From the Logan Banner of Logan, WV, dated August 5, 1927, comes this editorial about the “mountain folk” of Appalachia, printed in response to a piece in Collier’s:
Observations By R.H. Martin, Editor of Charleston Mail, In Rejoinder to Collier’s Article
Some West Virginia newspapers are both indignant and aroused over an article printed in Collier’s recently under the name of Arthur Davenport and having for its theme the sad and deplorable conditions of the mountain dwellers in Southern Appalachia. The general tenor of the article can be fairly judged by the introductory synopsis:
We Americans are fond of tilting our noses and giving the rest of the world the superior eye.
Anybody going about in that fashion is pretty sure to overlook an unpolished heel or a rip in the clothing where it makes others laugh most.
Here is the story of the unpolished heel. Here are Americans of nearly two hundred years’ breeding who never heard the names Roosevelt, Wilson, Ford, Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin; who never saw a —
But never mind. Read and cease marveling for a few moments that the Chinese can be dedraggled, the Hottentot so naked, the mukhik so ignorant and the Hindu so impoverished. Here are all of these calamities within a few hours train ride from our own golden Capitol.
If the conditions are as Mr. Davenport has painted them, then it would appear to be a case where pity and help were needed rather than sneers and laughter. In fact, Mr. Davenport in the introduction, or Collier’s editor who may have written it, gives some indications of “nose-tilting” that might provoke a rather loud guffaw from some unlettered mountaineer whose forbears were possibly among, and certainly of the same type, of those mountaineers who won the battles of the Cowpens and King’s Mountain, which victories some historians consider the turning point in the American revolution. They were probably of the same type as that Col. Washington, who, although he could not make a letter, yet left the mark of his sword on a certain Col. Tarleton.
It may be true–we shall not attempt to deny it–that there are mountaineers who never heard of Babe Ruth. We have not the slightest desire to detract one iota from all laurels due to the famous batsman, but, like most mountaineers, probably we should, if it simmered down to that, prefer Sergeant York as our hero to the idol of the howling grandstand that throws pop-bottles at umpires.
Nor shall we repine if it is true that some of these mountaineers never heard of Charlie Chaplin. We fail to see where knowing him as most Americans know him would be intellectually or otherwise uplifting. Perhaps, such mountaineers, as have missed long-distance acquaintance of either of these gentlemen just mentioned have not lost so much after all. As for other names mentioned there may be in the deepest mountain recesses persons who have not heard of them. If Mr. Davenport knows of his own personal knowledge of such cases, his statement stands.
There are mountain folk in the great ranges of Southern Appalachia who have been cut off from this modern civilization of ours that produces bandits in Gotham and gunmen in Chicago, the nauseous scandals of Hollywood, the commercial orgies of Dempsey and Sharkey, and other highly moral and refining manifestations of the literates, and their ignorance of the outside world may be large. But as to whether a more intimate contact with this outside world which we boastfully call civilized would improve the mountaineer or not, would, it seems to us, depend a good deal upon that part of it with which he came in contact.
Mountaineers in the innermost recesses of the elevations of the elevations are poor as well as deficient in general knowledge. We admit as much. Their wants are few, and they are able to get along with what to satisfy their forefathers who at infinite toil conquered the wilderness and blazed the paths of those whose “culture” takes on “nose-tilting” sneering and laughing. Perhaps Mr. Davenport might get a new insight into real values if he should read what Bobbie Burns wrote about “honest poverty.”
Illiteracy still exceeds 90 percent in the mountains of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, which states contribute to the four million of which I write. Poverty of a sort unbelievable in the cities is so commonplace as not to be impressive: the amount of money passing through the hands of the old mountaineer in any year is often less than eight dollars.
The term, “mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina” is ambiguous. Practically all West Virginia is mountainous, or semi-mountainous. Taking the states named as a whole the percentage of illiteracy among native-born whites is as follows: Kentucky, 7.3; North Carolina, 8.2; Virginia, 6.1; West Virginia, 4.8; Tennessee, 7.4. These figures are slightly increased by adding to them foreign illiterates and illiterates among the negro population. The latter two elements present special problems that are being gradually worked out and the percentages from now on will rapidly diminish. To say therefore, that mountain folk are 90 percent illiterate, one would have to restrict the term “mountain folk” to a very small proportion of the population.
But Mr. Davenport seems to apply his percentage to the “four million of which I write.” It possibly may be that if Mr. Davenport has that same passion for facts as animated Charles Darwin, and is as careful in testing his data, he will revise his figures.
The entire story is exaggerated and weird; but it is nothing to worry about. The people of the states named know the causes and the difficulties and are remedying the situation as rapidly as possible. Fastidious refinement may halt at the lofty mountain ranges and at the mouth of the deep and dark defiles, but from these same mountain folk have come some of the strongest type of Americans despite educational handicaps. When we think of Sergeant York and his folk, we do not despair of the mountain folk nor depreciate their sturdy virtues. We neither feel like sneering nor laughing. And we hope modern “culture” and “civilization” has the good breeding not to tilt the nose at supposed inferiors who may in some essentials actually be superiors.
For more about Collier’s, follow this link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collier%27s