Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon / Edition 1

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In 1930, a Los Angeles string band gained a broad regional following under the name "The Beverly Hillbillies." Three decades later, the name would reappear as the title of a wildly popular television show, featuring essentially the same family of clownish mountaineers depicted in the long-running comic strip Li'l Abner. In 1972, the leering rapists in the film Deliverance would lend the hillbilly a darker and more threatening aura ("it did for North Georgians," said one journalist, "what Jaws did for sharks"). To this day, the portrayal of southern mountain people as at once comically and threateningly premodern and ignorant is one of the most pervasive images in American popular culture. Typically associated with the Ozarks or Appalachia, the hillbilly is filthy, lazy, uncivilized, drunk, and impoverished not only economically and culturally but also genetically.

In this pioneering work of cultural history, historian Anthony Harkins argues that the hillbilly -- in his various guises of "briar hopper," "brush ape," "ridge runner," and "white trash" -- has been viewed by mainstream Americans simultaneously as a violent degenerate who threatens the modern order and as a keeper of traditional values of family, home, and physical production, and thus symbolic of a nostalgic past free of the problems of contemporary life. "Hillbilly" signifies both rugged individualism and stubborn backwardness, strong family and kin networks but also inbreeding and bloody feuds.

Spanning film, literature, and the entire expanse of American popular culture, from D. W. Griffith to hillbilly music to the Internet, Harkins illustrates how the image of the hillbilly has consistently served as both a marker of social derision and regional pride (witness the expression "I ain't no flatlander"). He traces the corresponding changes in representations of the hillbilly from late-nineteenth-century America, through the Great Depression, the mass migrations of southern Appalachians in the 1940s and 1950s, and the War on Poverty in the mid-1960s, to the present day. Harkins also argues that images of hillbillies have played a critical role in the construction of whiteness and modernity in twentieth-century America. Though the hillbilly has eighteenth-century literary antecedents, the stereotype became popularized in the twentieth century as a foil to increasingly urbanizing and industrializing America. Middle-class Americans viewed hillbillies, with their supposedly pure Anglo-Saxon or Scottish origins, as an exotic race, akin to blacks and Indians, but still native and white, as opposed to the growing influx of immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century. At the same time, the image's whiteness allowed crude caricatures to persist long after similar ethnic and racial stereotypes had become socially unacceptable. Richly illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawings, and film and television stills, this unique book stands as a testament to the enduring place of the hillbilly in the American imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Harkins, assistant professor of history at Western Kentucky University, means to examine the "cultural and ideological construct `the hillbilly'... rather than the actual people of the southern mountains." To this end, he examines some obscure early American printed material, Paul Webb's Esquire magazine cartoons from the 1930s and '40s, a handful of famous newspaper comic strips (e.g., Snuffy Smith, Barney Google, L'il Abner), the careers of some "hillbilly" musicians, a series of mostly minor motion pictures and, finally, a few popular TV sitcoms, especially The Beverly Hillbillies. He argues that the "hillbilly" label has vacillated from indicating degraded ignorance and savagery to something almost idyllic, a premodern, rural simplicity. Curiously, Harkins makes only passing reference to some influential novels (e.g., The Grapes of Wrath; Harriette Arnow's The Dollmaker), which not only became highly successful films but arguably did more to influence public understanding of the "hillbilly" than a film like Stark Love, which Harkins describes at length, even though it was quickly melted down for recycling after it bombed in theaters. While his selective culling from the various media supports his central argument, that "because of its semantic and ideological malleableness" the term "hillbilly" has had a long and varied usage, the same argument could be made of most social labels. But readers who wish to understand how this label reflected the actual conditions of Southern mountain folk, or how the media decided which meaning to assign to "`hillbilly" at which point in time-or indeed, how this label's history contrasted with the history of other pejorative characterizations-will have to look elsewhere. 78 illus. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Based on Harkins's 1999 dissertation, this book provides a fascinating and expansive account of one of America's most enduring icons. Harkins (history, Western Kentucky Univ.) traces the image of the hillbilly from the late 19th century to the age of the Internet, through such events as the Great Depression and the War on Poverty and in such diverse media as comics, popular magazines, film, and the World Wide Web. Harkins argues that the term is both ubiquitous and enduring-variously viewed as carousing, inbred, slothful rube and paragon of rugged individualism, strong family values, even WASP-ishness. As such, the hillbilly is inexorably linked to the construct of white racial identity. Thoroughly researched and readable, this work is more cohesive than Dwight Billings's and others' essay collection, Back Talk from Appalachia, and will appeal to the scholar. Highly recommended.-Daniel Liestman, Florida Gulf Coast Univ. Lib., Ft. Myers Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"Anthony Harkins has written a fine book about how misconceptions were perpetuatedhe gives us insight into the ways the hillbilly icon has served the 'mainstream' belief system and the reasons the hillbilly icon had and has such power."--Herb E. Smith, Journal of Appalachian Studies

"a sophisticated mélange of image and reality regarding southern white culture"-- History of Education Quarterly

"Harkin's research is truly impressive, and his writing could not be clearer....a significant, highly accessible book of considerable value to scholars and advanced students."--History

"Tony Harkins has gone deeper, understood a wider range of pop-culture materials, and analyzed more insightfully the twentieth-century image of the American 'hillbilly' than any other scholar in this or the previous century. My hat's not only off to him. It's way up in the air!"-- Jerry Williamson, author of Hillbillyland

"This is an impressively researched and meticulously documented study of one of the pervasive terms in American popular culture, 'hillbilly,' a concept that has both reflected and shaped public views of southern white working people. Students in my field of research, Southern Folk Music, will obviously profit from this beautifully written work, but anyone intrigued by the ways in which stereotypes have clouded our perceptions will want to read this book."-Bill C. Malone, author of Country Music, U.S.A.

"Harkins' Hillbilly is an intriguing and wide-ranging study of a strangely enduring American type, one both loved and despised but still nationally (if not internationally) recognized. From Snuffy Smith and Li'l Abner to The Real McCoys and the Clampett clan, Harkins discusses how the hillbilly image itself has remained relatively unchanged, while its meaning has evolved in response to broader social, economic, and cultural transformations in American society."--Erika Doss, University of Colorado

"Distilling truths and untruths about a great American archetype, Hillbilly is insightful and respectful without draining out all the fun. Anthony Harkins writes entertaining yet sophisticated analysis, free of ten-dollar words and other academic moonshine."--Scott A. Sandage, Carnegie Mellon University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195189506
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 9/8/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Anthony Harkins is an Assistant Professor in History at Western Kentucky University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Race, Class, Popular Culture, and "the Hillbilly" 3
Ch. 1 From Yankee Doodle to "Devil Anse": Literary, Graphic, and Ideological Progenitors, 1700-1899 13
Ch. 2 The Emergence of "Hillbilly," 1900-1920 47
Ch. 3 Country Music and the Rise of "Ezra K. Hillbilly" in Interwar America 71
Ch. 4 Luke, Snuffy, & Abner: Hillbilly Cartoon Images in Depression-Era America 103
Ch. 5 Hollywood's Hillbilly in Mid-Twentieth-Century America 141
Ch. 6 The Hillbilly in the Living Room: Television Representations, 1952-1971 173
Epilogue: From Deliverance to Cyberspace: The Continuing Relevance of "Hillbilly" in Contemporary America 205
Postscript 223
Notes 227
Bibliography 265
Index 309
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