The Unnoticed Contextual Realities of Hillbilly Elegy

At any site on the landscape, multiple definitions of a place are continually in play among those who reside or visit there, sometimes convivial and sometimes antagonistic. Ideas of property, of homeland, of natural resources, of infrastructure; of city, county, school district, economic development zone, environmental hazard; of shit-hole, unspoiled paradise, dullsville; of wildness and weirdness and domestication and discipline–all swirl and interconnect and contend and contest in any given space (Powell, 2012, 5).

I have wanted to read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance for a few months. Almost weekly a new review or blog appears concerning this volume, which has become a national best-seller. Because of its personal, memoir nature I found its appeal interesting. I was careful not to read the reviews too closely, but found comments such as “he gets it” or “this is an insider perspective” alluring. While teaching “Introduction to Appalachian Studies” here at Virginia Tech I often work through the local color fiction movement[1] and think, how did people not respond? How did journalists and correspondents for the New York Times as well as scholars not catch these acts of generalizing and aggrandizing on behalf of elite readers and metaphorical fulfilments of the American dream? How did we trade in the breadth of diversity the region has to offer for one view? While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I thought, here is how. This is how places and people become caricatures of themselves, ourselves. It is not my interest in Vance’s writing or personal plight that kept me reading his self-celebratory personal narrative. No, it is knowing that this text is approachable, available, and popular, consumed by many much as Deliverance, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, The Beverly Hillbillies, and local color fiction have been before. Vance’s personal and unquestionably political narrative is an important read in understanding the ways in which societies recreate people, places, and feelings about ideologies.

Reading the first few pages and reviewing the acknowledgements of the thirty-one-year old’s memoir, it is obvious Vance did not write this text as an Appalachian Studies student. Once one has read the first few chapters, it becomes painfully clear that Vance knows very little about regional history. He supports essentializations with personal stories, focuses on micro-oppressions rather than the legacies of hope and historically unaccounted for diversity of the region. Rather than celebrate the legacies of resistance and innovation in Appalachia or offer new knowledge, he continues to reproduce Darwinian notions of a land engulfed in a culture of poverty. So why read the book? I finished this volume for several reasons. First, it is being discussed. Second, it is being accepted by some, even some from the region. Third, Vance relies in part on the controversial theorizations of pseudo-political scientist Charles Murray, and that fact intrigued and concerned me.  Fourth, I continued to read because in the current political climate it has become increasingly clear that affect trumps truth and this book is a brilliantly positioned example of when emotions—those of an accomplished, cis-gendered, heteronormative, white man—matter to the public and are validated by political rhetoric. Fifth, I continued reading because, as someone from the region, I believe the area’s residents have yet truly to address the problematic ways in which we make, recreate and perform one another and for one another and the places for which we allow ourselves to speak.

To be clear, the insider/outsider politics that continue to police place-based discussions of Appalachia are largely revisionist and exclusionary. We have yet to respect and understand the scale of oppression within the region. We have yet to develop the imagination for dialogues of rebuilding rather than rage. We have yet to engage critically with the stereotypes that occupy the region in the national psyche.

Finally, I finished this book because many of my challenges as an educator were apparent within its first few pages. Just a few weeks ago, for example, a student astutely responded to questions I had posed concerning the award winning film, Stranger with a Camera. We were discussing the power of photography to “shoot” subjects and how to weigh long-term representational violence against physical violence. The student responded, with a question (creating questions is a very important goal of the course) “How can facts be unethical? How can facts have ethics?” I was thrilled to enter this line of discourse. How can facts—experiences—and the sharing of those have ethical consequences. Moreover, how are they overtly political? These are the questions that guided my reading of Vance’s personal story. The fact that his narrative is being read as “the hillbilly story” and seen as one explanation for Republican Party presidential nominee Donald Trump’s success in the region was also not far from my mind.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Vance’s narrative captures a life experience not unlike that of many with which I was familiar as I grew up in western North Carolina. However, just because it relates to the experiences of many from the region—or from any poverty stricken area—does not mean, and should not imply, that it represents the story of all of Appalachia. Vance’s narrative does not explain the region’s systemic or structural inequalities and it certainly does not engage with the power that put them in place. These are just a few of the unnoticed contextual realities of the region that are not addressed by Vance’s “elegy.” The enthusiastic acceptance of a (neoliberal) “pull yourself up by your bootstraps like I did” narrative and the continuous mentioning of “hillbilly justice” among many of the book’s conservative-leaning reviewers speaks to larger racial, economic, gendered, societal issues that have erupted across the national landscape in recent months. Nonetheless, it is clear that Vance’s story of “beating the odds” does not provide a solution or plan to better the lives of the oppressed or impoverished of the region.

