Appalachian Fiction

The hills and hollows of the Appalachian mountains have given rise to some of the richest cultural traditions in the United States. The region’s literature is particularly plentiful and draws on the European, Native American, and Biblical influences in the region’s folkloric traditions. Appalachian writers explore issues unique to the region, including economic and ecological themes, while working to break down stereotypes and illustrate the complexity of the Appalachian experience.

Appalachian Fiction Appalachian Fiction

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Table of contents

    What is Appalachian Fiction?

    Appalachian fiction refers to literature from the Appalachian region of the United States, which includes parts of thirteen states stretching from Southern New York State to Northern Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

    Appalachia refers to the Appalachian mountains that run through the region. The name was initially taken from a Native American village in Florida and adapted by the Spanish colonists.

    The earliest examples of Appalachian literature included the folklore of the region’s Native American population, particularly the Cherokee people, followed by texts written by early Appalachian settlers.

    Appalachian Fiction, Appalachian mountains, StudySmarterThe Appalachian region stretches from Southern New York state to Northern Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. Pixabay.

    Before the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Appalachian culture was generally lumped in with Southern culture, and the region’s literature was not considered distinct.

    Local color or regional literature predominated American literature in the 19th century, and authors used details specific to certain regions of the United States, such as dialects, to create a strong sense of place. However, works of local color fiction often featured superficial characters and perpetuated regional stereotypes.

    Local color or American literary regionalism was a literary movement in the 19th and 20th centuries that presented the specific features of a region and its people to create literature with a strong sense of place.

    Appalachian writers began working to disrupt these stereotypes by illustrating the complexities and unique struggles of Appalachian life. By the 1960s, the so-called Appalachian Renaissance had begun. This period corresponded with an explosion in the production of and interest in Appalachian literature. Universities began offering Appalachian studies programs, and the region’s literature became more widely read and studied.

    The Characteristics of Appalachian Literature

    Appalachia has historically struggled economically, and industries such as logging and coal mining have devastated the region ecologically. It is also a region frequently stereotyped by the rest of the United States as exclusively poor, white, and uneducated.

    Since the mid-1990s, Appalachia has supplied approximately half of the United States’ coal. However, the industry has had a devastating effect on the region. Toxic waste from coal mines has contaminated water supplies throughout Appalachia, leaving them unsafe for human consumption. Residents living near toxic sites have been known to exhibit higher rates of certain diseases and congenital disabilities.

    There is also a debate surrounding whether coal mining has alleviated or contributed to the region’s poverty. Despite the industry’s success in the region, the poverty rate in much of Appalachia has remained significantly higher than in the rest of the country, and studies have shown greater economic and health disparities in coal mining counties versus counties without coal mining.1

    The region’s literature is known for dealing with the issues and themes unique to the Appalachian region but also for giving complexity and subtlety to the Appalachian experience and breaking down the stereotypes and stigmas associated with the area. In the introduction to the anthology Writing Appalachia, editors Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd discuss the importance of representing the duality of Appalachian literature, allowing the complexity of the region to emerge:

    Mountain and valley, rural and urban, folkloric and postmodern, traditional and au courant, northern and southern, white people and people of color, straight and gay, insiders and outsiders, sinners and saints—the dualisms multiply, endlessly and excitingly, and maybe, on some level, are not dualistic at all.”2

    Many authors address the ecological and economic issues that affect Appalachia, but equally important is exploring the complexity of Appalachian identity, including issues of race, gender, and sexuality.

    Appalachian fiction, coal mine, StudySmarterEcological issues such as the impact of coal mining are important to Appalachian literature. Pixabay.

    The Appalachian dialect is also an important characteristic in the region’s literature, and writers include dialogue that mimics Appalachian speech patterns.

    Appalachian Stories and Folklore

    The Appalachian region has long boasted a strong tradition of oral storytelling and folklore based on a unique combination of European, Native American, and Biblical beliefs. Before the arrival of European settlers, the region’s Native American population had a rich folklore tradition, and many of these stories persisted and made their way into Appalachian culture.

    Appalachian Fiction, bluegrass music, StudySmarterAppalachia has many rich cultural traditions, including music, art, and literature. Pixabay.

    Additionally, European settlers, primarily from Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, brought their own culture and folklore. One popular example is the Jack tales, a collection of stories including “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack Frost” that originated in English folklore. The Jack tales arrived in Appalachia and adapted to the new region’s culture.

    Appalachia is also known for many ghost stories and legends, including the Greenbrier Ghost, the Bell Witch haunting, and the legend of Mothman.

    Appalachian Historical Fiction

    Many works of Appalachian literature explore the region’s history.

    Cold Mountain (1997) by Charles Frazier

    Set during the Civil War, Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel tells the story of Ada, a woman living in Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and her lover Inman, a Confederate soldier trying to find his way home. The novel won the 1997 National Book Award and was adapted into an award-winning film of the same name. Cold Mountain incorporates regional specifics such as dialect and detailed descriptions of landscape and place.

