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Jane Smiley's Divell Theorie

Rodger Cunningham
Original Publication Date
Appalachian Sunset

This article is a cooperative venture between ePluribus Media and Appalachian Heritage , "A Literary Quarterly of the Appalachian South" published by Berea College in Kentucky. In addition to appearing here, this essay will be part of the Spring 2007 edition of Appalachian Heritage.

One of the latest and ugliest examples of the mainstream media's endless trashing of Appalachian people is a blog by Jane Smiley -- a novelist whose books I used to enjoy -- on the Huffington Post for December 29, 2006. Smiley wants us all to read the "most informative book of 2006," one that, ostensibly, explains America for her. This "revelatory masterpiece" is David Hackett Fischer's 1989 Albion's Seed. In that book, Fischer posited Anglo-American culture as consisting of four regional cultures, descended from four regional British cultures: the Puritans from East Anglia to New England and thence the Northern Tier; the Cavaliers from the West Country to Virginia and thence the Deep South; the Quakers from the North Midlands to Pennsylvania and thence the Midwest; and the Scots-Irish from North Britain and Ulster to Appalachia and thence the Upper South. And, says Smiley, aha! This is the explanation for what she'd previously called "the unteachable ignorance of the red states." The mess we're in now is all because those na-a-s-sty, mean, e-e-evil Scots-Irish have taken over the Republican Party and are using it as a weapon against "us" sweetly reasonable Quaker-descended liberals. Her posting brought a spirited rejoinder from Aaron Barlow [an ePluribus Media member and Quaker with Appalachian roots -- ed.], which in turn stimulated a lively exchange when it was picked up on the blog Daily Kos.

Which is where I come in. I happen to be a scholar of Appalachia and the Scots-Irish. And I reviewed Albion's Seed for Appalachian Journal and then debated Fischer face-to-face, with three other Appalachian and Scottish scholars (Gordon McKinney, Edward J. Cowan, and Altina Waller) at the 1991 Appalachian Studies Conference. I'm also a seventh-generation Appalachian, whose family arrived in West Virginia in 1752 from Ireland. I was moved to write a letter to Barlow and to one of his Daily Kos commenters, and that letter has become this essay, which will appear both in Appalachian Heritage and here on ePluribus Media Journal. What I'm going to say here has largely been said in print before by others and by me, but since no one but Appalachian scholars reads Appalachian scholarship, I hope I'll be pardoned for repeating myself.

First, since neither Smiley nor any of her blog commentators seem aware of what Fischer's colleagues (as distinct from newsmag reviewers) think about him, let me say that Albion's Seed, though physically imposing and impressive to the layman (and, I think, valid and important for its basic layout of the four cultures), is not often considered his best book. For one thing, it's just not very historical -- it doesn't really explain the cultures in question as a result of actual historical processes, especially in any sense a progressive would recognize. Furthermore, as both Gordon McKinney and Altina Waller point out, his sources on the "Border" culture are, in general, much older than those for his other three cultures and, unlike the latter, include virtually nothing written from the inside of it. It certainly includes very little Appalachian scholarship since 1970. Moreover, the language he uses to describe such cultures is loaded in a way that's obvious to anyone not a member of his favorite one, the Quakers. As Waller suggests, it's obvious who it's most loaded against, too. Finally, he discusses his four cultures largely in isolation from one another, without seriously discussing the historic and economic relations among them, which helped to form them. To some extent these relations were reproduced in America and continue to operate.

"They do not understand us and we do not understand them," Smiley says. Well, the latter is certainly true. ("Understand one another?" said Gandalf. "I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well.") Rather than claim that Fischer' s stereotypes (or rather Smiley's stereotypes based on Fischer's generalizations) are totally unfounded, as some critics have I'd rather accept that they have a validity as (over)generalizations about (misunderstood) behavior, and then try to contribute to better understanding of that behavior. To begin with, as Edward Cowan notes, Fischer's use of "Borderers" (which Senator Jim Webb and others have taken over without criticism) is eccentric, seemingly unique to Fischer, and rejected by other historians, especially historians of Scotland. To begin summarizing my own critique, Fischer writes as if the border in question were the one between England and Scotland. This has the effect of making a "culture of violence" outliving the border wars seem like anachronistic survival, due to some sort of self-feeding isolation and mental inertia. This notion originated in the industrialization period of the nineteenth century, and its function was (and is) to dismiss the motivations of, e.g., Appalachian coal miners engaging in labor actions. In actual fact, though, the population in question derives its relevant characteristics from being on a quite different border, at right angles to the political one -- the one between state-organized societies to the east and chiefdom-organized societies to the west, which, as the European economy expanded, moved from North Britain to Ireland to America. The North British population in question was forcibly converted from the one way of life to the other, during the high and late Middle Ages, at great psychic cost. Then parts of it were deliberately encouraged by the metropole to move to Ireland and then America, as the Western semi-periphery moved accordingly. In all three places they were in an intermediate position between what was now ideologized (by their "betters" ) as "civilization" and "savagery," and they became professional genocidalists against the "savages." (The technical name for this is "servitor-imperialism.") The harder they tried to establish their loyalty to "civilization" by a-whuppin the "savages," the more "savage" they looked to the "civilized," while the "savages" themselves -- Highlanders, Irish, Indians -- regarded them as only a particularly detestable form of the "civilized." As the English Royalist poet John Cleveland put it in 1647 in The Rebell Scot:

