The Complexity of Understanding Appalachia Economics

There’s a great complexity to why Appalachia has ended up in its current economic and cultural states. Economic and political forces pushed against the region without any centralized plan for its development. Without arguing the merits of free markets, we can see the net results of development in Appalachia that happened without any real planning.

Before I’ve written a word about the region, I wanted to read as much history and social science as I could. I know just enough about the region to let the basic cultural representations cloud my view, and I’ve tried to stay away from those easy answers.

One of the areas I’ve tried to understand is poverty, and more specifically what happened in the region to cause such a concentration of poverty in the area. For instance, in Owsley County nearly 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. It’s easy to lay the blame solely upon the local population, but my assumption has been there are bigger factors that have made climbing out of the economic dire straits more challenging.

As I’ve continued researching, three basic themes that have emerged in both the historical and scientific research:

Outside speculators came to the area (some friends of the Crown, some companies), and these companies were not interested in developing local economics and sustainable environments. They came to make as much as they could from the natural resources, e.g. timber, salt, coal.

“Virginia also chartered another land company-the Loyal Land Company headed by Dr. Thomas Walker, who with Buchanan and Patton and other land prospectors found and named the Cumberland Gap leading toward Kentucky in 1750-to take up and sell land in the upper Tennessee watershed….

…At the same time, the colony chartered the Ohio Company to acquire and sell land around the Forks of the Ohio (the site of modern Pittsburgh) and the Greenbrier Company, whose territory was the valley of the New River’s largest tributary, draining the district adjacent to West Virginia’s present border with Virginia. Thus the movement of people into southwest Virginia represented not only a race between settlers and speculators, but also contests among the rival speculators to identify and secure the best land.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 141-146). Kindle Edition.

Those companies divvied up what would become the region without regard to resource and political boundaries, which has created county and state lines that have often created metropolis regions with resources and outlying areas without.

“Where in this huge territory is Appalachia? Political boundaries do not provide the answer. Geometric lines drawn in London in the seventeenth century to set off Carolina and Pennsylvania from the Chesapeake colonies were abstractions fixed on the Atlantic shore to demarcate the hinterlands of what were then widely separated thresholds of colonization. These lines were subsequently extended inland with little heed paid to the interior’s natural features.” — John Alexander Williams. Appalachia: A History (Kindle Locations 182-185). Kindle Edition.

The Appalachian Archetype, or Why I Can’t Stand Cultural Critiques

While So Far Appalachia uses my family, the Bakers, as the backdrop for its narrative, the story is really about the larger issues that impact how we experience life in America: education, poverty, guns, and civic engagement.

The more I research the book and the more I write on the blog, the more focused that will become on the site.

However, the overarching themes related to stereotypes and class are really driving the book. I’ve written about each of those themes, most recently with the post On Appalachia and Reality TV and Writing, but every day my feed is filled up with images that associate Appalachia with a variety of well-worn stereotypes that have survived from the H.L. Mencken era.

The Importance of Being Working Class

One of the great failures of most contemporary criticism in this country is a complete failure to address class in a meaningful way. It’s oftentimes pushed beneath race and gender, the two dominant relational issues through which many cultural critics view the country.

When I first started writing this book, I found myself debating a feminist friend about the primary importance of class when discussing the region.

“Class may be important,” she argued,  “but the women in Appalachia most certainly are less well off than the men.”

In that particularist argument, she is most certainly correct (although I haven’t looked at the most recent data, which would reflect that more women now graduate college than men and thus are changing that dynamic). Regardless of the veracity of her particularistic argument, it’s her claim itself that reinforced the idea that the region must operate within its own walled-off bubble.

In other words: what’s primarily important in her argument isn’t that the region has been cut-off from the economic growth of the country, but instead its that the women in that region get a smaller portion of the shrinking Appalachian economic opportunity.

Why You Think Appalachians Vote Against Their Self Interest

“The only way it’s ever going to change for us is if a poor person is elected president, and that isn’t going to happen.”

How I See People Viewing Appalachia

When elections roll around, I try to pay close attention to how people speak about Appalachia. I do that because I’m both interested in how candidates address the idea of race and class without ever mentioning either, and I’m interested how commentators respond to that politicking.

In general, here’s how I divide that commentary:

  • those who can’t understand why Appalachians, particularly from the central and south regions, would vote Republican; and
  • those who try to imprint their own ideals on Appalachians to push an agenda that has little to do with helping Appalachians.

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Appalachia. People either believe these folks are ignorant, gun-toting rednecks who hate everybody who isn’t white, or these folks are salt-of-the-earth, blue collar workers without whom the country couldn’t function so let’s just leave them alone.

The problem is that neither of those archetypes describes the Appalachia that I know.

The Questions My Friends Ask

When I set out to write So Far Appalachia, I had in mind that I wanted to address the stark dichotomy between how Democrats and Republicans viewed the region. 

My friends on the Left couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that Appalachians would turn away help from the government, and my friends on the Right believed that the Appalachian disdain for the government meant they were free-market Libertarians who wanted nothing more than all social structures to go away.

Whenever I’d finish conversations on the subject, my friends on the Left seemed to believe I was a neocon zealot and my friends on the Right seemed to believe I was one step away from a socialist.

I realized within those conversations there was a question I needed to explore: Why is Appalachia the way that it is?

The Four Rails of America

As the book research evolved and as I’ve dug through my family’s history, four themes emerged.

On the death of my great uncle

“Hello cousin Brad. Just letting you know that Dad died this morning. The last of that group of Bakers. Glad you got to visit. Love Connie.”

