Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks is an example of contemporary Appalachian literature. But, what is Appalachian literature and why does it matter?
The easiest way to define it is to say that Appalachian literature is a wide and diverse field encompassing many historical periods, ethnicities of people, and generations of traditions, but that assertion makes the act of creating a clear definition for readers, writers, and answer-seekers difficult.
Appalachian literature did not formally exist until after the late 1800s and early 1900s because writers of the time did not recognize differences in the southern cultures of the United States, a fact that Anne Shelby draws attention to in an Appalachian Heritage journal article.1 During this time, American literature was defined by the values of the local color movement, where writers focused on creating stories that used rich imagery and dialect patterns to create grandiose and often superficial characters for readers.2 Local color authors, such as Mary Noailles Murfree, who wrote many novels set in Tennessee, are credited with writing many characters as southern stereotypes that portray the Appalachian region (and more generally, the South) inaccurately.3
In contrast with local color writers, later Appalachian writers focused on trying the represent the complexity – the culture, the scenery, and the hardships of life – that defined Appalachia. Of these writers, James Still, who wrote through the time of the Great Depression, is famous for pioneering and expanding the field known as Appalachian literature with his poetry and novels such as River of Earth.4
Today, Appalachian authors follow in the footpath of authors like James Still, as they continue to record, expand, and redefine what it means to be Appalachian in their writing. While this page could attempt to look at Appalachian literature by weaving together many historical sources, it would not be very beneficial to understanding the contemporary literary environment that is relevant to The Floatplane Notebooks.
Perhaps, the best way to explore modern Appalachian literature is to learn from a writer and expert on Appalachia. Dr. Amy Clark is an Appalachian Studies and Communication Professor at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. She is the author of the book Talking Appalachian and the co-director of the Center for Appalachian Studies.5 In an email interview conducted on March 20, 2019, she answers questions on themes of Appalachian literature and highlights several successful, contemporary authors6:AC-Transcript-1
While the interview explores different themes in Appalachian literature, it does not explicitly talk about what the field means and why its important to the Carroll County case. Simply stated, Appalachian literature matters, especially in an Appalachian town like Hillsville, VA, because representation matters.
People, and especially young adults, learn who they are from the perspectives they are taught to view as legitimate. Seeing characters in a novel like The Floatplane Notebooks, who speak and live like others from Appalachia is extremely powerful for students who are learning about themselves and their place in the world, as well as starting to examine the purpose behind reading. The idea of representation and empowerment through literature is especially important for students who identify as Appalachian because they are often taught that their heritage and way of life is ‘backwards’ from the moment they enter the public education system.
More alarmingly, the way students are taught to abandon their heritage is often subtle, enacted by the pervasive idea of a standard English dialect, outdated hillbilly stereotypes, and a lack of genuine southern characters in literature that is not explicitly devoted to representing the south.
These reasons are why the context of Appalachian culture and literature are so important to the Carroll County case, and they help to inform why the case progressed as it did, an idea that is explored in greater detail in the Conclusions subtab under The Case menu option.
Figure 3: Ron Rash Audio Clip QA (Rash, 2019)
Hear from Appalachian author, Ron Rash, at A Big Read event at UVa-Wise. In the clip, Rash responds to a question about whether he is concerned Appalachian culture is disappearing after reading a Civil War era short story called “Lincolnites” from his book, Burning Bright. In his answer, he speaks about Appalachian culture and the role of Appalachian literature in preserving the area’s traditions.
- Shelby, A. (1985). Appalachian Literature. Appalachian Heritage, 13(3), 29-36. doi: https://doi.org/10.1353/aph.1985.0041
- Campbell, D. M. “Regionalism and Local Color Fiction, 1865-1895.” Literary Movements. 10 October 2017. Dept. of English, Washington State University. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/lcolor.html
- Ensor, A. “Mary Noailles Murfree (“Charles Egbert Craddock”). Tennessee Encyclopedia. 01 March 2018. Tennessee Historical Society. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/mary-noailles-murfree/
- Brown, J.N. “Podcast Appalachia 13: James Still: The Dean of Appalachian Literature.” 12 March 2011. Podcast Appalachia. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://podcastappalachia.blogspot.com/2011/03/podcast-appalachia-13-james-still-dean.html
- UVa-Wise. Amy D. Clark, Ph.D. 2019. In UVa-Wise Website. Accessed April 6, 2019. https://www.uvawise.edu/academics/department-communication-studies/faculty-staff/amy-d-clark/
- Clark, A. D. Email Interview with Dr. Amy Clark. 20 March 2019. Wise, VA.
- Edgerton, C. The Floatplane Notebooks. 2017. Southern Revivals Ed. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Photo and Audio Credits
Figure 1: Jensen, J. The Stereotype of a Hillbilly/Redneck. 1998. In The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, commercialization, and Country music. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Figure 2: UVa-Wise. Amy D. Clark. 2019. In UVa-Wise Website. Accessed April 6, 2019. https://www.uvawise.edu/academics/department-communication-studies/faculty-staff/amy-d-clark/
Figure 3: Rash, R. Ron Rash Audio Clip QA. 2019. UVa-Wise: UVa-Wise Media Services. (2019). Accessed April 6, 2019. https://soundcloud.com/user-116919020/ron-rash-audio-clip-qa