No more let Ireland brag, her harmlesse Nation
Fosters no Venome, since the Scots Plantation ...
Had Cain been Scot, God would have chang'd his doome,
Not forc'd him wander, but confin'd him home.
Like Jewes they spread, and as Infection flie,
As if the Divell had Ubiquitie.
-- John Cleveland, The Rebell Scot (1647)

A key fact here is that the "civilized" of course remained totally in the dark and in denial about how their hegemony was driving this process. And the nearest region of that "civilization" was the North Midlands, where the Quakers later arose.

I said "deliberately encouraged to move to America." This is important. The Scotch-Irish, as they were called ("Scots-Irish" is a recent PCism), didn't just take a notion to land on top of the Quakers, as Smiley (misreading Fischer here) would let one think. As Fischer himself points out, they owed their large-scale presence in America to James Logan, the long-time provincial secretary of Pennsylvania. Logan was William Penn's right-hand man and (as Fischer omits to mention) a Quaker convert from Ulster. In the early eighteenth century, he was faced with the problem that the Indians were starting to push back against the expanding Quakers, and, well then, what could the nice pacifistic Quakers do about it?

Now, to begin with, it's interesting how the Quakers got to be pacifists in the first place. In the 1650s, Cromwell's army had been full of Quakers, cheerfully butchering the Irish in the name of the Inner Light, and in 1658 George Fox, their founder, had written Cromwell a letter berating him for not having marched across Europe stomping the Catholics and Muslims. (Quaker historians often regard the passage as metaphorical, but in that case, why did Fox suppress the letter from his collected writings? It, at any rate, offers a window into Fox's imagination.) Quaker pacifism, as a required doctrine, dates only from 1660, the year of the Restoration; and the doctrinal statement from that year, which Quakers like to cite, has the obvious function of assuring Charles II that they weren't going to try to overthrow him like those nasty other radical sectarians, so please make us an exception and tolerate us, pretty please? Well, it worked, more or less, but this time the psychic cost was to the Quakers, who had not only made a "moral" decision to owe their existence and freedom to people who disagreed with them, but had to repress an entire part of their human nature as expressed in their very recent history.

So you have James Logan, thinking, -- We need to somehow perpetrate violence without actually performing it. How? Aha! My dear beloved Calvinist relations, back home in Lurgan, have been practicing violence against savages in Ireland for a hundred years, and in Britain for four hundred years before that, and right now the English government and absentee landlords are screwing them over almost as badly as if they were papishes (a sectarian name given to Roman Catholics by Protestants). So, let's just invite them over and settle them neatly between us and the Indians, just as James I put them next to the wild Irishmen in Ulster. And so the next thing you know, the Pennsylvania frontier begins filling up with thousands of gun-toting, dirty-work agents for the "morally superior" Quakers. Soon after, Logan and the other Quakers realize their mistake these bastards won' t follow orders from their God-given betters any better than they did in Britain and Ireland; they know they were invited over to fight Indians, and they're damned well going to do it, orders or no; and when the Pennsylvania government tries to suppress terror gangs like the Paxton Boys, the Scotch-Irish threaten to march on Philadelphia and scalp the Quakers. (If the Scotch-Irish didn' t invent scalping, they certainly spread it.) So the Scotch-Irish start moving into the mountains to disengage from the Quakers, and the Quakers are only too happy to see them go. (If the Scotch-Irish ventured too far south, into Cavalier territory, they tended to end up in the middle again, as overseers between master and slave. Where have I read that the slaves referred to their overseers as " the Macs" ?) And ever since then, we've been handed the short end of every other culture's stick. The Enlightenment? Science and Reason? Why sure, mountaintop removal mining. This sort of thing will easily make one either a fundamentalist or a Habermasian. And needless to say, the name of Jürgen Habermas is seldom, if at all, heard in the public schools of the coalfields.

