This week I finished White and Seay’s anthology of contemporary Appalachian short stories. It seems like Appalachian literature has been a distinct — genre? school? — but lately the region has garnered some much deserved attention for producing literature of merit, literature that captures the place, the community, and the language of Appalachia as distinct from the more general “southern literature.” I’m not much of an authority, but for interested blog readers it seems the history of recent Appalachian literature begins with the godmother, Harriette Arnow, then includes James Still, Jesse Stuart, and Jim Wayne Miller, who have passed, and the living elders, Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, and Wendell Berry. Today the journal Appalachian Heritage is one of the best resources for the region, and they’ve assembled something of a canon here.
Degrees of Elevation picks up with the current generation, and provides a good survey of tomorrow’s regional elders. White and Seay have paired writers who have achieved wide acclaim outside the region — Chris Offutt, Ron Rash, Silas House — with up-and-comers, including terrific stories by my friends Mark Powell and Denton Loving. In the introduction, the editors say, “We do not believe any one view of Appalachia is a Truth entire,” but I still think the collection has some unity, which I think reflects the region. There’s a Naturalistic vein here; many of these characters are experiencing hard times that stem from circumstances (often economic) beyond their control. But rather than come off as victims, these characters shake their fists at those forces and do what they can, even when it’s in vain.
I’m glad this anthology has been put together. Interested readers might also keep an eye out for a possible companion piece, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol. III, which focuses on contemporary Appalachian poetry and was published this month.