Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy

Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy

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2020 American Book Award winner, Walter & Lillian Lowenfels Criticism Award
Weatherford Award winner, nonfiction

With hundreds of thousands of copies sold, a Ron Howard movie in the works, and the rise of its author as a media personality, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has defined Appalachia for much of the nation. What about Hillbilly Elegy accounts for this explosion of interest during this period of political turmoil? Why have its ideas raised so much controversy? And how can debates about the book catalyze new, more inclusive political agendas for the region’s future?

Appalachian Reckoning is a retort, at turns rigorous, critical, angry, and hopeful, to the long shadow Hillbilly Elegy has cast over the region and its imagining. But it also moves beyond Hillbilly Elegy to allow Appalachians from varied backgrounds to tell their own diverse and complex stories through an imaginative blend of scholarship, prose, poetry, and photography. The essays and creative work collected in Appalachian Reckoning provide a deeply personal portrait of a place that is at once culturally rich and economically distressed, unique and typically American. Complicating simplistic visions that associate the region almost exclusively with death and decay, Appalachian Reckoning makes clear Appalachia’s intellectual vitality, spiritual richness, and progressive possibilities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946684790
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2019
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 207,852
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anthony Harkins is a professor of history at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he teaches courses in popular culture and twentieth-century United States history and American studies. He is the author of Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon.

Meredith McCarroll is the director of writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College, where she teaches courses in writing, American literature, and film. She is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film.

Read an Excerpt



Considering Hillbilly Elegy




Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

— Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"

Ain't nothing scarier than poor white people.

— Chris Rock

IT IS A COMMON REFRAIN among Appalachia's writers and defenders that the region has rarely been allowed to speak for itself. Since the 1870s, the region has been incessantly "discovered" and then "rediscovered" by a long series of novelists, journalists, social scientists, satirists, and documentarians, most — if not all — inspired by the irony of Appalachian Otherness. How can a region defined by the Euro-American frontier myth be so different, so far behind, the perceived American mainstream? "'Inequality,'" liberal polemicist Thomas Frank wrote in 2016, "is a euphemism for the Appalachification of our world." Frank's intended analogy, and his invented noun-verb, would be meaningless without the prior work of William Wallace Harney, William Frost, John Fox Jr., Paul Webb, Horace Kephart, Harry Caudill, and many other writers who established the permanent American assumption of innate Appalachian depravity and poverty. The previous authors first established Appalachia not only as a region unlike the American mainstream, but also as a place with crippled access to the commonly assumed entitlements of Americanness. Now, Frank is suggesting that the country at large is learning to temper its expectations just like Appalachia has been doing since it was first "discovered."

J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) is the latest book-length attempt to explain Appalachia to the "outside world," and a special plea for why it needs explaining, given this new era of lowered expectations. Hillbilly Elegy is also the most recent book-length attempt to come highly recommended: National Review executive editor Reihan Salam, Silicon Valley scion Peter Thiel, and "tiger mother" Amy Chua all wrote glowing jacket blurbs. Positive reviews appeared across the conservative press, in Salam's National Review (where Vance regularly contributes), the American Conservative, and the Weekly Standard. Center-right columnist David Brooks hailed Hillbilly Elegy in a 2016 New York Times op-ed that called for a "better form of nationalism." "When I lived in Brussels," Brooks wrote, recalling his time in Belgium, "this sort of intense personal patriotism was simply not felt by the people who ran the EU, but it was felt by a lot of people in the member states. This honor code has been decimated lately. Conservatives argue that it has been decimated by cosmopolitan cultural elites who look down on rural rubes. There's some truth to this, as the reactions of smug elites to the Brexit vote demonstrate. But the honor code has also been decimated by the culture of the modern meritocracy, which awards status to the individual who works with his mind, and devalues the class of people who work with their hands." Throughout the summer of 2016, Brooks's praise was duly repeated among liberal commentators as well, especially those looking for a relatively simple explanation for the relative success of the Donald Trump presidential campaign. Around the time of Trump's election, Vance was roundly referred to as a "Trump whisperer." At the time of the book's greatest hype, Vance came across on the CNN screen as a sort of technocratic center-right figure not unlike Brooks or Thomas Friedman, the sort of briefcase Republican who in 2016 seemed like Kevin Bacon's character at the end of Animal House screaming to a panicked crowd to "remain calm, all is well!" despite the chaos and nonsense that pervaded the airwaves in light of the unprecedented presidential campaign.

