When Scholars Today Say Appalachia
The following is a conversation between Felicia Cooper and Dr. Lou Martin. Dr. Martin is an associate professor at Chatham University, teaching classes in US and Latin American history, labor and working-class history, and environmental history. He is a leader in the field of Appalachian Studies, which he defines in this interview. As a contributor to this field, his work has been published in LABOR: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, has co-edited a forthcoming book entitled Culture, Class, and Politics in Modern Appalachia with West Virginia University Press.
Note: We’ve also included the audio recording of this interview if you’d prefer to listen along!
Felicia: Is it okay to start recording?
Dr. Martin: Sure, that’s fine. What are you using?
Felicia: It’s just an online voice recorder. Do you have any recommendations?
Dr. Martin: Oh, I was hoping you knew a secret I didn’t.
Felicia: Haha! No. I’m still new to this, so thank you for your patience.
Dr. Martin: No problem.
Felicia: Cool. I thought we’d start with some questions. I’ve read a little bit of your work, but I’m really fascinated by it. We’ll start off with some easy stuff and work our way up. Is that okay?
Dr. Martin: Sure!
Felicia: Cool. So what is your relationship to Appalachia?
Dr. Martin: I grew up in Northern West Virginia and I went to school at West Virginia University, and as a grad student I studied Appalachia history. As a researcher, a lot of my work is in West Virginia history, and I put it into a context of Appalachia.
Felicia: What does that mean for you, to put something in the context of Appalachia?
Dr. Martin: Um. It means a couple of things. One is that...Appalachian studies as a field that has developed over the last forty years has scholarly literature that I try to engage with as a scholar and then the other thing is that, as I study a place, I also think about it in relation to the region, both to representation to the region as well as the more physical and material connections to the region.
Felicia: You mentioned that the academic field has changed. What other changes have you seen in the past ten years?
Dr. Martin: As a field of study? This is a complicated question, because within Appalachian studies, there are number of disciplines. The people who study Appalachia sort of found each other in the 1970s, with the Appalachian Studies Conference...Are you well familiar with this?
Felicia: Tell me more! I’m definitely not as well practiced or informed as someone who has been studying for years.
Dr. Martin: Where are you from?
Felicia: Northern Appalachia.
Dr. Martin: Where at?
Felicia: Northeast Pennsylvania.
Dr. Martin: Oh! Yeah. So this Appalachia Studies formed because there really wasn’t...the field didn’t fit into the existing ones, and they had trouble getting respect for the work they were doing. So I would say the early days of the field, the early 80’s and 90s were really just getting the field...which is multidisciplinary...sociologists, historians, geographers, political scientists. They also tried to make a conference open to residents, activists, community organizers, which created a very different field at that conference. I would say the last ten and twenty years have continued to grow the conference. I would say that within my field, there have been two main themes, the first of which is a greater focus on the nineteenth century, so the civil war and race relations and politics during the reconstruction. That’s simply because it’s a small enough field that if there’s a really productive PHD advisor, they can have an influence, especially if their work is really inspiring. And that’s the case with John Inscoe who writes about race, the civil war, and reconstruction in Appalachia. And he’s trained a lot of young scholars. The other trend I would say is to try to have, um, an understanding of transational Appalachia, meaning the international connections with Europe, primarily, and looking at the connections and migrations from Appalachia and Europe as well as how it fits into a world economy and to try to put it into these broader contexts
Felicia: Do you find these recent trends have shaped your practice or have you gone against that grain?
Dr. Martin: Well, my research...has focused on two things. I wrote a book on my home county in Northern West Virginia and how it was shaped by the political economy of the 20th century and how these workers created a different working class culture based on the rural setting they were in. They had a lot of connections ot what was happening in other parts of Appalachia with rural industrial workers- that’s a term one of my mentors used a lot, describing WV. Rural Industrial. But in some ways, it departed from what is the more common regional experience, because the CIO didn’t organize these workers, so you didn’t have, um, the United Mine Workers for instance, which has a very different message for its members than the localized unions in my county. So, that’s one way that the book, I tried to consider how it was consistent with other parts of Appalachia and how it was distinctive. The next project I’m working on, is even more of a classic A labor history, because I’m looking at coal miners, who have dominated the literature. I’m looking at the 1960s and 50s, which was less studied period of time. Does that answer your question?
