This article was first published in Traditions: A Journal of West Virginia Folk Culture and Educational Awareness Vol. 2, No. 1 Spring-Summer, 1994. Revised in 2001, it is reprinted by permission of Judy P. Byers and Noel W. Tenney, Co-Editors, and the author, who owns the copyright. To order a copy of Traditions write: Traditions, Fairmont State College, 1201 Locust Ave., Fairmont, WV 26554 or visit their website using our links section.
Dedicated to the late Dr. Jim Wayne Miller of Western Kentucky University in grateful appreciation for his scholarship and tireless effort promoting Appalachia with humor and intelligence. This work is indebted to his lectures at the Hindman Appalachian Writers' Workshops, Hindman, Kentucky.
It happened again. This time in New York City.
My husband and I were in line to pick up tickets for a Baryshnikov performance when the bubbly blonde at the ticket window drawled, “Where are you all from?”
Jim retrieved his American Express Card while answering, “Clarksburg, West Virginia.”
“I have an aunt in Richmond,” the belle answered sweetly, her lashes fluttering like violets in a spring breeze. “Is that near Richmond?”
Jim’s eyes glazed slightly as he mumbled in my direction, “PIWASH woman, it’s your turn.”
Trying to look pleasant, I answered in my most cultured twang, “Richmond is in Virginia, sweetie. West Virginia is a separate state. You know, like North Carolina and South Carolina.
“Land sakes, I didn’t know that,” she drawled back.
I couldn’t resist adding, “We’re those renegade Yankees from across the mountains, the ones who seceded from the South and Old Dominion to help start the Civil War. You remember.”
“My sakes,” she said, turning an attractive shade of magnolia blossom pink. “I don’t recall that at all. You mean there are two Virginias?”
We left her standing there looking puzzled. But the conversation reminded us that our home place, West Virginia, doesn’t count for so much as a twig on a limb of the national family tree. A common saying in West Virginia is “we’re too northern to be southern, too southern to be northern, and too perpendicular to be part of Pennsylvania.” Our standing is that of a wood’s colt or illegitimate offspring; we don’t bear our rightful name and remain unrecognized as part of the original thirteen colonies. Regardless of our historic significance to the development of the nation, the family chooses to ignore us. Sometimes referred to as “Virginia” on the network news, we are still occasionally omitted from national weather maps. And just try explaining the location over the phone to an out-of-stater! Even prime-time comedians take potshots at us by saying the government could save money by having only one Virginia.
Dr. Jim Wayne Miller, a noted Appalachian scholar from Western Kentucky University, described the Appalachian region’s identity problem with accuracy and humor. As he told it, Appalachians in general are seen by the national populous as “WASH” – white, Anglo-Saxon hillbillies, while most of the rest of the nation’s inhabitants view themselves as “WASP” – white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The fact that neither acronym is accurate seems to bother no one but the Appalachian.
Listening to Miller speak at a West Virginia Writers’ Conference in 1984 and again in Kentucky at the Hindman Settlement School’s Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in 1987, I became convinced the problem is worse for West Virginia than for the whole of Appalachia. We are doubly disowned because of our failure to establish our identity as the northern-southern, freedom-fighting, break-away state; a unique state; a state with a central role in American history.
Who inhabits this dishonored place? Borrowing from Miller’s ideas, I dubbed the inhabitants, myself included, the PIWASH. PIWASH stands for poor, illiterate, white, Anglo-shoeless hillbillies, making us kissing cousins of the “WASH,” but even more hidden from family view.
Miller’s model indicates PIWASH would live in shacks high in the mountains of a fog-cloaked backwash. It’s an area he described many times as one to be entered with caution, preferably by pack mule. Like Miller’s “WASH,” visitors expect us to squint down antique squirrel rifles, spit out our ‘baccy and take a bead on ‘em before limping off to the abandoned coal mine to tend the still. Oh, yes, we limp. Miller explains this genetic adaptation: one leg has grown longer than the other so we can stand on hillsides. And true to our “WASH” upbringing, we have sorrowful looking womenfolk with a passel of ill-fed, barely clothed, dim-witted, calloused-footed, wordless, tag-a-long children. Miller says it’s natural that none of us can read or write; that’s genetic, too.
The main difference between “WASH” and PIWASH is that the rest of the country understands where “WASH” hail from. “WASH” live in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, or some other Appalachian state. But to most outsiders’ ears, “West Virginia” translates as “western Virginia hillbilly.” Ask a flatlander where John Brown’s raid occurred. Better yet, ask the name of the capital of West Virginia. Five will get you ten they will say, “Harper’s Ferry, Virginia,” and “Richmond,” respectively.
