Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia

Buy this book from Amazon.comEdited by Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson
University of Kentucky Press ($45)

by Lynnell Edwards

If they had listened a little more closely, the folks at CBS might have not been so surprised last year at the outrage and bad publicity surrounding their proposed reality show "The Real Beverly Hillbillies." Frequently cited as the last American minority it's acceptable to make fun of, the people of Appalachia had something to say about their culture and how it was represented. Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia demands that we do just that. Listen to the women who have been writing and recording their lives for over a hundred years; listen to the women who have carved a life and art out of the rough beauty of the Appalachian territory; listen to this sustained, authentic chorus—105 women strong—singing a song that is at once very old and strikingly new to our national identity. According to the editors, "we set out to create a collection of creative writings by women whose identities have been marked by life in the Appalachian mountains, because we discovered that their voices are missing from our national literature." This anthology will ensure that their voices will persist and even soar as part of our literary heritage.

Appalachian studies have always enjoyed a modest success, notably in the region itself. Sometimes considered part of Southern literature, sometime part of labor or political literature, the best known works address the hardships of coal mining communities or the politics of poverty. This collection is a valuable addition to works by authors such as James Still (River of Earth) and Harry Caudill (Night Comes to the Cumberlands), and it provides necessary context and scholarship for the interest generated by Joyce Dyer's anthology Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers.

Perhaps primarily important as an archival resource, Listen Here compiles brief selections, authoritative biography, and a comprehensive list of primary and secondary materials. Organized alphabetically, with an alternate table of contents that lists works in order of publication date, it also includes appendices of "More Women Writing in Appalachia: Other Voices to Study" and a selected bibliography, all critical tools for a scholarly resource.

Though the greatest activity is from the mid and late 20th century, the earliest work—a travel narrative by Anne Newport Royall, whom some identify "as the first female American newspaper journalist"—dates from 1826. The vast majority of the selections are either poetry or excerpts from short fiction or novels, but there are also polemics, memoirs, and no small amount of children's and young adult literature.

Occasionally, the life stories are nearly as long as the selections themselves, and sometimes nearly as interesting. What is remarkable is how often writing was just one part of a woman's total creative work. The "day jobs" of many of these women include nurse, teacher, journalist, musician, homemaker. Not a few of them were activists for labor causes surrounding the coal mining communities of southern Appalachia or, later, cultural preservation movements in the '60s and '70s.

Because the editors have selected writings that speak to the author's Appalachian heritage, there does seem to be a preponderance of grandmas cooking and babies being birthed and mountain laurel flowering and quilts being patched and earnest praying to a literal Lord. Not that this is bad—insofar as a central project of women's studies has been to recover and posit as authoritative the domestic experience, this collection deepens our understanding of how multi-faceted that domestic experience might be. While better-known women writers of the '50s and '60s were writing about a particular kind of urban and suburban-induced anxiety, an entirely different landscape unfurled for Jane Merchant in 1954:

You understand,
Of course, it's hard work plowing on a hill,
And bottom lands grow better crops, but still
There's something useful to the heart and eye
In men who plow the earth, against the sky.

In fact, the strong religiosity throughout this collection is an important counterpoint to those now-canonical post-war writers who abandoned the spiritual as a legitimate source of identity and agency. And though not as explicitly themed as Bloodroot, there is also a profound sense of rootedness and place. Consider, George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From":

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Or the opening declarations from Lee Smith's novel Saving Grace:

My name is Florida Grace Shepherd, Florida for the state I was born in, Grace for the grace of God. I am the eleventh child of the Reverend Virgil Shepherd, born to him and his third wife, Fannie Flowers. They say I take after her, and I am proud of this, for she was lovely as the day is long, in spirit as well as flesh.

It is also interesting to consider nationally known writers—Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard, Nikki Giovanni, Lee Smith—in their Appalachian context. Though arguably these women have "transcended" their regional status, positioning them among their Appalachian sisters suggests opportunities for future scholarship exploring their regional roots.

As with any comprehensive collection, there are jewels as well as less distinguished entries. A casual reader will be delighted by the hard, spare beauty of home birth in the opening scene of Grace Lumpkin's 1932 novel To Make My Bread, for which she won the Maxim Gorky Award for labor novel of the year, or the striking imagery in Irene McKinney's 1989 book of poetry Six O'Clock Mine Report:

At Hardtack and Amity the grit
abrades the skin. The air is thick
above the black leaves, the open mouth
of the shaft. A man with a burning

carbide lamp on his forehead
swings a pick in a narrow corridor
beneath the earth. His eyes flare
white like a horse's, his teeth glint.

In the older entries, a lost way of speaking is preserved. In Will Allen Dromgoogle's The Heart of Old Hickory and Other Stories of Tennessee (1895), the mountain man in the short story "Fiddling His Way to Fame," introduces himself and we are privileged to hear the cadences of a lost time and place:

"I war born," he said, "on the banks o' the Wataugy, in the country uv Cartir,—in a cabin whose winders opened ter the East, an' to'des the sunrise. That war my old mother's notion an' bekase it war her notion it war allus right ter me. Fur she was not one given ter wrong ideas."

The whole of the syntax suggests a far more archaic way of speaking, the traces of which still grace the colloquial talk of Appalachian folk. This anthology is supremely important in its archival role to preserve such language. In its scope, its variety, and its literary urgency, it demands that we all listen more closely, that we all listen here, to understand more fully who we are and what we are saying.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2004