What Appalachia's Past Can Teach America

Right behind the outdoor theater in McCarr, Kentucky flows the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, a narrow ribbon of water dividing West Virginia from Eastern Kentucky. One hundred and thirty years ago the Tug River divided more than two states; it divided the Hatfield and McCoy families, now famous for the feud that took place between them. The Hatfield & McCoy Arts Council in conjunction with Artists Collaborative Theater is presenting Blood Song: The Story of the Hatfield and McCoys on weekends during the month of August, and the performance is remarkable not just for the original setting; cast members are descendants of those caught up in original fighting between the families.

Live outdoor theater is dynamic, and in addition to the Tug River the theater is adjacent to a pair of active railroad tracks, which carry the region’s coal to customers across the country. Audience members are told in advance if a train comes by during a performance, there will be a pause until the train in gone, since the noise during the passing makes it impossible to hear the play. The authenticity and tension are real: heritage for a moment drowned out by the racket of industry, a tour of the past interrupted by the realities of the present. Coal miners and their families (full disclosure I’m the grandson of a coal miner) are intensely proud of Appalachia’s heritage and of their vocation, so the tension between the two is simply a part of life. Much like the tensions between the families themselves.

The feud between the Hatfields and McCoys offers lessons whose relevance reaches far beyond the Tug River Valley. Leaders in each family demanded loyalty to their clan above all and vengeance as the highest proof of honor, and the resultant suffering etched a painful legacy for generations of people in the mountains. Today America’s political system operates in much the same way, with modern liberals and conservatives forming tribes and behaving in ways the original Hatfields and McCoys would have easily recognized. The feud also caused a national media sensation, helping give birth to “Yellow Journalism” or what might today be called “fake news.” When the story captured headlines the shared impulse to look down on mountain folk provided urban audiences with a common and self-reinforcing sense of their own “right upbringing.”

Yet today rural Americans are just as ready to look down on city dwellers, convinced the urban populace has abandoned American traditions and values. Citing the lack of proof has little impact on these feelings, much as lone voices who tried to calm tensions between the Hatfields and McCoys had little impact on the violence. When the violence reached its climax, as the play instructs us, the area “was no place for a quiet person.” Similarly our political system today appears to be no place for voices of reason. The historic feud and indeed America today echoes the lessons of Thucydides, who described the social breakdown and instability born of division:

“Thus religion was in honor with neither party but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow. To put an end to this, there was neither promise to be depended upon, nor oath that could command respect; but all parties dwelling rather in their calculation upon the hopelessness of a permanent state of things, were more intent upon self-defense than capable of confidence…The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.”

Modern Americans have more in common with Appalachia’s famous feuding families than they may want to admit. During the feud neither side really trusted the law or the government to help resolve their problems, a feeling familiar to Americans today who distrust their own government in record numbers. But there was also a deeper connection waiting to be unearthed. To paraphrase Stewart Lincolnshire, a newspaper reporter in Blood Song, “maybe we did come to make a buck on the misery in the mountains, but our readers were also captivated by the family’s self-sufficiency and astonished by their fierce loyalties.” To urban residents even in the 1880s those traits were already hazy recollections of times past, but those distant memories still tugged at their heartstrings.

The rural and the urban divide in America has never been greater than it is today, and our political system more polarized than ever. Will suspicion, loyalty to the tribe above all else, and the desire for vengeance drive America back to violence against itself? It doesn’t have to. History means something; the past provides us with the chance to learn from tragic mistakes without having to endure more actual tragedies. What is the core lesson? Whether they’re part of feuding families, the rural urban divide, or polarized politics, Americans are still neighbors, and neighbors need each other. They also need to learn how to settle their differences amicably and peacefully. America has often undertaken to teach Appalachia how to do things better; today lessons from Appalachia’s past can teach America the same thing.

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