The outpouring of right-leaning support shouldn't be surprising, especially from Brooks, who has since spent many a column rending his proverbial garments over the changing face of American conservatism. But Vance's broader appeal is not limited to Brooks's technocratic vision of a trickle down world. It is far more general, and melds old political modes with newer ones. Vance, after all, is personally acquainted with most of them (Chua was his professor at Yale Law School), and Hillbilly Elegy staunchly defends the up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale that capitalism has always used to win support from the underclasses. The white working class is a group Brooks can legitimately claim as conservative, even if his and Chua's brand of conservatism is not the same as what seems to make Trump appealing.

But of course, the book is aimed not at that underclass (few books are), but rather at a middle- and upper-class readership more than happy to learn that white American poverty has nothing to do with them or with any structural problems in American economy and society and everything to do with poor white folks' inherent vices. On cable news channels like CNN, Vance comes across as a voice of moderation, and a scold to his fellow technocrats for misunderstanding the white middle class that produced him. At the same time, Vance's professional associations with openly antidemocratic conservatives like Charles Murray and Peter Thiel, as well as his later courtship with the Heritage Foundation, have also raised eyebrows. Even though Vance presented himself in 2016 as an anti-Trump Republican and a Silicon Valley centrist (for instance, he criticized Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act for their lack of a viable alternative plan), his professional trajectory previous to the publishing of Elegy suggests a politics probably defined by Reagan era conservatism (in contrast to Trump era nationalism). At its heart, Hillbilly Elegy might be seen simply as an antistatist screed about the failures of the Great Society. But a close reading suggests there is far more than that behind his story, particularly a forced obfuscation of class and region summarized by the word "hillbilly."

In describing his meteoric rise from poverty, Vance paints a picture of generations-old depravity in his ancestral home in Kentucky, and his childhood home in Ohio. The poor are, as the English told themselves in Dickens's day, poor because of who they are, not because of their circumstances. Although Vance is more subtle than a Herbert Spencer or a William Graham Sumner, that is the chief takeaway from this book. Vance spells out his thesis in the introduction: conditions beyond their control brought economic hard times to white Americans in a particular part of America, but their preexistent "hillbilly culture" dictates that they react to "bad circumstances in the worst way possible" (7). It is a point he makes over and over again, using his parents, grandparents, and any number of kin and acquaintances as examples. Many of the stories are sad, while many others reflect the "old Southwest" humor tradition that dates back at least as far as Samuel Clemens's (later known as Mark Twain) "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter" (1852). Vance deems himself a bit of a dandy, but from a family of squatters, and he finds them both hilarious and pathetic; even his relatively heroic portrayal of his grandmother has embellishments reminiscent of Al Capp's Mammy Yokum. And when he wrote this book, he knew a significant segment of the middle-brow reading public would agree or, at least, respond positively. As far as media portrayals of Appalachia and the working class go, Hillbilly Elegy is nothing new under the sun. But its first-person narration by a regional "insider" who is now a bona fide member of the elite is a rarity indeed.

This is important. Vance differs from Sumner et al. by crafting his critique of working-class Appalachia as both memoir and nonfiction bildungsroman. His story follows the Horatio Alger template, extolling the virtues of "hillbilly culture" while simultaneously scolding it for its flaws. Vance exploits what Christopher Lasch once called the "confessional style" of writing, but for the opposite effect. Lasch lambasted the confessionalist for seeking "not to provide an objective account of a representative piece of reality but to seduce others into giving him their attention, acclaim, or sympathy." In contrast, Vance asserts not only that he objectively recounts his own biography, but also that it epitomizes the white working-class experience. If faced with empirical evidence that suggests his experience is more exception than rule, he can always fall back on the position that Hillbilly Elegy is simply his own personal "journey" — a brilliant, infuriating paradox for anyone looking to criticize him for what he or she might interpret as his arguments about "hillbillies" as a group. Read Hillbilly Elegy and you will find that "American Dream" is one of Vance's favorite phrases, although it is rarely explained and readers are left to decide for themselves what the term entails. Vance's publisher calls the book a "multi-generational journey from Appalachia to Yale Law School — two worlds that couldn't be farther apart" (back cover; a remarkable statement considering both, at least, exist in the same nation-state). By highlighting the distance between the two, Vance can better advance the book's thesis: that his accomplishments came from hard work and the traditional values instilled in him by a relatively normative family situation provided by his "hillbilly" grandparents (in contrast to his dissolute, substance-abusing parents). Vance's personal story permits him to claim the term "hillbilly," then scold his fellow hillbillies for their cultural and moral failings.

