In the introduction to Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspapers and Writing in Appalachia, author Samantha NeCamp addresses the problem of how, in her words, “myths create our assumptions about Appalachia.”
In this case, Necamp is attempting to tackle the false perception held by many in our country that Appalachians are, by and large, violent and ignorant hillbillies who historically struggle with problems such as extreme poverty, and more specifically, pervasive illiteracy. She chooses to combat these negative stereotypes by “responding to calls for a rounder historical portrait of Appalachia by utilizing weekly newspapers as a historical archive of literacy practices.”
In other words, if you truly believe that Appalachia has always been inhabited by a bunch of illiterate hicks, taking one look at the rich historical record that our community newspapers have created over the years will quickly prove otherwise.
In order to achieve her goal of exposing the image of your typical illiterate Appalachian as nothing more than a mere “trope,” NeCamp has searched the archives of five weekly publications – The Big Sandy News of Louisa/Lawrence County, The Hazel Green Herald in Wolfe County, which closed sometime in the early part of the 20th century, The Mountain Advocate of Barbourville/Knox County, The Clay City Times (and The Spout Spring Times) in Powell County, and finally, The Breathitt County News, which was a short-lived newspaper that ran for ten years, from 1901 to 1911.
Focusing particularly on the time period between 1885-1920, for reasons clearly explained in the book, NeCamp carefully considers the content found in early issues of each publication in an attempt to gain some insight into the level of literacy that was present in each of these distinctly Appalachian communities at that time.
After a brief history lesson on each newspaper in chapter one, NeCamp sets about the business of making her point in the following 67 pages before wrapping things up nicely with a 19-page conclusion. In all, she takes 112 pages to explore how, as she says early in chapter two, “a powerful and reciprocal literacy sponsorship existed throughout the region between editors and the readers of local papers.”
Pointing to the clear and abundant evidence of a high level of engagement between readers and their respective community publications, NeCamp paints a picture of an informed, intelligent and definitely not illiterate Appalachian population at a time when they were becoming widely known as anything but. The four main questions that I feel most support this idea, both then and now, are:
- How have newspapers in the region been able to succeed the way that they have, with many running for well over a century?
- Why have business owners for generations continued to pay money to advertise their goods and services in the pages of newspapers?
- How does one explain the regular appearance of letters to the editor and/or correspondent columns in the pages of Appalachian newspapers?
- Why has so much of the column space in our newspapers always been dedicated to the coverage of, and discussion about, local academic institutions?
The answers to all of these questions very obviously point to the existence of not only a literate Appalachia, but an Appalachia that is passionate about reading, writing and education in general. Those of us who call this region home don’t need to be told this, however. We are already well aware of the negative stereotypes that are often associated with the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky, but we are also aware of the reality of the situation, which is, of course, much different from popular belief.
For this reason, I feel that Literacy in the Mountains is not a book that was necessarily written for Appalachians. Instead, I feel as if the author’s hope is that this work will find its way into the hands of those outsiders who are so quick to label us as illiterate hillbillies simply because that is what they have always heard, or assumed to be true.
That is not to say that residents of Appalachia won’t enjoy the book, though. On the contrary, I found it to be very interesting, and I was filled with a great sense of pride as I read about how these early newspapers helped to shape this part of our country into what it is today. Granted, I work at a weekly newspaper in an eastern Kentucky community, so I’m sure that I will find this subject matter much more interesting than someone who works in, let’s say, insurance sales, or the restaurant business.
Still, I would definitely recommend this book, especially to anyone interested at all in Kentucky history, particularly as it pertains to the Appalachian region. I imagine that Literacy in the Mountains: Community, Newspapers and Writing in Appalachia will be appearing on Appalachian Studies syllabi frequently in the future, and rightfully so.