The Legend of the PIWASH is well established even though West-by-God-Virginia, as we natives fondly call it, has been a rather typical example of the American immigrant experience and had two of the nation’s early Afro-American novelists, Martin R. Delany and J. McHenry Jones.
According to Denise Giardina, author of four major novels, her home state has been a stewpot, not a melting pot. At a West Virginia Writers’ Conference she made the point our state’s ethnic groups have retained their individual flavor like vegetables in stew. We live and work together while retaining cultural identity and diversity. Giardina should know; she grew up in a coal camp populated by a representative mix and was named “Italian Woman of the Year” by the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival. Both her second and third novels, STORMING HEAVEN, (W. W. Norton, 1987) and THE UNQUIET EARTH (W. W. Norton, 1992) won the Berea College Weatherford Award for the respective year’s most significant work of Appalachian fiction. THE UNQUIET EARTH was also awarded the 1992 Lillian Smith Award for “fiction making a significant contribution to the understanding of the South."
Jim Comstock, founding editor of The West Virginia Hillbilly, and preserver of much of the state’s literary history, often noted western Virginia settlers could not be pigeonholed into a homogeneous group. The rich and infamous Irish Blennerhassetts did not fit the mold nor did the French/Dutch/German immigrants who would eventually produce our most famous literary figure, Nobel Prize winner Pearl Sydenstricker Buck.
Slaves were also brought in the mountains of western Virginia. In fact the 1860 census records 580 in Harrison County (Haymond, 302). But according to historian James McGregor of Wheeling, the Scotch-Irish, German, free-black ethnic mix, so common in the “transmountaine,” as this section of Virginia was called, generally favored freedom for all settlers. McGregor’s research showed no single issue leading to our separation from “Mother Virginia” and the South (McGregor, 15).
According to Miller’s Hindman lectures, a time of crisis results in writing, and the founding of “The Mountain State” with its motto “Mountaini Semper Liberi” (Mountaineers Are Always Free) was no exception. West Virginians wrote their fingers off. But in the process of becoming a new state West Virginia lost its identity and literary history. Our early writers disappeared like our coal. Many textbooks still credit them and our historical accomplishments to our previous address, Virginia.
We have few written literary histories; most are out of print. When a West Virginian does publish, an out-of-state press often produces the work. We have few small presses and seldom any publications or journals such as ANTIETEM REVIEW, APPALACHIAN HERITAGE, APPALACHIAN JOURNAL, or NOW AND THEN, to promote and publish fiction and poetry by natives. GRAB-A-NICKEL, published by the Barbour County Writers’ Workshop and Alderson-Broaddus College, and KESTRAL: A JOURNAL OF LITERATURE AND ART IN THE NEW WORLD, published by Fairmont State College, have been two of the few outlets available to regional authors. In spite of such circumstances, we have an outstanding record of literary achievement, one that should encourage any reader, writer, or would-be scholar. Even a hasty review of our past or current crop of authors proves West Virginians do read and write.
Miller’s lectures at Hindman awakened me to the literary and cultural heritage of Appalachia. Since studying with him, I have been documenting the literary record of West Virginia; no comprehensive written history exists. I hope to publish my findings in essays and articles und the title “The Multicultural Literary History of West Virginia.”
I am eager to see the information available to teachers, librarians, and the general public. My most fervent desire is to see secondary and post secondary students taking pride in their heritage because they know the truth about their literary and cultural legacy. Maybe, then, we can truly begin to refute the Legend of PIWASH.
Haymond, Henry. HISTORY OF HARRISON COUNTY WEST VIRGINIA. Morgantown, WV: Acme Publishing Co., 1910.
McGregor, James. THE DISRUPTION OF VIRGINIA. New York: Macmillan Co., 1922.
Phyllis Wilson Moore researches the multicultural literary history of West Virginia and publishes her findings on the internet and in journals. Phyllis manages www.mountainlit.com for the Bridgeport Public Library and presents literary programs state-wide as part of the West Virginia Humanities Council’s Speakers’ Bureau. She credits Dr. Jim Wayne Miller with inspiring her research project. Her last correspondence from Jim Wayne was written July 23, 1996, just weeks before his untimely death August 18th. He encouraged her to “keep up the good work” on the latest portion of her project, a resource directory and purchase guide related to West Virginian’s literature. This guide is now available on www.mountainlit.com.
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