The timing of Vance's book is interesting, considering that it appeared on the heels of the National Review's recent attacks on impoverished whites in central Appalachia. Kevin Williamson's 2014 exploration of poverty (and excess soft drink consumption) in Owsley County, Kentucky — which sits next to Breathitt County, Vance's familial hearth and one of Hillbilly Elegy's primary settings — was a kind of coming out of the closet for the magazine's disdain for this class and its supposed self-imposed degradation. The magazine's sudden viciousness toward a population once cheered as the "Reagan Democrats" comes after the white working class flocked (or so it would appear) to Donald Trump's revanchist sado-nationalism in apparent rejection of the "establishment" conservatism established in the days of Nixon and Reagan. Remarkable even for a fan of laissez-faire neoliberalism, Williamson refuses to acknowledge that the poverty of Owsley County might be due to any extraneous factors beyond its inhabitants' individual or collective control.

Nothing happened to them. There wasn't some awful disaster. There wasn't a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain't what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. (emphasis original)

With or without Trump, National Review conservatives have decided to display their previously hidden disgust for retrograde whites.

Observers like New Republic editor Jeet Heer have clearly linked The National Review's disdain for/toward the white poor to their fear that Donald Trump is taking over American conservatism, a development they were none too pleased about during the 2015–16 election cycle. "The magazine was founded as the organ of a distinctively aristocratic conservatism, one that in the early days never concealed its scorn for ordinary people," Heer writes. "In recent decades, that aristocratic conservatism has sometimes been obscured by a populist mask, but under the pressure of Trumpism, National Review is showing its true face." As a figure originating among "ordinary people" (although Vance makes them seem quite extraordinary in a sense) but accepted among allegedly "aristocratic" conservatives, Vance was pressed into service, doing the rounds of radio and television trying to explain Trump's appeal to "hillbilly" Americans like himself. Most of his observations have dealt with his own experience and that of his family.

On its face, Elegy's portrait starkly contrasts with Williamson's overtly vicious attack. Vance does acknowledge that his family suffered from the ravages of an indifferent globalized economy and the withering away of the New Deal political coalition. But Vance shares with Williamson the view that poor whites are bound by their regressive culture. How, then, can the hillbilly be simultaneously praised and scorned, praised for her toughness and dedication to family yet scorned for her inability to escape the bonds of poverty? Vance's balancing act is nothing new, and in fact has roots in nineteenth-century discourse on the growing chasm between the American countryside and its cities. His wielding of the term "hillbilly" is perhaps themost obvious common denominator between his book and past literature on Appalachia. Vance's ancestors were first identified as a people apart from the white mainstream in the two or three decades immediately following the Civil War, a time of rapid urban growth and chaotic economic change that laid bare the vast barrier between the rich and poor. The yeomanry once praised by Thomas Jefferson were overtaken by industrialists once and for all, and a large segment of the former became known as hillbillies. "Hillbilly" ultimately saw more literary mileage in the twentieth century, but its etymology is an undeniable product of the Gilded Age; it is notable that Twain and his coauthor Charles Dudley Warner began their novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, a place Americans would later come to associate with the label. In Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, historian Anthony Harkins explains that hillbilly is just one of "dozens of similar labels ... and ideological and graphic constructs of poor and working-class southern whites coined by middle- and upper-class commentators, northern and southern." Epithets like this allowed a "non-rural, middle-class, white, American audience" to "imagine a romanticized past, while simultaneously enabling the same audience to ... caricatur[e] the negative aspects of premodern, uncivilized society." Later, well into the twentieth century, white rural people "reappropriated" the term and others like it (e.g., redneck, brush ape, poor white trash, cracker) "as badges of class and racial identity and pride." The term's popularity survived the era of multiculturalism, Harkins explains, because "the hillbilly's whiteness ... allowed the image to serve as a seemingly apolitical site" where "[white] producers could portray images of poverty, ignorance, and backwardness without raising cries of bigotry and racism from civil rights advocates and the black and minority communities."

