Hillbilly Elegy: Appalachian Readings

While contemplating which books to read as part of my resolution, a light bulb came on. I realized that my true reason for this project was to re-immerse myself in Appalachian literature in order to respond intelligently to Hillbilly Elegy. Once I connected those dots, I decided to get it over with.

Hillbilly Elegy is a tale only a white male could tell, because it doesn’t look beyond the perspective of a white male. Unfortunately for everyone, the Midwestern author takes his personal experiences and lays them over the reality of a vibrant, multicultural region. While trying to pontificate on white working-class poverty in the US, he uses generations-old ties to Kentucky to generalize his misfortunes to all of Appalachia. He does a disservice to Appalachia, as do the reviews that say he speaks for the region (like the one in the New York Times saying Vance offers “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass”).

Author J. D. Vance, who is a year younger than me, was born and raised in Ohio. The closest connections he has to Appalachia are his grandparents, who left Eastern Kentucky when they were teens, and his estranged father, who lives in Kentucky. He both longs for a close relationship with Appalachia, seemingly as a way to belong to something other than the great white mass that is the US, and blames the region for his poverty and familial problems. In his shortsightedness, his violent, crass grandparents become Appalachia to him. Vance reminds me of the Dear Appalachia letter writers with distant roots to the region who offered authors plot ideas and anecdotes from their families. Except instead of the quaintness and safety of Mitford or Big Stone Gap, he goes a more negative direction: violent and wild, poor and untamable.

I checked this book out from the library because I refuse to give any money to this author.

I am certainly more qualified than Vance to speak on Appalachia: I am from there; I was schooled there, elementary through grad school; I have a minor from Berea College in Appalachian studies; and my first jobs in publishing were a journal (Appalachian Heritage) and a press (WVU Press) with content focused on the region. And yet even with that background, I felt unprepared to respond. With the confidence only a white male can muster, Vance considered himself very qualified.

Again, recurring themes popped out to me (many of which, as you’ll see, relate to the previous books I’ve read as part of my project): race, authenticity, and poverty. I can easily see why people have chosen to write whole books in response, but I’ve tried to limit myself to these themes for time’s sake. First things first, however. Vance sets up a logical fallacy that the white working class = Appalachia. Within that context, every time he mentions one, he’s also invoking the other. To clear that up, Appalachia definitely does not equal the white working class.

Race

With a self-identified Scots-Irish heritage, Vance wrongly equates all the admired and infamous stereotypes of that group (strength, stubbornness, willingness to fight) with Appalachians. In reality, Scots-Irish folks are not even close to the only group who settled the Appalachian mountains (not to mention the Native Americans who were there first). As Sarah Baird of NPR writes:

Appalachia’s history as a mountainous melting pot dates to before the Revolutionary War, when the region’s misty crags were an almost impenetrable Western frontier. Indian nations, including Cherokee and Shawnee, were the first to inhabit the area. A major wave of European settlers — primarily of Irish and Scottish descent — arrived via federal land grants in the early 18th century. African-Americans, both free and enslaved, arrived at this time as well. All these groups played key roles in shaping and molding the cultural traditions of the region. . . .

The coal crescendo during the early part of the 20th century brought in even greater diversity, with tens of thousands of Hungarian, Italian and Eastern European immigrants flocking to the mountains to cash in on booming mining towns.

Appalachians (not just those of Scots-Irish descent) are considered a tough group, but I think that strength has as much to do with fighting off outsiders like Vance who take advantage of the region as it does our ancestors’ hardscrabble life in an unforgiving mountain range. Outsiders tend to view the region as a bastion of simple whites who need to be saved—as primitive, exotic, and unchanging in the face of industrialization,  a whitewashed version of how National Geographic writers and readers once wrongly saw Africa.

