with us, and in a modern world, one does not have to be physically located in Appalachia to understand its sense of dislocation. But just as our protagonist feels lost and alone in the world, he happens upon a moment of real and spontaneous connection. Wandering the streets after his meetup, he recognizes that he’s stumbled into some sort of rally or vigil, and the sight of lit candles, the sound of raised voices, and the simple act of a woman reaching and grasping his hand saves him from dark and solemn loneliness. “We’ll get through this together” the young woman says to this narrator. It is a redemptive, a pure moment of human connectivity in touch and word.

As a bit of folk wisdom says, we often bring our troubles with us, and in a modern world, one does not have to be physically located in Appalachia to understand its sense of dislocation.

So too, Dawn Jewell wins her fight to save Big Bear Mountain from mountaintop mining. Though the state has to pay companies not to excavate it, the land is saved. Yet Dawn isn’t fully satisfied with this outcome. Her Aunt June, a relative who has fled Canard County but is still marked by it — an inside-out viewer, one might say — reminds her young niece that she has protected eight thousand acres, no small feat for a fifteen year-old social outcast. As her momma, temporarily making up for past transgressions, is about to be baptized, Dawn muses, “…people change. They don’t always change the way they want to change, or even in the direction they set out to change in.”

Dawn may not have fully changed yet, and neither has Canard County, but we have the hope that she will, that she has and will continue to make a difference in her landscape, and among her people. At the end of the novel, Dawn is taken up above Canard County in a helicopter, and below, her boyfriend Willet has made giant words on the ground for her to read: YOU ARE HERE. The book ends with the illustration of Dawn, flanked by the words, “Ain’t that something?” Her grit turns to resilience, her fight into a distilled moment of satisfaction, and we, as readers, see it as something, indeed. We cannot win big fights unless we take on small ones.

Appalachia, as portrayed in these books, confronts and debunks that all it can be is a place of poverty and cultural backwardness. The question, then, is will it still reflect America? In times of change, we stare out towards an American Dream that may no longer exist the way it did in 1960. If we look towards today’s literature, we might find grit and resilience. These stories can matter because they are from and of us, both inside and outside of the region marked as Appalachian. Ann Pancake proposes:

…artists are also translators between the visible and invisible worlds, intermediaries between the profane and the sacred. How is this pertinent to the case I’m making for art’s ability to create change in the world? Only by desacralizing the world, over centuries, have we given ourselves permission to destroy it. Conversely, to protect and preserve life we must re-recognize its sacredness, and art helps us do that. Literature re-sacralizes by illuminating the profound within the apparently mundane, by restoring reverence and wonder for the everyday, and by heightening our attentiveness and enlarging our compassion. The magic and transcendence and mystery that characterize true literary art make a piece of literature a microcosm of the wider universe, of the mystery and profundity and transcendence that reside there for those willing to look for it.

Literature helps us to understand ourselves better, to enter into an imaginative realm that calms chaos. Our troubles are not our own, and literature reminds us that we are connected. Having lived outside West Virginia, in urban and suburban areas, my outside-in view reminds me that the troubles here happen elsewhere, and my living here is not the only connection I have to books like Trampoline and The Rope Swing. Ronald Eller says boldly in the introduction of his history, “We are all Appalachians.” If we go into the woods, literally like Dawn Jewell or metaphorically, those lessons we bring out of the experience might just change how we all approach a conflicted and complex larger world.

Our troubles are not our own, and literature reminds us that we are connected.

Our world currently feels less tolerant, less able to provide that better future we’ve always believed in. Our political rhetoric has turned from hope to xenophobic antagonism. But might we imagine an expanded, amended American Dream, one more accepting, with greater opportunity, and a sense of collective and belonging? Sometimes we must love what we know, imperfect as it is. Our stories must matter which is why good books matter. In them, we find connection, or, like Dawn Jewell, we experience our “YOU ARE HERE” moment. It’s a good lesson from either the experience or the literature of Appalachia, whether inside-out, or outside-in.

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