J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” the surprise best seller published in 2016, is a frisky memoir with a bit of conservative moralizing dangling off, like the price tag on Minnie Pearl’s hat. Nearly everyone likes the memoir sections. (His portrait of his grandmother, a “pistol-packing lunatic,” is indelible.) The moralizing has been divisive.
A new anthology, “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’” edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, presents the most sustained pushback to Vance’s book (soon to be a Ron Howard movie) thus far. It’s a volley of intellectual buckshot from high up alongside the hollow.
Vance’s book tells the story of his chaotic childhood in Ohio, where part of his extended family migrated from [Breathitt County in Kentucky]. Some of his brawling, working-class kin are alcoholics, and some are abusers; nearly all are feisty beyond measure.
The book is about how young J.D. survived his mother’s drug addiction and a long series of hapless stepfathers and went on, against steep odds, to serve in the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. It’s a plain-spoken, feel-good, up-from-one’s-bootstraps story. It would have gotten away clean if Vance hadn’t, on his way up, pushed Appalachians back down.
He calls Appalachians lazy (“many folks talk about working more than they actually work”). He complains about white “welfare queens.” He’s against curbs on predatory payday lending practices. He harkens back to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial “culture of poverty” themes.
This kind of criticism, for many Appalachians, verges on the personal. When Vance spoke on a panel at the 2018 Appalachian Studies Association conference, a group called Y’ALL (Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners) staged a protest, turning their chairs away from him, booing and singing Florence Reece’s anthem “Which Side Are You On?”
To be fair to Vance, he finds some positive things to say about Appalachians. And he writes that government has a role to play, if a smaller one than some might wish, in helping a population battered by plant closings, geographical disadvantage, environmental despoiling and centuries of the most rapacious capitalism imaginable.
To hear the writers in “Appalachian Reckoning” tell it, the problems with “Hillbilly Elegy” start with its subtitle: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Those last three words are a lot to swallow. They illustrate Vance’s habit of pivoting from personal experience into the broadest of generalizations. His is a book in which the words “I” and “we” are slippery indeed.
As Dwight B. Billings, a professor emeritus of sociology and Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky, puts it in this new anthology, “It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else — something extraordinarily audacious — to presume to write the ‘memoir’ of a culture.”
Billings quotes a Democrat from Ohio, Betsy Rader, who wrote: “Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted in programs to help lift people out of poverty.”
In her perceptive essay, Lisa R. Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, boils down Vance’s advice this way: “‘ Hillbillies’ just need to pull themselves together, keep their families intact, go to church, work a little harder and stop blaming the government for their woes.”
Pruitt compares Vance’s memoir to those by Barack Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. What if Obama, she asks, had condemned “those he worked among as a community organizer in Chicago, even while basking in his own success as the obvious fruits of his own labor.”
She continues, “Or imagine Sonia Sotomayor, in her best-selling memoir ‘My Beloved World,’ taking complete credit for her class migration from the Bronx’s Puerto Rican American community to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, all while saying the Latinx youth and young adults left behind simply lacked the grit and discipline to achieve similarly lofty goals.”
For every essay in “Appalachian Reckoning” that’s provocative, another is unreadable. The academic language in some of these pieces — “wider discursive contexts,” “capitalist realist ontology,” “fashion a carceral landscape” — makes it seem as if their authors were walking around on stilts.
You may find Vance’s policy positions to be rubbish, but at least they are clearly articulated rubbish.
There are a few pro- Vance pieces in “Appalachian Reckoning.” And not everything here is a polemic. The volume includes poems, photographs, memoirs and a comic piece or two.
I’m not entirely sure why it’s in this book, but Jeremy B. Jones’s love song to Ernest T. Bass, the fictional character on “The Andy Griffith Show” who was addicted to throwing rocks, is a pleasure.
A few of these writers try to one-up Vance on the atrocity meter. High points in this regard go to Michael E. Maloney, a Cincinnatibased community organizer, who writes:
“My grandfather killed a man who tried to rob his sawmill. My father killed one man in a West Virginia coal mine for making a disrespectful remark, another for drawing a gun on him, and another who had murdered my uncle Dewey.”
That’s a lot of Appalachian reckoning.
The book to read, if you’re interested in the history of the exploitation of Appalachia, is Steven Stoll’s “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia” (2017).
We can gawk at mountain people all we like. But, Stoll writes, “Seeing without history is like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins.”
This book review appeared in the February 26 edition of the New York Times.