When the hit TV show “Lost” ended last spring, the writers had reintroduced to the American vocabulary the pejorative use of a word that had, thankfully, lost currency during the “politically correct” reforms of the 1980s and 90s.
More than once, the character Michael calls the Others “just hillbillies,” meaning poor, ignorant, and rather stupid. The show “Lost” is set somewhere in the South Pacific, but the pejorative resurrection of such a loaded term is a shot heard around the world—specifically in Appalachia.
A tempest in a teacup? Perhaps, but about the same time a new book by Jeff Biggers appeared debunking many of our accumulated misconceptions about Appalachia and its inhabitants, the much maligned “hillbillies.” Tomes such as “The United States of Appalachia” do not often appear without some provocation. According to Biggers, Appalachia persists “as a quaint backwater in the American imagination,” even though we are “savvy enough to refrain from uttering ‘hillbilly’ in mixed company.” Well, perhaps he overestimated the American public on that one. Biggers’ book educates us as to just how biased and ignorant we really are about this region and its rich legacy of cultural, political, and intellectual pioneers.
Biggers’ “The United States of Appalachia” is full of historical insights that tell of a region that gave us the country’s first abolitionists, the first syllabary in modern times (Cherokee), the first literary works of working class realism, not to mention staples of American music such as mountain music, country music, soul music, et al. The number of individual Appalachians who shaped American is almost limitless, but Biggers provides some notable examples, ranging from West Virginian Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature, to Adolph Ochs, the crusading publisher of the Chattanooga Times who was called upon to take a virtually moribund newspaper known as the New York Times and turn it into the nation’s newspaper of record.
It seem that debunking stereotypes is one of the driving motivations behind Biggers’ writing in general. Newly published this fall is his exploration of another region noted for its resistance to change, its badlands geography, and its reputation as a haven for outlaws and primitives—Mexico’s Sierra Madre.
To write his new book, “In the Sierra Madre,” Biggers and his companion Carla Paciotto lived for an entire year with the Raramuri/Tarahumara in Copper Canyon—without question one of the most remote places on the planet.
Biggers and his companion spent that year in a log cabin formerly used to store corn. They felt lucky. “Housing” in the village that welcomed them included cave dwellings. But living rough did not mean working that way. The pair brought in laptops and a solar generator. It was a curious temporal conjunction, writing on computers, and grinding corn on a stone metate in the same house, chopping wood in the highlands by hand, but but bringing it home in a four-wheel drive Bronco.
“In the Sierra Madre” introduces us to a host of idiosyncratic customs (one never knocks on a door, for example, since “only ghosts knock on doors”), numerous unforgettable characters, and situations of a traveler of this ilk could manage.
Biggers writes a decidedly adventurous narrative, but he is no adventurer. He is the quintessential observer, with the eye and voice of a poet.