British Association for American Studies


‘Unrest in Appalachia: Disability and Murder in the American South’ (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

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‘Unrest in Appalachia: Disability and Murder in the American South’ (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

August 13, 2014 @ 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm

‘Unrest in Appalachia: Disability and Murder in the American South’

Jude Riley: ‘A Whole World of Idiots? – Ellen Glasgow and Eugenics and Intellectual Disability in the Appalachian Mountains’

In 1926 the publication of the eugenic family study Mongrel Virginians supported longstanding eugenic concerns regarding Virginia’s mountain communities. Relying on flawed testing techniques and racial and class based prejudices, the study suggested the state’s mountaineers were inherently lacking mentally, physically and morally. Although the study focussed primarily on a mixed-race community, it was both integral to and reflective of a regional and national concern about the eugenic fitness of all Appalachian people regardless of race.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, both popular and scientific texts from within the region and beyond recreated and dispersed the image of the ‘southern mountain idiot’. Although often these images were exaggerated, they were indicative of real beliefs, beliefs which had tragic consequences for those living within these communities. In the 1930s individuals and whole families in mountain communities were collected in raids by county sheriffs and taken to local hospitals or the state colony for the feeble-minded at Lynchburg for sterilisation and/or institutionalisation.

Through a discussion of southern novelist Ellen Glasgow’s 1935 novel Vein of Iron, Jude’s paper shall examine how this dangerous trope entered the southern imaginary and how one writer in particular responded to it. He hopes to show how notions regarding intellectual disability have been culturally dependent and to encourage conversations regarding the impact images of disability have had and continue to have on individuals. To introduce his work to a wider audience the paper will go beyond literary analysis to incorporate a variety of sources including eugenic texts, photographs, diagrams and testimony from victims of sterilization. Jude hopes to reveal how literary works when added to these sources can open new avenues for understanding how societies respond to scientific and sociological change.

Allan Symons: ‘Legitimizing Southern Stereotypes: Murderous Music and the American Recording Industry in the 20’s and 30s’

In 1977 Wilma Dykeman, novelist and revisionist scholar of Appalachian culture, argued against the depictions of Appalachian mountain inhabitants as violent to the extreme. Dykeman declared that a culture of violence was as “American as apple pie, whether it is exemplified by John Dillinger or the Hatfields and McCoys.”[1] Whilst her argument responded specifically to over a century of misrepresentations of Appalachian people, it is woven into the fabric of a larger debate centred upon the South as exceptional in terms of violence and male physical brutality. Allan’s paper will illuminate cultural misrepresentations of black and white rural males in the South during the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century.

Crucially, Allan will highlight the interpolation of black and white southern musical styles prior to the industry’s categorisation of commercially recorded ‘roots’ music. Categorisation of this music resulted in the ‘construction’ of rigid genres such as blues as a distinctly black music, and country music as intrinsically white. He wishes to question the extent to which this categorisation may have authenticated stereotypes in the context of male brutality and southern representation.

Appalachian mountain music has a tradition of ‘murdered sweetheart ballads’ in which the male kills his female love interest in the song’s structure. However, these ‘murder ballads’ constitute only a small proportion of early commercial country recordings: many early recordings also extoll the virtues of home and family. In contrast, whilst covering a number of topics, a disproportionate amount of blues recordings feature the threat of murder and violent control of women as a central theme. By giving a broad overview, the paper aims to encourage others to engage with some of the critical debates surrounding early commercially ‘roots’ recordings, race and gender, and the cultural implications of ‘murder songs’ in the context of these debates.

[1]Bruce Stewart, Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012) 18


Northumbria University
0191 232 6002
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Lit & Phil
23 Westgate Road
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 1SE United Kingdom
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0191 232 0192
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