“A Peculiar People, a Discrete Region”: Appalachian Literature Beyond External Constructs

If, as Henry Shapiro argues, Appalachia truly is a construct, “a strange land inhabited by a peculiar people, a discrete region, in but not of America” (xiv), it contains a populace who have been responding to that claim since the nineteenth century. If, as has been posited by David Whisnant, Terry Easton, and a number of others, this construction of Appalachia coincides with economic exploitation, these strange people have been responding to this colonial presence and its focus on Appalachia’s coal, timber, and natural gas for nearly as long. From Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven to Ann Pancake’s Strange as this Weather Has Been to James Still’s River of Earth, much of Appalachian literature has built itself upon responses to these claims.

This paper intends to ask: How does our literature move beyond economic exploitation? What is the literature of the region beyond the construction of Appalachia that has been foisted upon us? While these questions will serve as a starting point, my goal is that this paper will begin a conversation about the ways in which Appalachia exists beyond being othered through resource-based colonialism. It examines the ways in which Appalachia has been depicted beyond of external constructs, beginning with a focus on land, especially the commons, and family as central concerns in all Appalachian literature, even stories where the main focus is on resource extraction. In short, this paper asks: how is Appalachia depicted outside of designations of it as a colonized space full of peculiar people?