Like many labels of disapprobation, "hillbilly" is used by both the observer and the observed; it is a word some people apply to others, as well as one some apply to themselves, depending upon their rhetorical purposes. In Vance's case, he seems to be distancing himself from an Other while also reappropriating depending on what part of the narrative he happens to be in. There is also some question as to whether Vance is using the term to describe a taxonomy of humanity (as his open admiration for Charles Murray suggests) or as a means to an end to describing place — namely the postindustrial limbo overlapping eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio. "There is a lack of agency here [in the 'Rust Belt']," Vance writes, "a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself" (7). Vance and his family call themselves hillbillies by virtue of their residency in "Greater Appalachia"— a term he borrows, without attribution, from Colin Woodard's "Eleven Nations" theory (though he does support his point with a quote from Hank Williams Jr.). However, the story he tells is not necessarily one exceptional to Appalachia but is probably familiar to any number of locales where poverty with a white face is rampant.

Hillbilly Elegy is inadvertently a book about race, more so than region or class. In his introduction, Vance attempts to deny it, but overstates his case: "I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism" (7–8). He also mentions that he has known quite a few "welfare queens" in his time but, assuming the reader associates this Reaganesque term with blackness, he offers assurance that they were all white, as are virtually all of the people mentioned in the book (8). Hillbilly Elegy is about whiteness, and the failure of American capitalism to give whiteness the natural purchase it once promised, but Vance seems to think that "white" is not a race, but rather the absence of race. This is something to consider in understanding how he utilizes "hillbilly," a term with no explicit racial association but an age-old gnomic interchangeability with whiteness. Vance uses "hillbilly" uncritically to describe the people in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio, and — as did Woodard — takes the whiteness of his subjects as a given; ethnic heritage seems to be one of the main factors that makes Vance's hillbillies do what they do. For over a century, "hillbilly" has been used liberally but has very rarely been applied to a nonwhite person. It not only denotes whiteness, but also implicitly acknowledges an intraracial hierarchy in which, it goes without saying, hillbillies are on the bottom, thanks to their rejection of bourgeois modes of behavior.


Excerpted from "Appalachian Reckoning"
by .
Copyright © 2019 West Virginia University Press.
Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Why This Book?
Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll                             

T. R. C. Hutton                                                                                                 

Jeff Mann                                                                                                          

Dwight B. Billings       

Elizabeth Catte   

Theresa Burriss           

Ricardo Nazario y Colón                    

Roger Guy     

Lisa R. Pruitt     

Lou Murrey                                                                                  

Travis Linnemann

Corina Medley        

Ivy Brashear                      

Crystal Good                                                                                               

Michael E. Maloney                                                            

Dana Wildsmith                                                                                                             

Kelli Hansel Haywood                                                                   

Allen Johnson

Danielle Dulken                 

William H. Turner                                                 

Jesse Graves                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Meredith McCarroll                           

Rebecca Kiger                                                                         

Kirstin L. Squint                                                                        

Richard Hague                                                          

Jeremy B. Jones                                                                                

Edward Karshner                     

Luke Travis                                                                                                   

Robert Morgan                                                                               

Chelsea Jack                                                                                     

Robert Gipe                                                                                           

Roger May               

Keith S. Wilson                                                                                                               

Rachel Wise                                                                                

Kelly Norman Ellis                                                                              

Jim Minick               

Linda Parsons                                                                                       

Meg Wilson                                                                                      

Jodie Childers                            

Dale Marie Prenatt                                                                                              

Elizabeth Hadaway     

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