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Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940

University of North Carolina Press

By Jane S. Becker
Posted January 1, 1998
Tags Alumni Books Faculty Books
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed a growing interest in America's folk heritage, as Americans began to enthusiastically collect, present, market, and consume the nation's folk traditions. Examining one of this century's most prominent "folk revivals"--the reemergence of Southern Appalachian handicraft traditions in the 1930s--Jane Becker unravels the cultural politics that bound together a complex network of producers, reformers, government officials, industries, museums, urban markets, and consumers, all of whom helped to redefine Appalachian craft production in the context of a national cultural identity.

Becker uses this craft revival as a way of exploring the construction of the cultural categories "folk" and "tradition." She also addresses the consequences such labels have had on the people to whom they have been assigned. Though the revival of domestic arts in the Southern Appalachians reflected an attempt to aid the people of an impoverished region, she says, as well as a desire to recapture an important part of the nation's folk heritage, in reality the new craft production owed less to tradition than to middle-class tastes and consumer culture--forces that obscured the techniques used by mountain laborers and the conditions in which they worked.

Reviews

"Rarely has a historiographic treatment of material culture achieved the transdisciplinary scope that Jane S. Becker's has. . . . Becker is extremely thorough in her analysis and comprehensive in her research. The result is a significant contribution to scholarship."--American Historical Review

"Selling Tradition’s strength is Becker's ability to reveal the multifaceted economic relationships that sustained the crafts industry. Her depth of knowledge is stunning. . . . As a work of cultural history it remains an important accomplishment. To anyone who had assumed that crafts were simple expressions of a naive mountain folk culture, the book will offer a startling wake-up call. To anyone interested in the depression-era search for a true American culture, it will serve as a valuable companion to other works that address aspects of this subject."--Winterthur Portfolio

"Jane Becker's book remains strong in my memory. It is a model of humane scholarship. It demonstrates that as much as we would like to think otherwise, the Arts and Crafts movement relied on the creation of something like a sweatshop, now relocated into southern mountain homes. The well-intentioned instigators of this work, mostly elites from the Northeast, had little idea of how they were actually intensifying the poor conditions of those to whom they thought they were ministering. The story Jane Becker tells is not pretty, but it is fascinating and deeply informative."--Roger D. Abrahams, University of Pennsylvania

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