The Bakers 2

Visiting Herbert and my cousins in Oregon in August 2013.

I received the text at 9:33 pm last night as my wife and I sat on the couch watching television. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to think in that moment. I’d finally made my way to Oregon in August to meet Herbert, and we’d had a nice visit.

He was still pretty sharp, but it was clear he’d made his peace with the world. “I keep trying to go, Brad, but they won’t take me.”

While there’s much to tell about Herbert, the really good stories will get told in the book. For now, I wanted to share this tidbit because it represents a fundamentally important idea that Herbert and his brothers shared.

In the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Herbert and his brothers signed up for military service. This included Robert Lee, who was only 16 at the time. For whatever trouble the Bakers stirred up with the government throughout the years, they had long prided themselves on military service. When their country called, they answered.

His mother, my great-great grandmother, would eventually receive a congressional citation since she had 6 boys in the service.

“I carried a deep-seated shame that he didn’t know.”

“The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.” — Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels

When I pulled into the Poppy Trail Trailer Park in Beaumont, California in late 2010, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

For much of my life, there’s been a disconnect between the stories I tell, and the life behind those stories. Since I began this project, I’ve increasingly found it difficult to escape from that dichotomy. Worse yet, I chose to handle that dichotomy by constructing the most superficial of stories about my family and its history so that I might more easily pass into new, more sophisticated worlds.

Instead of creating a solid foundation with that history, I found I’d created a weak scaffolding that required more attention just to keep it from crumbling. The net result was a feeling of restlessness. In order to fill the void, I had to keep moving up the ladder, always assuming that the next rung would bring some sense of satisfaction.

I thought those feelings of aloneness were a symptom of the just natural order of life. After all, we are internal creatures, viewing the world around us through a lens that begins in our own brains. No matter where we are, the world we perceive is something that is not us. I’m not sure our brains have evolved in such a way that we ever truly feel comfortable within any setting.

That is how I justified my trepidation, which still exists today. As I’ve traveled around the United States meeting my relatives, I’ve had this deep-seated sense nibbling at my insides that once I entered one of their homes, I would suddenly — and obviously — find myself out of place.

It’s important to understand when I say out of place, I don’t mean more sophisticated. I mean just the opposite. While many of my immediate kin had largely come of age in rural areas before scattering across the county, I had run from that.

The problem hasn’t even been with them. It’s always been with me. Only as I pulled into the trailer park looking for my Great Uncle Robert Lee, one of the last son’s of Bobby Baker, whose murder brought an end to the Clay County War in 1936, did I begin to realize this.

Since the time I can first remember thinking about my life, I had always wanted to go to places that were bigger. In my mind, these shining cities were places of opportunity, and the small towns of my childhood meant slow, certain, and obscure death. This anxiety became more pronounced as I got older, and more than one girlfriend told me that she never seriously considered a long-term relationship with me because it was very clear that I would never take the time to settle down.

As I moved through the professional world, I soon found myself out of place for an entirely new reason.

I found myself completely out of place as attended graduate school at Berkeley, worked at Conde Nast’s Wired, and the the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d spent a lifetime searching for the brass ring without concerning myself with the people who might be at that ceremony. Instead of slipping into a comfortable rapport with my contemporaries, I found myself feeling even smaller than I had when I lived in Appalachia.

Distraught, afraid, and inadequate, I fell back on the only identity I knew. I found myself telling stories about Appalachia and little snippets of what I knew about my heritage as a way to differentiate myself. Without the blue-blooded pedigree of many of the people I found myself surrounded by, I turned to the well-worn tale of the country-boy-done-good. I created an identity that was both the truth and a lie.

On Writing: Why I’ll Be Drunk and Hungover in My Book

“You waking up hungover in jail is right up my alley. The rest of it sounds too academic.”

That’s what Alex Heard said to me during our conversation after he finished reading my proposal. I can’t say I jumped for joy at that critique, but the conversation that followed helped me frame what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

“Who are You Writing This For? What’s The Story You Want to Tell?”

Ask me about Appalachia and I’ll start to tell you stories about the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, and the personal history I’ve come to know.

I can string together tales, and connect dots in a way that weaves a pretty good tale, I’m told.

The more I’ve worked on this project, though, the more I’ve found myself moving away from that voice. I’ve been adamant that I want to write a book that is big and deep.

I’ve waffled with my voice. I’ve continuously toned down that storyteller within me because in real life that person has never felt very comfortable being around the people who I hope read this book.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write for The New Yorker and the NPR crowd, I forgot an important rule: Write you.

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life crafting my voice as a writer, a voice that I have come to enjoy when it’s working well and a voice that is — for better or for worse — me. It’s not a voice that’s ever fit in with the type of elite circles I was lucky enough to run around with during my time in journalism.

On Writing and Appalachia

When I tell stories about my family and its relationship to Clay County, Kentucky and the County Seat of Manchester, people tend to think I exaggerate.

I can understand why. The stories that come from that part of Appalachia tend to be wrapped in what seems to be hyperbole. You hear about poverty, feuds, grudges, anger at the government, lack of formal education, and a general desperation, but since most people aren’t around those things on a day-to-day basis they don’t seem real.

These stories must be fiction.


The fork off Crane Creek Road that led to the Baker family plot.

I always assumed the few stories that I’d heard about my family were true. There wasn’t anything in my upbringing to suggest that those telling the stories would lie.

Years later when I visited my family homestead for the first time, I likewise believed that when people told me to watch my back when I was traveling through Clay County, that meant I should watch my back.

This mentality related back to the days of the feuds.

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