Felicia: Sure! But it gives me more questions. What a gift! You mentioned that in your home, there were ways that the rural industrial workers shaped their own culture. Do you still see that today?
Dr. Martin: The book is actually about the emergence of the culture in the early 20s century. As the early companies mechanized processes, they looked more and more to unskilled labor that hey could recruit from Europe, from African Americans from the South, as well as people leaving farms in Northern and Southern WV. Those people came together through millions of individual decisions. What traditions to keep, what not to, how to make a living, how to stretch a dollar. THey collectively created a rural industrial culture, where they worked in the factory during the day and continued the rural habits- I shouldn’t say they worked in the factory during the day, there were multiple shifts, but, when they weren’t in the factory, they kept many of their rural habits going...keeping livestock, planting large gardens. So they kept a lot of these rural habits and grew a lot of their own food, and also had this ethic of what I call self help. They tried to do as much themselves as they could. They weren’t self sufficient, the way early settlers were. They found ways to supplement their factory wage. And that culture I described went into decline in the 60s and 70s. This was partly because wages were getting better, consumer goods getting cheaper, and the new level of consumer culture was unheard of. So a lot of the old ways tapered off. You can still see evidence of it, but I’d say it’s not as prominent as it once was.
Felicia: I wonder about that. I wonder about how the economy has changed, how instead of finding ways to supplement your income within your community and familial life, it’s more likely that folks will simply take on another job. Do you see that as a direct correlation?
Dr. Martin: Well, two incomes is a lot more common now than it was in the 1960s. In some ways that’s a return to the early 1900s where you had, especially among unskilled labor, you’d have multiple incomes in the house. THe husband would have an excellent or good paying job, relative to the rest of the family. The teenage kids would work, the mother would have some income, whether it was laundry or a boarder the house. It’s certainly different from the economy in West Virginia today. It’s one thing to continue the rural habit if you grew up butchering hogs and growing your own food, and doing it well, It’s different to try to gain those skills, I think, on the fly, and to depend on that as part of your livelihood.
F; Absolutely. I think that we’re seeing to see a return to these in urban farming movements and co-ops, or intentional community living, labeled as a reclamation of Appalachian tradition. What do you think of that?
Dr. Martin: I think it’s both an apt reclamation and its own thing. This is an undercurrent in the region. How do we live in a place where jobs are going away. I think there’s both a return to these earlier self-help lifestyles- again, I don’t call them self-help, because that would be misleading, and there’s also these new kind of...”let’s grow lavender on the strip mine!” or, “Can we attract some kind of IT company to the area?” or, you know, there’s all these kind of, attempts to develop in different ways and I think it will be interesting to see what wins out. I think the local food movement has any good a chance as any. People growing some food to live on, or to sell. Another example would be hemp. Now this would be...there’s efforts to legalize hemp cultivation in WV. That would be going back to the 18th century.
Felicia: Oh wow.
Dr. Martin: That would be reclaiming 200 year old traditions because it was in the later 1700s that hemp was an important crop to WV. So yeah, there’s all these ideas. It will be interesting to see which one takes root.
Felicia: I think about, especially, what might be able to take root and have any sort of stronghold in light of recent labor movements. The WV Teacher’s Strike of last year comes to mind. I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times about that, but what do you think of the aftermath?
Dr. Martin: I would say it’s nowhere near a million times! But I’d say that it’s not over yet. There’s a rally outside the capitol building in a couple of weeks to make sure that the legislature doesn’t lose focus and that they fix the insurance system that they have, which is one of the main reasons for th strike. This goes along with one of the personal things I’ve believed, now I’m not an economist. I believe that Appalachia has spent too much time trying to recreate the industrial past as opposed to imagining the future. One of the unfortunate byproducts of that has been to reduce labor costs as much as humanly possible. That has meant busting unions, and keeping the minimum wage the same for, what, 25 years now. That’s along with right-to-work laws and cutting taxes, attacking the public sector’s right to form unions. And all of this, so, this runs counter to the philosophy of the 20s and 30s which talked about paying more than the bare minimum to even unskilled workers. And, to me, the direct parallel, is, you have tens of thousands of teachers in WV whose salaries have been frozen, and the cost of healthcare more and more shifted onto them. And, I know people will get into philosophical arguments about taxpayer money, but the biggest beneficiary of these tax cuts have been out of state corporations. And now the biggest landholder in WV is...Timberland...some out of state company. And now these out of state and international companies have more money than they know what to do with, and they avoid paying another 3% ni taxes. So these cuts have benefited outside corporations and outside investors. And the detriment to not only the teachers, but the local economies that depend on teachers salaries. And this is just part of this moment of thinking that we’re in about how to drive down each others wages, which has not been a good thing for the region.
