The Eller Chronicles, Volume IX-1 p?

Place and the Recovery of Community in Appalachia

by Ronald D. Eller

      On April 2, 1994, Professor- Ronald Eller delivered the keynote address at the first annual Symposium on South-west Virginia History and Culture in Abingdon. This symposium was organized and hosted by Virginia High-lands Community College with the active cooperation of the Southwest Regional Humanities Council. It featured presentations on a broad range of topics related to the history and culture of Appalachian Virginia and was supported in part by a grant from VFH.
      The issues raised by Professor Eller in his essay are in many respects the same as those the Foundation has sought to explore through our "Understanding Virginia's Communities" initiative. And while the focus of the essay is regional, its insights into the nature of community, the complex relationship between community, collective memory, and place; and the importance of preserving and rebuilding Communities for the future seemed to us to be universal and thus likely to appeal to our readers throughout the stale.
      Ronald D. Eller- is a Professor of History and Director of the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky and, currently, the Director of the Appalachian Civic Leadership Project, a program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to support leader-ship development and public policy discussion in the Central Appalachian Region. Originally from Southern West Virginia, Dr. Eller is a descendant of eight generations of families in the Appalachian mountains. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster and holds the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina. He has written widely on topics related to Appalachian history and culture, and his book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: The Industrialization of the Appalacian South (University of Tennessee Press, 1982) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and received both the Thomas Wolfe Literary Prize and the W.D. Weatherford Award for the best book in Appalachian .Studies. We are very grateful to Professor Eller for his permission to publish ibis slightly abridged version qo his April 2 remarks.

The idea of place has long been an ambiguous metaphor when applied to Appalachia. Valued by some as a positive cultural trait which provides a sense of identity and meaning to life in an otherwise abstract world, attachment to place has been criticized by others as a romantic remnant of the past, a cultural barrier to progress and the integration of the region into the American main-stream. For some, it has symbolized tradition, security and commitment, for others it has meant provincialism, backwardness and the absence of a progressive spirit for change.

      Whether one views place as something to be preserved or as something to overcome, few observers would deny the central role which place has played in Appalachian history and life. A sense of place is intricately woven into the literature, politics, and social patterns of the region, and it provides the fabric from which both personal and regional identities are shaped. in recent years growing concern over the decline of commitment to place in the face of modernization has contributed to a renaissance in Appalachian studies and to efforts to preserve the symbols of place as part of our collective heritage. The inevitability of change pervades our culture, and as change alters the way we relate to each other and the way we define ourselves, we cling to those symbols of an earlier time in which we believe meaning and purpose were more easily defined.
      Yet place is more than just cultural symbol, good or ill. Sense of place bridges location and provides the framework for understanding who we are, where we are going and how we are going to get there. It provides the reference point for our interactions, the locus in which life is experienced and known. As such it shapes our behavior in the present and the decisions that we make for the future. It is our sense of place that connects us to others and thus allows us to appreciate the relationship between the individual and common good.
      This conception of place is dynamic and philosophical rather than static and tied to a particular neighborhood or locale. Indeed, it is a popular misconception of the idea of place in Appalachia that would link attachments to place with a specific parcel of land, although those attachments may be real and very strong. Sense of place in the mountains implies not a physical locality but a set of relationships human relationships that define personal identity, establish a shared history, and define pat-terns of expectations and behavior. Place, in this sense, is part of a larger world view, an outlook on life which is communal rather than self-centered and individualistic. One's attachment to place the mountains is an at tachment to family, kin and neighbors, to shared experiences that imply responsibility beyond the self and pro-vide linkages between the past and future. Mountain people tend to be tied not only to a specific plot of land (the "home" place), a specific mountain or a specific locality but to people (kin) and to memories (shared experiences). In this respect place in Appalachia has all the earmarks of community, if community is defined not as a physical or political boundary but, in its anthropological sense, as a set of persisting relationships which hind people together.
      In recent years the loss of identification with place, with the feeling of community, has led many Americans

"It is our sense of place that connects us to others and thus allows us to appreciate the relationship between the individual and common good."