    Serena (2008) by Ron Rash

    Set in the 1930s, Serena tells the story of a couple, George and Serena, that move from Boston to North Carolina to start a timber business. George has an illegitimate child in the mountain town, and when Serena learns she cannot have children, she sets out to kill his son. The novel examines the relationship between man and nature in Appalachia and the effects of industry on the region’s landscape.

    The Ballad of Tom Dooley (2011) by Sharyn McCrumb

    Appalachia is known for its murder ballads, and Sharyn McCrumb’s novel fictionalizes the true story behind one of the region’s most popular. The Ballad of Tom Dooley is set in 1866 in the mountains of North Carolina. Tom Dula and Ann Foster begin an affair when they are teenagers, but Tom goes away to fight in the Civil War, and Ann marries another man. When Tom returns, he and Ann resume their affair, but Tom also begins sleeping with a woman named Laura Foster. One day Laura disappears, and Tom is hanged for her murder.

    Famous Appalachian Authors

    Several writers from the Appalachian region are well-known in American literature, including James Still and Silas House.

    Classic Appalachian Writers

    Some classic Appalachian writers include Emma Bell Miles, Thomas Bell, and James Still.

    Emma Bell Miles (1879-1919)

    Born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1879, Emma Bell Miles spent most of her life in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She made a living selling her artwork, poetry, and prose, which appeared in publications such as Harper’s Monthly. Miles is best known for her book The Spirit of the Mountains (1905), an account of mountain life based on the author’s own experiences and observations.

    Thomas Bell (1903-1961)

    Thomas Bell was born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to Lemko-Rusyn immigrant parents. As a teenager, he began working in the steel mills and published his first novel in 1930. His best-known work is Out of This Furnace (1941), a novel that examines the steel industry and the plight of immigrant steelworkers.

    James Still (1906-2001)

    James Still is one of Appalachia’s best-known writers. Born in Alabama in 1906, Still moved to Knott County, Kentucky, as a young man and lived in a log cabin for most of his adult life. In 1940, Still published his best-known novel, River of Earth, now a classic of Appalachian literature. River of Earth tells the story of an Appalachian family in transition; they must decide if they will continue to struggle to live off the land as independent farmers or move to the mining camps in the mountains.

    Contemporary Appalachian Writers

    Some contemporary Appalachian writers include Lee Smith, Silas House, and Frank X Walker.

    Lee Smith (1944-present)

    Lee Smith is an award-winning author who was born in the coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia. As a young woman, she discovered the work of James Still, which encouraged her to begin recording the stories she heard around her in her small Appalachian town. She is the author of fifteen novels and four collections of short fiction and has won various awards, including two O. Henry Awards.

    Silas House (1971-present)

    Kentucky-born writer Silas House is one of Appalachia’s best-known contemporary authors. His most recent novel, Southernmost (2018), won several awards, including being long-listed for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. House has published six novels, a children’s book, several plays, and works of nonfiction, including Something’s Rising (2009), a work of creative nonfiction about the fight against mountaintop removal.

    Frank X Walker (1961-present)

    Frank X Walker is an African American poet who was born in Danville, Kentucky, in 1961. A graduate of the University of Kentucky and Louisville’s Spalding University, Walker has published five volumes of poetry and made numerous contributions to the Appalachian literature community. He is credited with coining the term “Affrilachia” which refers to the contributions of Black artists in the Appalachian region. Walker also founded the journal PLUCK!, the new Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture.

    Appalachian Fiction - Key takeaways

    • Appalachian literature comes from the Appalachian region of the United States, which includes parts of thirteen states stretching from Southern New York State to Northern Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.
    • Appalachia has long had a rich folklore tradition based on a unique combination of European, Native American, and Biblical influences.
    • Appalachian literature explores themes unique to the Appalachian region, such as economic and ecological issues, but authors also work to expose the complexity of the Appalachian experience and dispel the stereotypes that plague the region.
    • Some classic Appalachian authors include Emma Bell Miles, Thomas Bell, and James Still.
    • Some contemporary Appalachian writers include Lee Smith, Silas House, and Frank X Walker.

    1Zullig K J, Hendryx M. “A comparative analysis of health-related quality of life for residents of U.S. counties with and without coal mining.” Public Health Rep. 2010 Jul-Aug; 125(4):548-55. doi: 10.1177/003335491012500410.

    2Ledford, K., & Lloyd, T. Writing Appalachia: An Anthology. University Press of Kentucky. 2020.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Appalachian Fiction

    What is Appalachian literature?

    Appalachian literature refers to literature from the Appalachian region of the United States.

    What is Appalachian culture?

    Appalachian culture began in the 1700s when European immigrants settled in the Appalachian mountains and created their own way of life influenced by a combination of Native American and European cultures.

    Where is Appalachia?

    Appalachia is a region that includes parts of thirteen states stretching from Southern New York State to Northern Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

    Why is it called Appalachia?

    Appalachia refers to the Appalachian mountains that run through the region. The name was originally taken from a Native American village in Florida and adapted by the Spanish colonists.

    What makes a novel Appalachian?

    Appalachian novels are generally written by authors from the Appalachian region or authors who have close ties to the area.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT a classic Appalachian writer?

    Which is NOT a contemporary Appalachian writer?

    Which is NOT a work of Appalachian historical fiction?


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