Now the take-away is that IT' S A SYSTEM. (a) The four groups aren' t just juxtaposed next to each other but have an interlocking relationship nearly a thousand years old; (b) Scotch-Irish violence and contrariness have concrete historical causes familiar to the student of colonialism; and (c) these causes continue to operate in the relation between Quaker/Midland culture and Border/Upper South culture to this day. As Altina Waller said in criticism of Fischer's neglect of power-relations, all four cultures practiced coercion: "the Cavaliers, actual violent coercion; the Puritans, legal coercion; and the Quakers, coercive persuasion." (And if you don't know what coercive persuasion is, you' ve only been on the giving end of it, but it's a form of coercion to which the Scotch-Irish are especially allergic.) The dominant culture still depends on us to do its dirty work, because we embody the missing side of its own society, yet still despises us for it, because we embody the repressed side of its own psyche. These two cultures exist in a symbiosis, in which each of them is only half a person. We' re their Shadows, literally their worst nightmare. (Notice all that snake imagery, from John Cleveland to Smiley's "mean as a snake and twice as quick." Yep, we' re the nice folks -- reptilian brains, the serpents in their garden of peace whose existence depends on our ugly behavior.) And in this ongoing dynamic, Albion' s Seed --especially in the use Jane Smiley all too easily makes of it -- is only one more symptomatic warding-off gesture.

Which brings us back to Smiley. What a hater she is! Of course there' s a lot to hate about that decorticated cactus in the White House, the crew of thugs and rattlesnakes he fronts for, and the troop of baboons that tout their counterfeit virtues on the Faux News. But what I mean is, she' s a divider and a demonizer, just like the other side. She was already convinced of "the unteachable ignorance of the red states," and now, in a vulgarized reading of a flawed book, she thinks she' s found a historical explanation for that total depravity, and can latch it onto one particular group of her fellow Americans. By labeling us as uniformly and incurably right-wing, she is only creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. (She says that " these cultures are no longer inheritance-based or even regionally-based [but] affinity groups," but this is simply a fudge factor, allowing her to continue defining each culture as a monolithic structure of fixed essences, in defiance of the actual diversity within each.) But the most remarkable sentence in her Fischer blog is: "Perhaps culture #4 cannot be, or won't be assimilated, but can only be reduced, subdued, or dominated." What??!! Is that anything like Ezra Pound's "moderate pogrom"? This is to reveal the inner workings of the bourgeois liberal mind a bit nakedly, isn't it? Specifically, to an Appalachian scholar, this immediately recalls Arnold Toynbee' s assertion that the "latter-day White barbarians" of Appalachia, like "the Basques, the Caucasians and the Hairy Ainu," will disappear only by "extermination or subjection or assimilation" (has Smiley actually never read this passage?), or even the 1912 Richmond, Virginia Advertiser editorial, opining that "[t]he majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only -- education or extermination. Mountaineers, like the Red Indian, must learn this lesson." A significant analogy, of course. but I hardly need point out that these be fightin' words. Or in hegemonic-culture language, they "push our buttons". One's greatest fear now must be that this liberal provocation to at least cultural genocide will be found and quoted out of context (not that context would help it) throughout the right-wing blogosphere and noise machine in general. But then the whole rise of the right in America has been largely fueled by Culture #4's realization that as far as many liberals are concerned, tolerance means everyone but the rednecks. What's the matter with Kansas? You are, Jane.

Sixteen years ago we Appalachian scholars thought we had D. H. Fischer sewed up, and in fact Albion's Seed did disappear from the radar screen for most of the intervening time. But now, thanks to the blogosphere and, it's been raised from the grave and will no doubt soon take its place in the Harry Caudill -- Jack Weller -- James Dickey -- Robert Schenkkan Grand Récit of Hillbilly Depravity. Yes, this whole system of meanings constitutes a solid wall of truthiness against which, as a commenter on Smiley's blog noted, we Appalachian scholars have been flinging ourselves for thirty-five years, without taking a chip out of it, like the Ents at Orthanc. But that's because the wall is made of something stronger than reason. It's a master-narrative bound together with the chains of economic interest and, beneath even this, the magic powers of semiotics and depth psychology. Many writers have remarked how middle-class America's fear and loathing of rednecks is fueled by its own fear of falling; it' s so much safer to direct that loathing downward than upward. But other things than economics are in play. As Warren Hedges, my favorite redneckologist, says on his WhAnglo Culture Project site, "WHITE TRASH = EMBODIMENT ­ minus MELANIN." And this saying is a lens to the wall' s real structure. I've talked about white folks because I are one, and because Fischer/Smiley is the subject; but (and the new generation of Appalachian scholars knows this well) this system of hatreds is deeply rooted in displaced guilt at the primal crimes of the country, the continuing extermination of Native Americans and the continuing subjection of African-Americans. The latter in particular is the linchpin (no pun intended) holding together the whole system of oppression, and only a concerted strike at it will collapse the entire structure to pieces.

Which reminds me. Smiley claims she's trying to recover Fischer for "the left." Apparently, though, it's a "left" that applies no real historical or class analysis to its group characterizations, and makes no real examination of the dialectical relationship between her own attitudes and their opposites --in short, just like Fischer himself. Surely both of them are "leftists" only in the O'Hannibeck sense of the word, and for the cause of justice in this country, to use one of my father's expressions, they're both about as useful as tits on a boar hog.

About the Author: Rodger Cunningham teaches English at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, KY. He is the author of Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia;

Other ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Aaron Barlow, cho, nancelot, standingup, roxy