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Q&A: WVU Professor writes ‘Mountaineers Are Always Free’ book

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A new book written by West Virginia University English Professor Rosemary Hathaway will be released in March 2020. The book, Mountaineers Are Aways Free: Heritage, Dissent, and a West Virginia Icon, explores what the term “mountaineer” means and how West Virginia became associated with it.

In this Q&A with the author and the current WVU Mountaineer Mascot, Timothy Eads, we discuss the inspiration behind the book and book’s themes.

Q: How long did it take you to write this book?

Rebecca Durst as the WVU Mountaineer
Courtesy: West Virginia University

RH: I would say that it probably took about—I mean, the idea started when I first got to WVU in 2007, and…the real impetus for the book kicked off when Rebecca Durst was chosen to be the second female [WVU] Mountaineer in 2009. I’ve been here a couple years at that point, and I was really surprised at the backlash about her being selected–that so many people were unhappy that a woman would be the Mountaineer because there had already been one.

And that really was what tipped me off that there was more to this figure of the Mountaineer than meets the eye. That people are really invested in this, and people have really strong ideas about who can be the Mountaineer, what it means to be a Mountaineer, and I think it really started then. So in that way—you know, that’s 10 years. But in terms of the actual writing–the really intensive writing–five or six years I would say. Long enough. Longer than I thought it would take. 

Q: Have you written any other books?

RH: No this is my first book. I’ve written a number of articles but this is my first book.

Q: Is this something that you’ve been wanting to do for a while?

RH: Yes. I mean, in part, it is that in my department, we have to have a book to get promoted to full professor, but also I have always wanted to write a book, so I’m really excited that I was finally able to do it.

Mountaineers Are Aways Free by Rosemary Hathaway
Courtesy: West Virginia University

Q: What is the Mountaineer to you?

TE: The Mountaineer is definitely somebody who is very personable. I think it kind of gives us the advantage over other mascots is that we’re somebody that people can get to know. Like I said, we’re very personable, relatable and a representative of mountaineers everywhere.

RH: Oh boy. That’s a tough one. I mean, what the book talks about is that a mountaineer is both a synonym for somebody from West Virginia in general, it’s also more specifically—very specifically—[the WVU mascot], but also refers to WVU students, so what the book explores is that is what’s interesting about the concept of–and the definition of–the mountaineer is that there is no one way to define the mountaineer. It depends on who you’re talking to and what context you’re in, but I think in general the idea of the mountaineer is [that] they share certain traits. I think we recognize the mountaineer as somebody who is stalwart, independent thinking, kind of a rabble rouser but also somebody who is hospitable and personable as Timmy said. Those, I think, are the core elements that have stayed the same over time. 

Q: You say a couple of times that you’re not a historian, you’re a folklorist. Can you explain a bit about what that means?

RH: I think when people hear the word “folklore” or that somebody is a folklorist, they immediately think of folktales, fairytales, urban legends, that kind of stuff, and folklorists are definitely interested in all of those things, but really what folklorists are interested in more broadly is the expressive nature of daily life, so all the things that we do in groups and on an informal basis to give meaning to our lives, and certainly the way we do our research is through talking to people [and] collecting people’s stories, so that’s really where I came into this project, was somebody who was–I want to hear the stories.

I want to hear former mountaineers’s stories about what it was like for them to be the mountaineer [and] I want to talk to alumni, faculty, and current students about what it means to be a mountaineer because it’s only when I hear all of those stories that I can create a bigger picture about what this figure has meant to people and the many different ways that people have had that meaning.

Q: One thing that kept coming to my mind when I read the book was that mountaineer is almost like a reclaimed term, so can you talk a little bit more about that?

RH: Yeah, absolutely…a lot of the book talks about how the term “mountaineer”—it’s been around for a couple hundred years as a synonym for somebody from West Virginia, but it has its roots in two different figures. On the one side, you’ve got the back woodsman or the frontiersman, and on the other side you sort of got this hillbilly figure, and I think for a lot of the 20th century for sure, calling yourself a mountaineer was a way of talking back to that hillbilly identity and saying we can take the parts of what that means: being free thinking, not being tied to kind of conventional mainstream things. We can take the good parts of that notion of what it means to be a hillbilly, but turn it into something more noble and something more—that can’t be used against us in a way, so I do think that was part of the reclaiming that you were talking about. 

TE: I think WVU has done a very good job of kind of recreating that, especially with the Go First campaign, the re-branding and all of that stuff. I think the term “mountaineer” is definitely going in the better direction than what it used to be.

One thing that’s really interesting in the examples of both Natalie Tennent and Rebecca Durst is the number of people who came forward in defending the choice of those two…50% of the people who make up the state of West Virginia are mountaineer women, and you can’t leave us out of that history, so why can’t we be in the buck skins? 

Rosemary Hathaway, author of Mountaineers Are Always Free

Q: Do you personally identify with the mountaineer?

RH: Absolutely, both in the sense that I am a resident of the state and I work for the university, but also because I really can resonate with a lot of those traits of the mountaineer that I talked about, that sort of independent thinking and resilience and a little bit of an upstart attitude maybe. 