Vance’s reliance on a white Appalachia is stomach-turning. Just after saying that he focuses on working-class whites, he  asks readers to appreciate his story “without filtering their views through a racial prism” (8); he writes, “this is not a story about why white people have more to complain about than black people or any other group” (7). Taking other races out of the picture not only skews the perspective, but it also whitewashes a culturally rich region. If he wanted to look solely at working-class whites, he should have done so instead of saying Appalachia is working-class whites. Unfortunately, by wrongly tying the two groups together, he makes false statements about both, undermining his entire premise.

Even beyond Appalachia, it’s clear that, to him, being black is the same as being white and poor, and that poverty equals bad life choices. When talking about how white working-class folks went from being important blue-collar workers to impoverished, he writes, with amazing tone deafness, “Bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs” (52). He also frames gentrification as a positive, writing that in Columbus, Ohio, “even the worst neighborhoods seemed to be undergoing significant revitalization” (180). Elizabeth Catte hits the nail on the head when she writes,

False notions of Appalachia pick up a lot of baggage about class, but also about race. And what we see in these notions is that the experience of poverty is deeply racialized, even when the subject is presumed to be a white demographic. This is why, for example, when the National Review starts writing about Appalachia in 2014, they come out of the gate with an article called “The White Ghetto.” For those who like to indulge in that brand of self-righteousness, it is always the poor who fail our country, never a country that has failed the poor, and race and class work together in that regard to make poverty seem innate among certain populations.

Regardless of his desire, he doesn’t fully take white culture out of the context of other cultures; rather, he uses them as benchmarks. On page 4, before we’ve even gotten into the meat of the text, he says that “surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America.” He even repeats the same line on page 194. Later, he has the gall to say that because of his evangelical religion, he “felt like a persecuted minority” (97). In these instances, he’s using his circumstances (and out-of-context data) to try to become the oppressed rather than the oppressor, but it doesn’t work that way.

Along those same lines, Vance’s use, as a Midwestern Ohioan, of phrases like “hillbilly like me” (4) or his description of folks generations removed as still “hill people to the core” (29) recalls the readers in Dear Appalachia who rely on Appalachia to make them “not-quite-white” so they aren’t subsumed by the bland white majority. Even his use of hillbilly further whitewashes the book, since he makes it abundantly clear that hillbilly working-class white = Appalachian. As Baird reports, and Vance should too, “In 2005, as [Rachel Ellen] Simon has noted, Appalachian State University professor Fred Hay successfully petitioned the Library of Congress to change the definition of Appalachians from ‘Mountain Whites’ to ‘Appalachians (People).’” By using the term hillbilly, he excludes the culturally rich history of our mountain range.

Authenticity

Throughout the book, Vance tries various ways to prove his Appalachian-ness. (Unfortunately, he’s lacking the one defining characteristic: he wasn’t born there and doesn’t live there.) He uses the same tropes that outside authors in Dear Appalachia used when writing about the region and that outside readers used to prove their roots in their letters: dialect, stories about eccentric people, pride in feuding relatives, and a penchant for violence.

That last one really bothered me. To him, bad behavior from his family is dismissed as a “struggle to adapt” to living outside Kentucky (34). He writes, “Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid” (40). He proudly takes the disturbing actions of his grandparents and makes them a caricature of the entire region. In addition, he continues to generalize his identity with phrases such as “the norm for hillbilly families” (69), “hillbilly justice” (78), “thanks to the Appalachian honor code” (126), and “no self-respecting hillbilly could stand idly by” (126). All of this is to convince readers that despite growing up in Ohio, he is somehow a hillbilly, an Appalachian.

Many times in the text, while trying to prove his authenticity, he instead underlined his role as an outsider. One way he did this is through unfounded assumptions about the region. Despite it being his focus, he even doesn’t define “working class” until page 227. To him it means no college degree. By this point, he’s already set up that Appalachia is white and that Appalachia is working class. Thus, following his logic, Appalachians don’t have college degrees. He writes that “Appalachian hills and single-room K-12 schoolhouses don’t tend to foster big dreams” (22). Excuse me? Has he heard of Carter G. Woodson? Of Berea CollegeHomer Hickam Jr. and the Rocket Boys? He also blames Appalachia for his ignorance: “Mamaw always resented the hillbilly stereotype—the idea that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But the fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead” (222). The community that he says underprepared him was not even in Appalachia.