Felicia: I was really inspired by the way that the teachers involved used the platform they had to shine a light on other workers as well.
Dr. Martin: Yeah, and there was a communication workers strike shortly afterwards, too. It just so happened that red is the color that the communication workers wear on strike all the time. They have for many years. But a lot of the teachers were saying, we can forget about these folks either. The other thing is, teachers are keenly aware of the struggles of their students, and they made provisions for kids who would be without lunch those days and things like that. I thought they did it really well.
Felicia: Wow, I thought they were so aware of the power that they helped within that platform,which speaks really beautifully to the way that power has transferred hand in Appalachia. Power has been constantly stripped away, and when they were in a position of power to be held onto, they didn’t just take it away for themselves, as they had seen modelled by larger organizations. What they did was to take it and spread it around. As we’re coming to the end of the interview, I wonder, how can we as individuals be inspired by the teachers and share the power within our communities?
Dr. Martin: It’s a big question. I think the key is collective action, This has been proven time and again, that even poor people can wield a lot of power in society when they band together. I think however, tHere have been systematic efforts to disempower people and to divide people. There have been some real basic obstacles to overcome, to make people feel like their voice matters and that they have that power, to band together. THat’s not easy to do, especially in places with underemployment and disappearing land, and all that. THere’s some huge hurdles to clear, and the teachers, I think, have given others a path to look at. They had a lot of good things on their side, including...they’re all essentially answering to the same legislature, their work and insurance is tied to the same legislature, and they have shared worker experience and shared life experience. That isn’t always the case when you try to create, say, a community food network. You don’t have people with the same employers or even living similar lives, so it’s a lot of work in situations like that. I think it’s going to take a lot of trial and error and smart people working hard to figure that one out. I don’t have the answers to that.
Felicia: I think we have to acknowledge that people have been taught these divisions, through whatever has been in power.
Dr. Martin: One of the other challenges, there’s another article I’m working on, on neoliberalism, and one of the challenges that have worked for a lot of people. If you end up with a professional degree in a city that’s growing, it’s pretty likely that the last twenty years have worked out pretty well for you. Not always. It’s not like when everyone worked at the steel mill and experienced the same struggles, grievances, and losses at the same time and could unite and fight those things. People are experiencing many similar things, but in different time and different ways, and they don’t have that union or single employer to bring them together. Many people do not believe that government can function in a way that makes our lives better, so it’s difficult to try to imagine what that could be. Let me ask you- I thought we were going to talk about definitions of Appalachia!
Felicia: That’s my final question!
Dr. Martin: Appalachia is a mountain range that stretches from New York down to Alabama but the use of the word Appalachia really became popularized in the mid to late nineteenth century, in a lot of travel writing, about this exotic people in an exotic place called Appalachia. According to one travel writer, strange land with peculiar people! And the people who thought of themselves as modern, urban middle class readers could be amused by these people awakening from a rip van winkle like sleep in a modern world untouched by modern ways. So, because of that association with a certain culture, people have come to associate it with what many appalachian studies scholars would call “Central Appalachia.” Coal-producing counties in the most mountainous part of the the region. That’s usually, if you see Appalachia today, that’s what the average New York Times reader will think of. But more scholars are claiming the geographical region to say that it can’t be boiled down to one thing, and to bring attention to the diversity of landscape, people, and culture. So, when scholars today say appalachia, they probably mean a larger, more diverse culture.
Felicia: I want to be respectful of your time, so we can end here, though I know we could talk for much longer. I really appreciate you being so generous today.
Dr. Martin: No problem. Have a great day.
Felicia: You too!