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Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon

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    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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    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. 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, the War on Poverty in the mid 1960s, and 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. 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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