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Wednesday, 09 January 2008 00:00

Big as a mountain

Written by 

The Encyclopedia of Appalachia.  University of Tennessee Press, 2007. 1864 pages

Sometimes good things come in big packages.

And the Encyclopedia of Appalachia is big. More than 1,800 pages of finely-printed prose make up this boxlike book. I’m not sure exactly what the Encyclopedia weighs, but if you dropped it on someone’s foot you might face arrest for assault with a deadly weapon.

Funded by various private companies, individuals, institutions, foundations, and organizations — the Encyclopedia’s editors, Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, provide a long list of donors and contributors at the beginning of the book — the Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, $79.95) was 10 years in the making. It contains some 2,000 articles written by more than 1,000 journalists and scholars. Thirty sections divide the book into categories ranging from “Music” to “Religion,” from “Agriculture” to “Labor” to “Tourism.” Here are histories of work and war, of different ethnic groups, of pioneers and Native Americans, of the land itself. Though such an undertaking can never wholly satisfy — every reader will think of entries the editors might have included — the work does aim to be as complete as possible. In the music section alone there are around 170 articles.

The Encyclopedia is a book for exploring, a one-volume library really where the reader can become lost in the pleasure of learning about new people and places while revisiting old friends and familiar sights. In the section on “Religion,” for example, the writers offer fine articles on the Baptist Church, explaining for non-Baptists the differences between Free-Will Baptists and Missionary Baptists. In the music section we can read about the development and influence of the steel guitar on Appalachian music while on the next page learning about classical music in Appalachia under the heading “Symphony Orchestra.”

Many people and organizations of Western North Carolina find a place in the Encyclopedia. Typical of these articles is the informative piece on the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, the organization founded by Susan Collard, which as the Encyclopedia tells us, “claims hard work and good humor as core values.” The writer goes on to show us the influence of this theater on Asheville and the surrounding region, and includes mention of other local dance groups.

In defining Appalachia, the editors follow the lead of the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has mapped out Appalachia as comprising 410 counties in thirteen states from the Mississippi to New York. Large sections of the Encyclopedia deal therefore with places like Pittsburg and Western New York, places which many Western North Carolinians might not traditionally think of as Appalachia except in the geographical sense of the word (Some in Pennsylvania don’t even pronounce Appalachia the same way as their Southern cousins, preferring a soft “lay” for the third syllable). From such a far-ranging work comparisons may be drawn and similarities found that may have escaped the attention of many readers.

Yet there are also dangers to this broad approach. Appalachia is indeed a distinct geographic area, but one which varies widely in terms of its history, its people, its culture, and even its climate. The inhabitants of Waynesville or Sylva, those whose roots here go back three or four generations, are very much culturally dissimilar from people living in Pennsylvania’s Beaver Falls or New Castle. In their taste for music, their educational system, their religious faiths, and their general approach to culture and society, Western Pennsylvania and Western North Carolina differ profoundly from each other even today, when regional cultures are undergoing the leveling process of mass communications.

The Encyclopedia in this sense generally does a service then to our understanding of Appalachia, broadening our view of this variety of cultures within the region. Yet clearly there is no core Appalachian culture, no unifying link other than the mountains themselves between the steelworker in Pennsylvania and the one-mule farmer in Tennessee. No one, for example, would quarrel with the idea that Thomas Wolfe, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Fred Chappell, and others are Appalachian writers (the writers themselves might reject such a label), but it is difficult to think of James Fenimore Cooper as one of their number, as the Encyclopedia does. Included in the book are fine pieces on the Pittsburgh Folk Festival, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, but here too it is difficult to see what they have to do with Appalachia.

The Encyclopedia also runs too far from home at times. Here, for example, is a well-written article on the North Carolina School of the Arts, yet Winston-Salem is well off the Encyclopedia’s own map of Appalachia. Certainly the inhabitants of Winston don’t consider themselves living in the mountains but in the piedmont.

One final quibble: the Encyclopedia was written for scholars and for a general audience, and works well on both levels. Occasionally, however, there is a hint of intellectual stuffiness to the prose, as if the author were either writing for a fellow sociology professor or a moron (this is not to imply, of course, any similarity between the two). On page 219, in a description of homeplace, the author writes “The homeplace is most often used by an adult in reference to his or her own childhood home or to that of a parent or relative ....”

This humorous clarification continues for several more sentences.

But these are minor criticisms. The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, reasonably priced for so massive a volume, will be an enormous asset to libraries, colleges and universities, and high schools. It will also make, of course, a wonderful addition to home libraries, where it should serve both as a splendid reference book and as a delightful volume simply for browsing.

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