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What/Where/Who is Appalachia?

Appalachia is a place. It is defined on maps, even when competing mapmakers disagree about its boundaries. It is also a culture, even though that culture is not uniform in nature across the region.

For generations, America's most talented writers have understood the power and importance of place in the human psyche. Imagine Faulkner's work set in the midwest, or Steinbeck's work set in New England. It just doesn't work. Place matters in the telling of any decent story. In Appalachia, place matters as much, arguably, as any other factor. We can define place both as geography and as landscape. That is, lines on a map, and geological and ecological features that characterize the space inside those lines. However, in endeavoring to define Appalachia, one quickly realizes that there exists no hard, fast, and universal definition.

A logical starting point for defining Appalachia might be the Appalachian Regional Commission. At the time of this writing, the ARC still exists, though if President Trump has his way, the Commission will soon be scrapped. Established in 1965, the ARC's mission is to improve the economy of Appalachia. In order to work toward that mission, of course, the Commission by necessity must define Appalachia. That, it turns out, is often as much about politics as about culture or geography.

The map above, courtesy of the ARC, offers a quick glimpse at the bizarre outcome that results from politicians attempting to define a region. Because the ARC is able to offer federal money in the form of workforce development, infrastructure improvement grants, and community development, it has been, at times, desirable for communities to define themselves as being in Appalachia even if they do not quite seem to fit the mold. If one were to ask what any of the 420 counties in white has in common with every one of the other 419, the answer might be that inclusion in the ARC's definition of Appalachia is the only common characteristic. The map includes some parts of the deep South that are most assuredly not Appalachia. Muscle Shoals, Alabama is, technically, in Appalachia. The University of Mississippi is only a few miles removed from the border. There's also that tiny sliver of middle Tennessee, and part of bourbon country in central Kentucky, both of which look like random appendages and have no mountains. When one considers the driving factors behind the map, one might conclude that the ARC's definition is not, after all, a solid representation of where Appalachia really is.

Even if the ARC's map includes places that are decidedly not Appalachia, the region, as defined by the Commission, does include a very large chunk of land that is most assuredly Appalachia. That is, there are no places in the blue part of the map that are Appalachia, even if there are pieces of the white that are not Appalachia. This conundrum, then, leads us to consider other ways of defining Appalachia. While geography is certainly one important way to define Appalachia, culture and economy also factor in.

When one thinks of Appalachian culture, one might think of the noble mountaineer or the less noble white-trash hillbilly. As offensive as hillbilly stereotypes are, they remain the default when many Americans think of Appalachia. Even if they cannot point to the region on a map, many Americans are certain that hillbillies marry their siblings, live in shacks, shoot all of their food, make illicit whiskey, and remain uneducated. Sometimes, when folks from outside the region come to visit, they find tourist meccas like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge that reinforce these idiotic and unrealistic stereotypes.

Looking beyond offensive stereotypes, it becomes clear that there exists no single, monolithic Appalachian culture. The region cannot even be defined by race. While a goodly portion of the residents of Appalachia can trace their ancestry back to Scots Irish settlers, this is not always the case. In many communities in western North Carolina, there has existed for generations a multi-racial society. In Jackson County, where we live, for instance, one will find the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Alongside whites and the Cherokees, there is a small but thriving black community. Many families in our community count as ancestors individuals of all three races. There are, I am certain, many other places in Appalachia that are not as lily-white as might be expected.

It has also been long assumed by popular culture that Appalachia, particularly the central and southern parts of the region, identifies with mainstream southern culture. This, too, is an assumption that has little root in historical reality. While there are certainly parts of Appalachia that are both southern and in the South, not all Appalachians are, or have traditionally been, Confederate-flag-flying good ol' boys. East Tennessee, for example, a region that is thoroughly Appalachian, was a hotbed of Union sympathy during the Civil War. The rebel flags that adorn porches and pickup trucks across Appalachia are generally new additions with little historical precedent. The folks flying the stars and bars today in much of Appalachia would likely be shocked that their great-great-great grandparents were Unionists through and through. However, Americans have rarely met a stereotype they didn't latch onto, and the result is yet another flawed way to define Appalachia.

Appalachian folks are both isolated and independent, too, right? Actually, the historical record does not support the argument that Appalachia is isolated. The region was a major gateway to the American West. Coal from central Appalachia has powered the world for over a century. Timber from the region was used to build structures in much of the rest of the country. Mountain folks have long been connected to the outside world even if they chose to moderate the amount of influence the outside world has on their culture. The idea that Appalachian people are independent, too, crumbles upon close scrutiny. In many of the most impoverished parts of the region, dependence (both on neighbors and government assistance) has become necessary. Seldom where there ever fully independent mountaineers.

What, then, is authentic Appalachian culture? Does such a thing even exist? What say you?

If you are still reading, I hope you are more confused than ever about what or where or who Appalachia is. I tell my students every semester that my goal is for them to leave my class knowing less about history than when they began. This happens by virtue of them realizing just how much they do not know, and how much of what they think they know is utter nonsense. Let's face it: especially in 2017, many Americans are not interested in complex narratives. They'd rather have simply talking-point-worthy answers to complex questions. Hence the oversimplified explanations of Appalachia.

Now that we have established the problematic nature of using maps and culture to define Appalachia, we can examine one final lens through which to view and potentially define Appalachia. If nothing else, Appalachia is characterized by poverty. In fact, it was the region's stark poverty that drove federal elected officials to create the ARC. In 1965, after visiting some of the region's poorest communities, President Lyndon Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty, describing Appalachia as ground zero in that war.

Johnson remarked: "In our history no region has contributed more to the shaping of our destiny." Of course, this statement is problematic for a number of reasons. Johnson was a pretty blatant racist, and it's worth questioning his motives in finding noble white folks to rescue in the midst of the nationwide push for civil rights for African Americans. However, even though I'm not certain he fully understood the historical context, he is right that Appalachia has contributed much to the development of the United States. Unfortunately, the United States has never fully compensated the people of the region for all they sacrificed for the benefit of increased wealth in other regions.

Not all of Appalachia is poor, and many Appalachian people are poor in ways that do not fit the typical mold of poverty. There are pockets of affluence in the region, and the region's resources have been exploited to generate a great deal of wealth even when that wealth did not stay in the region. In short, there is not one single economic reality for the whole of the region. However, even if the poverty isn't the same throughout the region, and even if some parts of Appalachia have thrived economically, it is no less true that Appalachia is a region in economic distress. In fact, it is poverty and economic distress, more than any other factor, that drives the bizarre ARC map.

Examining why so much of Appalachia is mired in poverty is not the same as simply describing the extent of the poverty. My own scholarly work focuses on why much more than what. However, before we can dive too deeply into causation, we must first define Appalachia, or, at least, determine that no universal definition exists.

When Johnson signed the "Appalachia Bill" that established the ARC, he argued: "This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery." We now know that that partisan cynicism returned with a vengeance, assuming it ever in fact fully departed. Too often, our struggling neighbors are derided as lazy, addicted, ignorant welfare cheats. When we demonize their character rather than work to understand the roots of their suffering, we are being selfish and hateful. If anything, perhaps, Appalachian people are characterized by a deep commitment to community. I hope we can all, red and blue, right and left, draw on that historical commitment to community as we continue to work toward solving the important problems facing our region.


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