HILLBILLY: The Cultural History of an American Icon

Anthony Harkins, Author . Oxford Univ. $35 (324p) ISBN 978-0-19-514631-8

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)

Reviewed on: 10/27/2003
Release date: 10/01/2003
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Paperback - 324 pages - 978-0-19-518950-6
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