TE: Absolutely. I think, going off of what Rosemary said, the mountaineer is free thinking, maybe a little bit of a rebel, you know. I feel like I have those attributes and I think that it helps me be the Mountaineer better. It gives me that advantage, I guess. But anyone can be a mountaineer. I go to alumni events all over the country and people say “We’re Mountaineers” and that’s one thing that I stress when I talk to people is that’s the beauty of WVU is you’ll find mountaineers literally everywhere. It’s something special that we have. 

RH: Yeah, my brother, who lives in Columbus, OH says that every time he wears his baseball cap with the WV on it, anywhere he goes, people make a beeline if they see it and say, “Hey, did you go to WVU or are you from West Virginia?” and I think people have that experience all over the world really. Again, that’s something that’s really—I mean, I think a similar thing might happen if you were to wear other college regalia maybe, but I’m not sure that people would have the same kind of sense that we’re kindred spirits, right? They might know that we have something in common but not in the sense that we have.

TE: It’s almost like a lifelong family to it. 

Q: What do you want people to know when they read your book?

RH: I guess I hope that when people read it, they’ll read about some things that–they knew about the history of the mountaineer, but I hope that they will also discover things that they didn’t know about the depth of that history. I know that for me that was the fun part of researching it and writing it was digging into the interviews and talking to people and looking out in the archives and finding the back story about a lot of these events and a lot of these people and so I hope when people read it, every few pages they’ll be like, “Oh. I didn’t know that. That’s pretty interesting.” I hope.

Q: Do you think that the “hillbilly” stereotype about mountaineers exists today?

RH: Oh absolutely. I think we’ve seen that a lot with the success of JD Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy and all the focus that has been on the region since the 2016 election. I think a lot of national news outlets came into the state and deliberately sought out exactly the person they were looking for, right? The sort of backwards hillbilly type that they could blame everything on, and I’m not sure if we’re ever going to not face that in some ways. I would like to say that we would, but old attitudes like that die hard and old images like that die hard, but I do think I’ve been really encouraged by all the things I’ve seen happen over the last few years in West Virginia.

Of people–and young people especially–really talking back to those attitudes and saying, no. This is not a dying place. This is not a backwards place. There are a lot of young people here who are concerned about the future of this place and where it’s going and how to make it a better place for everybody to live, and so in that sense, I think what’s been interesting about this incarnation of those hillbilly ideas is I feel like there’s been a much more grass roots response to that, of people saying oh no. No, we’re not having that and really talking back to it. 

Q: [to Timothy] Have you experienced that?

TE: Not necessarily. Being the mountaineer, I don’t think people—going back to what rosemary said, the term mountaineer, people either identify it with this–the pioneer, frontiersman–or the hillbilly, so I think that the fact that people see me as, I guess, frontiersman. I’ve been called frontiersman many times. I get called pioneer all the time.

Q: Just in general from being from WV?

TE: Yes, absolutely, and then there’s always, unfortunately, for many years there’s been the stereotype that West Virginia is full of hillbillies, but that’s not the case. I think it’s important that we make that known throughout the country and throughout the world.

Q: At what point do you call this book a success?

RH: I guess if it does in fact start a conversation about what we mean by mountaineers and the idea of the mountaineer and what the mountaineer identity is, then I will definitely call it a success. It certainly, for me, doesn’t have anything to do with the number of copies that get sold. I just hope that people will find it interesting enough.

I will say that Mary Anne Samyn texted me this picture last night that she was behind this truck driving from work that had a sticker on it that said “built by a hillbilly.” And she was like, “Look what I just saw.” And I texted her back and said, “Now my evil plan is complete because you’re now seeing it everywhere,” and I guess that’s the measure of success for me. If it gets other people thinking about, oh yeah there’s another example of that, and another, and makes them think. That’s success to me. 

Q: Can you talk a bit about women and the mountaineer identity?

RH: Like I said, it was the pushback against Rebecca Durst that triggered my interest in wondering what it was about the mountaineer that made people so—kind of protective of it in that way, but I do think—one thing that’s really interesting in the examples of both Natalie Tennent and Rebecca Durst is the number of people who came forward in defending the choice of those two and citing specific women in West Virginia history like Belle Boyd and Ann Bailey and other women of the frontier who really were part of statehood, making this place a state, and there were people who were coming forward and said “Hey, in case you haven’t noticed, none of us would be here if there wasn’t also women mountaineers,” and I think that’s really interesting, too. That people are able to make that claim both historically and in the present, that 50% of the people who make up the state of West Virginia are mountaineer women, and you can’t leave us out of that history, so why can’t we be in the buck skins? 

Q: If someone wants to read more on the subject, is there anything you recommend?

RH: And I’ll say this freely, I stole a lot of my ideas, or at least the framework to hang them on from a book by Anthony Harkins called Hillbilly, which is a broader history about the hillbilly figure more generally, but a lot of the ideas that I had about these twin roots of the mountaineer’s evolution came from his ideas about the hillbilly, so I definitely recommend that. There’s also a documentary called Hillbilly that was created by PBS that is really useful, so I think there are definitely things that other people can look at and may not talk about the mountaineer specifically but put these ideas in a regional context.

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