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Eat Grits and Die, or Cracker, Your Breed Ain’t Hermeneutical

“Eat Grits and Die, or Cracker, Your Breed Ain’t Hermeneutical” is the alluring title of an article by Rodger Cunningham, which appeared in the Appalachian Journal 17(2): Winter 1990.  I found it by way of bibliographic reference in something I was reading recently, then requested by Interlibrary Loan, my dear companion ever since Davidson, when I believe I was the most frequent requester on campus for three years running.

The article is a scathing critique of a book by Grady McWhiney entitled Cracker Culture.  Cunningham begins by outlining the central thesis of the book that he says is “largely undeniable and potentially valuable:” “some important differences in American regional cultures are transformations of a regional difference in the Old World, and that this regional difference has had a cultural effect autonomous from (though linked with) economic and other factors” (177).

However, the specific application in Cracker Culture is the idea that the South is the inheritor of Celtic (Scots-Irish) culture, and the North of Anglo-Saxon (English) culture. Cunningham takes this idea apart quite aggressively. The Scottish and Irish populations of the Old World by the 17th and 18th century were not homogenous, but had been profoundly influences by immigration and cultural exchange. This effect was even more pronounced in the New World (more immigrants, African-American influence, and more). To talk of modern “celtic” people and their homes, foods, values, and vices is historically inaccurate as well: “Celtic” is a American / English invention (and the word “Celtic” entered Celtic languages from English).

Essentially, the “Celtic” beliefs and traits that McWhiney assigns, and Cunningham asserts that this is only a catalogue of the typical traits that the powerful assign to the powerless: dirty, ignorant, violent, loose, unprogressive, fun-loving, hospitable, oral culture, song and dance.  One can see echoes of these descriptions in stereotypical depictions of almost any culture written by privileged outsiders — I’ve read it a dozen times in 19th century works describing African-Americans.

Cunningham concludes that, “at any rate, it should be clear enough now that though McWhiney’s book is full of well-marshaled quotations, there’s not a single ‘fact’ in it” (180-181) and that the book reinforces stereotypes and gives fuel to people that would continue to marginalize people because of historical precedent, growing inequality, and cultural divisions.  It is “likely to do much more harm than good” (181).

This may be the most scathing review of an academic book that I’ve seen in an academic publication.

The idea of a homogenous Celtic culture does appear to be ridiculous. Stereotypes are like proverbs: there is always one equal and opposite.  Mountain “Celtic” stereotypes (rural, independent, agricultural, Protestant) can be refuted with Bostonian “Celtic” stereotypes (urban, big families, factory workers, Catholic) — except for the stock set that applies to any powerless group being described by the powerful — ignorant but with rich folk traditions, sinful but colorful.

Cecelia Conway’s book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia cites the theory that folk music (and especially fiddle music) was stronger in Appalachia than in other parts of the county because of the “Celtic” influence. The fiddle as folk instrument had died out of English culture by the 17th and 18th centuries, but continued to be strong in Scots-Irish culture. I think this a very interesting idea, especially as it relates to a particular cultural fusion of the African banjo and the Celtic fiddle into the Appalachian string band — a combination that is uniquely American. It works very well for inspiration, but not, perhaps, for history. As “Eat Grits and Die” points out, neat theories are sometimes just too neat. Conway does acknowledge this in her book, though apparently McWhiney does not. Appalachian music has many contributing factors — melding ethnic cultures is one, but so are geography, infrastructure, pop culture (yes, they had that in the 19th century!), local traditions, and the random, serendipitous process of the past.

Written by timwestover

September 2nd, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in folklore