An emotional geography unconfined by regional borders is the reason Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn’s 1976 autobiography, as told to George Vecsey, stands on my bookshelf. It’s why Wendell Berry’s short stories recall an innate, unspoken sensibility and the voice of Jennifer Nettles, who hails from a city in Georgia east of the Appalachian range, sounds hauntingly familiar.
For a century or two after settling the mountainous region of the eastern United States, Scots-Irish, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, and English immigrants and their descendants preserved a strong musical tradition as well as deep religious values characterized by severe self-reliance and a modest diffidence. Outsiders more recently came to regard Appalachia as a land of coal mines and poverty, where one travels in search of folk art and lush hiking trails but not employment.
Only two major cities—Knoxville, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—are located entirely within Appalachia. Residents of adjacent areas are more aware of its cultural influence than its geographic boundaries. Our tires burnish the asphalt on Interstate 71, which stretches from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland through monotonously flat lowland terrain just beyond the western edge of the Appalachian Plateau in Ohio. The mountains would impede us.
Geologists use the fitting term unglaciated to refer to the huge rock formations marking the transition from the lowlands to Appalachia. The rest of us simply recognize driving conditions have become less favorable while the scenery grows more appealing through the mist.
In the 1960s and 1970s, an emerging appreciation of Appalachian culture inspired the establishment of educational and literary endeavors such as the Foxfire project and the Appalachian Center. Pigeonholed in my old desk is a brochure describing Berea, Kentucky, where the literary quarterly Appalachian Heritage is published by Berea College. Last week, I was pleased to encounter its emissary George Brosi at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival. George and Connie Brosi’s relaxed manner immediately put me at ease and confirmed my nearly forgotten decision to pay their city a long-delayed visit.