There is a social understanding that if you are of a certain group, you can make fun of that group. I, for instance, was homeschooled, so I am allowed to make homeschool jokes. It’s a form of self-deprecating humor. To prove his authenticity, Vance makes fun of Appalachia under this guise. However, he wrongly assumes he is part of the group. Readers who take him at his word (even though he freely admits he is from western Ohio), accept the jokes and barbs as having kernels of truth. To those of us from the region, however, he is yet another outsider making us his punching bag.

Poverty

In addition to being completely unfounded in thinking that all Appalachians are poor, and poor people have no dreams, he also thinks that modern schools, big homes, and modern plumbing are things achieved by moving out of the region and getting a good job (41). He laughably assumes that there were one-room schoolhouses during his mother’s generation, and therefore my mother’s generation (36). A little research and a road trip would have put those assumptions to rest. Yet portraying us as poor whites unchanged by industrialization and capitalism plays into his feelings about Appalachia, both his desire for simplicity and his unease with poverty.

Money and opportunity were the reasons many people left Appalachia during the Great Migration (1940s to 1970s). It’s certainly one reason why his grandparents left as teens (that and a pregnancy), as did many of their siblings: “Each owned a successful business and earned considerable wealth in the process” while those who stayed behind in Kentucky “struggled financially” (29). One quintessential Appalachian trait is the strong tie to place, as evidenced by my own homesickness, Jesse Donaldson’s On HomesicknessGertie’s longing for home in The Dollmaker, and even Vance’s own misplaced protestations of Kentucky as somehow home deep down. Interestingly, Vance’s Mamaw (one of the only true Appalachians in this book, and one who epitomizes Appalachia to him), does not want to return to Kentucky. She chooses to stay outside the region, making his desire to belong that much stranger. He writes, “Mamaw saw returning to Jackson as a duty to endure rather than a source of enjoyment” (134). According to him, his grandmother had escaped the poverty and abuse that Jackson represented to her, and she was loathe to return. With that family history, it’s not surprising that Vance equates success with money and upward mobility and equates Appalachia with poverty.

Poverty in Appalachia is multifaceted, but one cause is towns built around a single industry that strips the land of resources and then leaves for greener pastures. These industries, which tend to have profits flow out of the region rather than stay in the region, are run by people like coal magnate Don Blankenship, who has a deadly history of putting profits before people. If you’ve never heard of broad form deeds that tricked residents out of the mineral rights of their land, you should read up. To this day, too much Appalachian soil is owned by outsiders who do not contribute to the local economies. As part of a service-learning project at Berea under the tutelage of Dr. Gordon McKinney, I looked through land records in neighboring counties, and a large percentage of property was not owned by Kentuckians—some was even owned by folks in Europe.

Vance doesn’t even gloss over these points. He ignores Appalachian history all together, providing no context for his blames. His perceptions of white working-class poverty could be about any place in the US. It certainly isn’t limited to Appalachia. In fact, the closest he comes is discussing Armco, a manufacturer in non-Appalachian Ohio that his grandparents relied on. Once Armco began failing, the town began failing.

Rather than set a historical context for poverty in Appalachia, he shares stories of “bad” poor people to prove that his familial issues with finances, drugs, and violence are commonplace. He even tells stories of defending predatory payday lenders; because he was irresponsible enough to forget his paycheck and use a payday lender, they were suddenly something that “powerful people” wanted to get rid of to “help people like me without really understanding people like me” (186). His desire to create a dichotomy of them vs. us, with us being the downtrodden underdogs, just proves his willful ignorance.