Continued on page 4


The Eller Chronicles Vol. IX: 1 Feb. 1995

Place, Continued page 3

to lament the condition of American culture. Such diverse writers as Simone Weil, Christopher Lasch, Peter Berger, Wendell Berry, and a host of others have criticized the individualizing tendencies in modern society and have called for a revival of commitment to community. The "Roots" phenomenon of the 1970s reflected as much a desire for connectedness in our present lives as it did a desire to rediscover our ancestors. Robert Bellah and his associates raised the debate at the national level in their best seller, Habits of the Heart. Documenting the decline of commitment in the American character, Bellah questions the survival of freedom in a society given over to the pursuit of individual goals.
      We in Appalachia should be doubly interested in this national de-bate, since the search for community has been a central theme in our efforts to understand the mountains for many years. Certainly no aspect of mountain life has been so frequently studied and yet so misunderstood and maligned as the Appalachian community. In fact for over a hundred years observers of mountain life denied the existence of community altogether in our region. Emma Bell Miles, who was otherwise a perceptive observer, wrote in 1905 that "there is no such thing as a community of mountaineers. They are knit together, man to man, as friends, but not as a body of men...."
      This notion of mountain individualism has provided grist for the theoretical mill of those who would see the region as uncivilized, back-ward, barbaric or degenerate. It has become the popular symbol of the mountaineer in cartoons and the media and has been used to explain everything from labor violence to water pollution. In fact the origins of this individualistic image are deeply rooted in the "idea of Appalachia" it-self and lie entwined in the work of turn of the century writers who associated individualism with the passing frontier and community with the progressive and civilizing forces of mod-ern, urban life. John C. Campbell, for example, drew his accounts of the early history of Appalachia from the work of Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner, men who believed that the frontier had been an individualizing experience, one which had given rise to the great independent spirit of American democracy.
      Most recent historians, however, have all but turned the "Frontier Thesis" on its head and have pointed to the persistence of community in the westward movement rather than to settlement by independent pioneers. Far from being extreme individualists forced to adapt to a harsh environment, the early frontiersmen were most likely to be part of an extended community of interdependent families, and by practicing communal and co-operative efforts they were able not only to survive but to flourish. Contemporary scholars associate the rise of

individualism with the growth of capitalism and modernization, not with the persistence of the frontier. Unfortunately this scholarship has had little effect upon Appalachian scholarship, and the communal heritage in the mountain character has been all but lost to our collective memory.
      Many of us in recent years have been uncomfortable with this conventional notion of individualism in mountain culture and have pointed to countervailing themes of cooperation and commitment in the region's history. We have been convinced that the family and the community are important institutions in the mountains, institutions which have been under assault from the forces of modernizalion and technology. But we have been so caught up in studying the political and economic consequences of modernization, in deriving lessons from our past, that we have neglected the living past of the community and with it the role of place in building commitments to community.       Research into the nature of the mountain community would undoubtedly reveal a split tradition. In Appalachia, like the rest of the country, individualism and commitment have both been part of our common heritage. As Robert Bellah and others have argued, Americans have always spoken a dual language one rooted in images of radical individualism, private achievement, personal consumption, and individual success; the other in images of civic responsibility, social equality, public virtue, and commitment. This second, public language was central to the republican tradition that dominated the early years of our history, while the voice of individualism emerged to dominate the cultural revolution that accompanied the rise of modern capitalism.
      Many contemporary observers of American society believe that this first language of individualism has so displaced our second language of civic virtue that it is undermining our capacity for commitment to one another and threatens the very fiber of our democratic life. Expressive individualism, these critics believe, not only saps us of the connectedness necessary for personal identity, but it weak-ens the social values of cooperation and responsibility necessary for a democratic society. Individualism separates us from the society around us and causes us to forget our ancestors, to forget our traditions, and imagine that our whole destiny is in our own hands. We live for the present, lack concern for well-being of others, and base our actions upon how we feel at the moment because we have little understanding of how others before us have acted.
      Roots, however, don't exist in a singular vacuum; they require commitment to others an interconnectedness that makes life whole. Thus, the challenge before us today, is not simply to abandon our first language in favor of the second, our private world in favor of the public sphere, but to reorient our individual

We have been convinced that the family and the community are important institutions which have been under assault from the forces of modernization and technology, but we have neglected the living past of the community, and with it the role of place.



The Eller Chronicles Vol. IX: 1 Feb. 1995

Place, continued

lives for the benefit of the community as a whole. Our pioneer ancestors placed a high value on self-reliance, but that self-reliance had a clearly collective context. It was as a people that they acted independently and self-reliantly. With the rise of modernism the collective note was muted and our primary obligation has come to be to ourselves.
      But how do we nourish the collective spirit? For us in the mountains to renew our communities and build a more just and equitable future for our children will require a new commitment and a fundamental realignment of our values. As we have learned in recent years, Appalachia will not be rescued from the outside, whether that be the federal government or the private sector. Renewal must begin from within, with the revitalization of communities and of the spirit of self-help and civic virtue. The recovery of community will require that we move beyond a defensive reaction against the things which threaten us and assume a positive initiative to create a new cultural context for democratic change. Such an initiative requires that we relearn old skills and acquire new perspectives, how to talk to each other, how to share with each other, how to re-cover collective memories, how to discern common values out of diverse traditions, and how to connect personal troubles with social issues. This means that we must relearn the significance of our attachment to place and redefine that attachment within the context of contemporary life.
      Central to this process is the restoration of our collective memory. As is true with most social movements, the first steps to collective consciousness is the recovery of those common experiences and customs which grant dignity to the individual and provide an alternative view of the prevailing culture. Martin Luther King recognized the importance of historical memory to the civil rights movement Ind encouraged his followers not only to recover the lost history of blacks in America but also to recover the lost meaning of democracy as well. For King the civil rights movement was "not only directed at the transformation of unjust structures; it was also a school for citizenship through which ordinary men and women would ac-quire a "new sense of somebodyness". Having an understanding of how others before us have acted gives us the confidence to make decisions in the pre-sent, to create out of traditions from the past new visions for the future.
      Robert Bellah considers historical memory to be essential to community, but modern culture, with its emphasis on change, has a way of robbing us of historical memory. Appalachians have been especially victimized by that tendency, and until we do a bet-ter job recovering and retelling our history, we will be unable to recognize and evaluate the alternative social visions that have

