citybeat (2006-47)

Illinois-born educator Jeff Biggers dispels crude southern stereotypes

Deliver us from Deliverance

Popular historian Jeff Biggers has spent much of his professional life debunking corrosive southern stereotypes, a fact which makes it hard to dismiss him when he traces many of them back to a Knoxvillian.

“The South gets a bad rap in part because of over 200 years of bad writing and bad writers who have continued the stereotypes, beginning with [19th century Knoxville writer] George Washington Harris and his Sut Lovingood character,” says Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture and Enlightenment to America .

“Some of the earliest stereotypes go back to that character, this rube with his brain unhooked,” Biggers continues. “It came out in New York magazines, and in the eyes of the eastern readership, it built this idea of southerners as guys with rifles who couldn’t think.”

Biggers, an award-winning writer, educator and radio correspondent will appear at Carpe Librum Booksellers on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at 6 p.m. to read from Appalachia as well as from his latest work, In the Sierra Madre , a chronicle of his one-year stay in a Raramuri/Tarahumara village in Mexico’s Copper Canyon.

In spite of the Harris/Lovingood connection, Biggers says he has an abiding fondness for Knoxville and the rest of East Tennessee as well, which he has visited several times over the years of his research. At the drop of a hat, he’ll wax eloquent about the colonial-era Sycamore Shoals settlements near what is now Johnson City, or about the civil rights leaders who passed through New Market’s world famous Highlander Center, or about the literary works of former Knoxvillian Cormac McCarthy.

“The Appalachian region has been instrumental in moving the U.S. along, culturally speaking, and East Tennessee in particular has been at the forefront of that,” says Biggers. “I’m really looking forward to coming back to Knoxville.”

The story of how Biggers, an Illinois native, came to be a champion of southern and Appalachian culture is an odd one. At 19, as he was hitchhiking through Appalachia, and cracked a thoughtless hillbilly joke to a man who had given him a ride. The man first threatened to put him out, but instead drove him to the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia, where he met its founder, poet/activist Don West.

“At 5 a.m. the next morning, I’m milking cows while Don West is lecturing me about Appalachian history,” he says. “The experience changed my life.”

Biggers would later publish No Lonesome Road , an award-winning collection of Don West’s writings, and travel the world as an educator and self-described “popular historian.” On the road, he says, “I kept finding myself coming back to Appalachia, telling people there’s this incredible region that’s been dismissed, but has really been instrumental in our history. I felt I needed to put all the threads together.”

Biggers sees many similarities between The United States of Appalachia and his latest work, In the Sierra Madre . “Those two regions have some of the same issues, of being perceived as sort of primitive places, when they really have a rich history,” he says.

Biggers labored in a Tarahumara village as a lumberjack while his wife worked on her Ph.D.

In addition to his appearance at Carpe Librum, Biggers will also appear as keynote speaker at the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Annual Conference in Gatlinburg on Wednesday, Nov. 29.


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