◊◊◊

Many chapters of this book don’t deal with Appalachia at all, even tangentially. They detail his service in the Marine Corps, his foray at Ohio State, and his experiences in law school. Appalachia could be completely taken out of this book and it would not change his life trajectory, though he would have to find something else to blame for his traumatic childhood. He rightfully states that poverty causes long-term problems, such as “adverse childhood experiences” (226), but fails to look at the root causes of poverty. He lacks self-awareness, and his stories reflect that.

In the end, Vance misses the beauty of Appalachia because of his white, male shortsightedness. He takes a region he has no claim to and attempts to rewrite its reality to fit his needs, like many outsiders before him. Fortunately, Appalachia is resilient and strong, multicultural and diverse. As Ali Stine writes, “You should be fascinated by Appalachia, but not because it was forgotten. It has been working this whole time. There is no one story of Appalachia—and there is no single song, but many.”

Roan Mountain by Rachel Rosolina

 

12 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy: Appalachian Readings

    1. Great question! For nonfiction, I really like Fighting Back in Appalachia edited by Stephen Fisher, Appalachia: A History by John Alexander Williams, Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers by Ronald Eller, Something’s Rising by Silas House and Jason Howard, and It Comes from the People by Mary Ann Hinsdale, Helen Lewis, and S. Maxine Waller. I also loved On Homesickness by Jesse Donaldson. Coal-specific, I recommend Matewan before the Massacre by Rebecca Bailey and Monongah by Davitt McAteer. As for fiction/poetry, anything by Silas House, Ann Pancake, Wendell Berry, or Lee Smith.

  1. That was a great read…..thanks for the insight on the topic. Hope your family is well…Michael Hallingstad

  2. As for suggested reading material, check out anything by my friend Tess Collins. She is from Middlesboro, Kentucky and sets her stories in that area.

    The Appalachia I was raised in was like this. First of all, I agree with Ms. Rosolina. Bell County of the late 1950s through the end of the 1960s was populated with people of all colors and ethic-sounding names, not simply Scots-Irish. In our town, citizens felt the responsibility to solve thorny problems put in front of them. For example, when I was in first grade, there was a gas leak in the elementary school, grades 1-8. Once discovered, the principal made the rounds to all of the classrooms and spoke to each teacher. We were told to tiptoe into the cloakroom and retrieve our “wraps” and lunchboxes, then to march out and board the buses like we normally did at the end of the day. Turned out that even flipping a light switch would have detonated the school. We were out of school for six weeks. During that time, every aspect of the community pitched in to relocate us for the rest of the year. I finished first grade in a Sunday School room in the basement of the First Christian Church. My sister’s third grade class was moved to the Armory. Nearly every possible space in town was dedicated to getting school back on track for the remainder of the year. Over the summer, they built a new elementary school. The lesson I learned from that is that we hillbillies are among the most resourceful individuals on the planet and when given a problem, we figure out a way to solve it. The guy who wrote that book claims kinship but he’s not even close.

    Darrell Scott may have said it best. Just listen to You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.

    1. Thanks for the reading recommendation! And what a great story–very indicative of the tight communities found throughout Appalachia.

  3. Thank you for this insightful review. Coincidentally, I recall similar criticisms of Harry Caudill’s iconic “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” many decades ago as a child sitting in the kitchen of my aunts’ home in Hyden. Their issues with Caudill’s portrayal centered around the theme of your review of Vance: he missed the nuance of the mountains’ people who fell outside the abject poverty required for his story.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! I agree. I had a similar reaction to Night Comes to the Cumberlands when I read it in college. I still have my copy filled with angry marginalia. Vance’s writing definitely echoes phrases from Caudill like “Kentucky as a whole has lagged behind the rest of the nation in almost every field of government and public service, primarily because the fiercely independent and uncooperative mentality of the frontier hunter-farmer has remained so deeply and tenaciously embedded in the mass psyche.”

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