existed with our past. Only then can we hope to develop an Appalachian conception of the meaning of a good life and thus an alternative vision for the future.
      Recovering our collective memory will also help us to learn once again to talk to each other, to share with each other, and to discern our common values in order to reestablish those relationships which define place. As my oral history students over the years have learned, recording the oral traditions of their neighbors requires more than mechanical skills. It teaches them how to communicate and how to listen, how to think across time, and how to relate the lives of individuals to the larger social order. Above all it gives them insight into the values that constituted their communities and into the lives of the men and women who sustained them. In the process, they become tied to that community of memory themselves. Renewing our individual ties to our communities of memory is a further step toward building active, democratic citizenship. Classical republicanism evoked an image of the active citizen contributing to the public good, and this. notes Bellah, re- quires us to see the individual within the context of the larger community rather than seeing the "self" as "the only or main form of reality." Remembering our heritage involves accepting our origins including the painful memories of prejudice, poverty, and exploitation that the pressures to modernize have at-tempted to deny. Accepting these painful memories is often the well-spring for social consciousness. Thus leaving behind one kind of individualism, Bellah suggests, will help us acquire a new civic individualism that entails care for the affairs of the community and a new definition of the relationship of individuals to society. Let us take, for example, the meaning of work in our modern world. How does the way that we define work affect our relationship to community? How does the way in which we in the academic world define our roles as scholars, teachers, and activists affect our ability to re-late to mountain communities and mountain people? When I was growing up, I was encouraged to "make something of myself" by moving beyond by raising, beyond my family and the cultural place of which I was a part. Success was defined by my teachers as moving up the economic and social ladder, escaping the hill-billy world of "Yesterday's People". Education became the utilitarian route to getting a job, and work became simply a way of making money and achieving personal success. Gone from this modern, individualistic notion of work is the older sense of work as a "calling" wherein one's work was morally inseparable from the needs of the family and community. In pre-industrial mountain communities work was a moral relationship between people, not just a source of material or personal reward. The work of each person contributed to the good of the whole, and the

"Gone from this modern, individualistic notion of work is the older sense of work as a "calling," wherein one's work was morally inseparable from the needs of the family and community."
Continued on page 12



The Eller Chronicles Vol. IX: 1 Feb. 1995

Place, Continued from page 5

cess of that work was judged by its contribution to the success of the community rather than what the individual could get out of it. Rebuilding the community, moreover, will require more from us in the future than we have provided in the past. It will mean above all that we take seriously the challenge to provide a vision of what things might become in the mountains and in the larger society. Martin Luther King recognized the importance of vision and dreams to his people, and he constantly reminded them of that dream. King knew the meaning of that verse in Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." We might add that where there are no visionaries, the dreams perish as well. Who better to begin the process of building new visions for the future than those who have struggled with the challenges of the past? Building a vision of an alternative future based on strong community ties will require a new kind of thinking, a new kind of mind of Americans whose culture has been so strongly shaped by modern individualism. Yet, as I have argued, we may have within our own mountain traditions the roots from which new spiritual values may arise: ethics of respect, hard work, family, self-reliance; personal dignity, tolerance, fairness. cooperation, and democracy. Our task is to fashion these strands of individualism and community into a practical ideology that is appropriate for a new era.

Eudora Welly once observed, "It is by knowing where you stand that You grow able to judge where You are.... One place comprehended can make us understand other places bet-ter. Sense of place gives equilibrium, extended, It is sense of direction. Perhaps the rediscovery of the meaning of-place in Appalachia may pro-vide a sense of direction for the re-building of community in America. The mountains are changing, and we can never regain what is lost. The strong attachments to place which characterized the identity of our ancestors is weakening under the onslaught of mass society. But to change does not necessarily imply that we are powerless to control our own destiny. As George Tindall has observed about the Southern experience as a whole:

We learn time and again from the southern past and the history of others that to change is not necessarily to disappear. And we learn from modern psychology that to change is not necessarily to lose one's identity to change, sometimes. is to find it.

Virginia Foundaton for the
Humanities and Public Polley
145 Ednam Drive
Clarlottesville, Virginia 22903-4629


Return to TOP of Page
Return to Table of Contents
Previous Page: Hazel James & daughter
Next Page: The Thomas Wolfe and Biltmore Houses, Asheville, NC
BACK to Table of Contents of CHRONICLE ISSUES