Month: June 2004

Appalachia Revisited

Taking Another Look at the Hatfields and McCoys

If America has ever had a non-pluralistic culture, it was Appalachia in the nineteenth century before the coal mining started: Poor, backward, an area left behind by the increasing industrialization of America, its denizens isolated from the increasing influence of America’s mass media.

It was here that the shooting began, leaving a dozen Hatfields and McCoys dead over a span of twelve years from 1879 to 1891 on the banks of the Tug River along the Kentucky/West Virginia border.

It apparently all started over a pig. In the fall of 1878, Randolph McCoy sued Floyd Hatfield for stealing his hog. The local judge convened a jury evenly divided between Hatfields and McCoys. The court ruled against McCoy.

The judge’s insistence on dividing the jury between Hatfields and McCoys strongly indicates that tension already existed between the families. No one knows the source of the tension, but it seems that it started from the first trickling of industrialization and profit in Appalachia following the Civil War. The high quality hardwood timber of Appalachia was in high demand throughout America, and the Hatfield clan had profited well from it (possibly from deceitful practices against their neighbors, thus resulting in the hard feelings). The Hatfields were also somewhat flamboyant and boastful, which added to their neighbors’ jealousy.

After the bitter lawsuit, things settled down between the families, until Johnse Hatfield (the son of the most successful woodcutter Hatfield, Devil Anse) seduced Randolph McCoy’s daughter, Roseanna. She got pregnant. Johnse wouldn’t marry her. Tensions rose. In 1882, three of Randolph’s sons (Roseanna’s brothers) murdered Johnse’s uncle (Devil Anse’s brother) by stabbing him 26 times and shooting him in the back. Devil Anse retaliated by arranging the “execution” of the three boys.

Startled by the murders, the … Read the rest

Elvis, the Colonel, and Me


It was also the anniversary date of the release of Elvis’s first number one hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” so we talked about Elvis.

All of us are fans. Gotta be. We were in middle school when Elvis died, and every cultural event that happens when you’re in middle school get branded on your brain as significant. Growing up near Detroit, I still think Bill Munson was the greatest NFL back-up quarterback ever.

I traveled to the Elvis Fan Dome by an odd route.

In college, a friend went to a mega-flea market and bought an Elvis clock: a heavily-varnished piece of wood with a serious black-n-white Elvis picture on the front. We were dyin’; the whole tacky Elvis phenomenon cracked us up. I went to the show and bought one.

I hung it up in subsequent abodes as a joke.

A few years later, I visited my brother, who had just moved to Tupelo. I did the Elvis tour: birthplace in Tupelo, drove an hour to Memphis for the Graceland Tour and the Elvis statue on Beal Street, and checked out some Elvis stuff in Nashville. I bought souvenirs.

When people saw the Elvis clock and other Elvis paraphernalia, they just assumed I was a sincere (even fanatical) fan. When birthdays and Christmas came, I started getting Elvis stuff, including Elvis tapes and CDs. I started listening to them.

And became a fan.

Now, I still don’t own a velvet Elvis. I’m not a big enough fan to break-up my marriage over him.

But I do dig his music.

Especially his live stuff where he re-made other artists’ songs. Somewhat humorous, but very talented overall. He was a great show man.

Elvis’s biography is easy enough to lay out: Born in poverty. One of twins, the other dying at birth. … Read the rest

“Social changes which propel dubious characters in great numbers into ruling positions make the political environment unlivable for well-bred men with some self-respect.”

Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, 288-289.… Read the rest

Orestes Brownson’s Conversion

When Brownson started taking concrete steps toward Rome, it was philosophy that paved the road. His was a philosophical conversion, Rome via Athens, though he would later emphasize that no mental process can ever produce a convert unless grace is also at work (philosophy can remove the intellectual barriers, he would explain, but conversion itself requires grace). The two branches of philosophy that brought him to Rome were political philosophy and metaphysics.

The political reasons for joining the Church started to form in 1840. Brownson was startled by the huge outcry against his essay on the laboring classes. He was also startled by William Harrison’s victory in 1840 (which was obtained with vulgar propaganda). The election shook his confidence in the people’s ability to govern themselves by voting for able leaders, and accordingly shook his confidence in democracy itself.

In response, he undertook a systematic study of government, beginning with Aristotle’s Politics and proceeding through the best political treatises in history. Prior to this time, his intellectual emphasis was on the importance of liberty, but now he was beginning to see that order is necessary to preserve liberty. He also developed a keen eye for good and bad forms of democracy, particularly despising what he called “absolute” or “Jacobin” democracy, a form of democracy that assumes the democratic vote is a talisman that magically guarantees good government. In opposition to such ideas, Brownson was beginning to realize that, in order for democracy to work, the people must vote under God, in accordance with His laws and commands, not in accordance with their naked will.

He also strongly opposed the liberalizing political trends of his day that adopted a nihilistic disposition toward divine law in the public sphere (“political atheism,” he called it; 140 years later, Richard John … Read the rest

“The man who can wholeheartedly believe that all things are created by God and that God does not create evil, is freed from many burdens, and one of them is fear.” Paul Gallico, writing about St. Francis of Assisi. … Read the rest

Prophet McLuhan on the World Series of Poker’s Popularity

“Poker is a game that has often been cited as the expression of all the complex attitudes and unspoken values of a competitive society. It calls for shrewdness, aggression, trickery, and unflattering appraisals of character. . . Poker is intensely individualistic, allowing no place for kindness or consideration, but only for the greatest good of the greatest number–the number one.”

Understanding Media, 1964… Read the rest