In this reflective, exploratory engagement with the text, I address alternative births, regenerative hopes, and regional reincarnations that lie outside the scope of Vance’s lament, while highlighting some of the dangers his work presents to those who consume it and those it represents. This is my initial response. There will be more to come, I am sure.

But Who is Dead?

It is perhaps most straightforward to begin with the title of Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, elegy being a sorrowful song for one who is dead. Yet, Appalachia is not a person, but a place, a place created (like others) through a web of relationships. We read what we assume to be Vance’s swansong to a personification of a particular set of characteristics, a trope of a place, an identity; a hillbilly. Vance emphasizes his sorrow over the death of “a hillbilly.” Indeed, his text reads at times as eulogistic: praising his pistol packin’ cussin’ Mamaw, who in his view, literally saved his life. His book is a lament to “a hillbilly,” a beloved grandmother, a family, and a culture. Death is a strong term. In order to be determined dead, all biological functions that sustain an organism must end. There ceases to be life. In my view, what is lost in Vance’s life as he recounts his experiences does not connote death, but instead transition—and not necessarily a totalizing one. Yes, coal is leaving the region (something Vance does not discuss in depth), and yes, drugs are rampant, but there is something else happening, too. There is a resurrection of local foods, economies, and arts in the region. There is also critical work being done on and within Appalachia—with which Vance seems to be largely unacquainted.

There were additional initial questions for which I wished to obtain answers while I read this book—things I would hope to offer the reader of this reflection, but I cannot, since the author did not address them. For instance, what does Vance mean when he says “hillbilly?” What are the origins of his apparent obsession with “the American Dream?” And has he considered the limits of such a desire? Further, what does Vance see as his relationship to place? He clearly feels he owes his “hillbilly heritage” for his successful career and he claims to love his family’s “home” community, but he does not seem to indicate the need to re-invest in the region. Rather, he passes along the advice that “worked” for him, or “Appalachian Values” as he calls them: loyalty, honor, and toughness (66). That is, if you work hard, good things will come your way. 

A Hillbilly Mythology

In my view, rather than bidding a fond farewell to his home, Vance is participating in the recreation and performance of the social tropes expected to accompany his identity. He articulated prevailing myths or essentializations within the region within the current political climate through his own family stories, while employing existing stereotypes. Family stories are powerful. Regional agents, such as the Highlander Center in Tennessee and Appalshop in Whitesburg, Kentucky, have proven the power of personal narrative. However, Vance’s stories do not highlight structural inequalities and issues. Instead, as he presents his experience, issues and solution are rooted in individuals. In this way, he embraces a neoliberal moral of his story that accords with prevailing extreme representations concerning the region. Myths can be healthy, as they allow for a shared understanding of a culture and often of rituals within it. [2] But here, I use “myths” to suggest the ways in which stereotypes and generalizations work. The “myths” on which Vance relies (which are widely believed) are detrimental to truly understanding the poverty of the region because they pretend that they are the product of individual behavior alone and can be addressed by the same.

Hillbillies are white men. This is perhaps the most blatant “myth” Vance reinforces, and the easiest to discredit. Vance self identifies as a “Scots-Irish Hillbilly at Heart.” One long-standing misrepresentation of the region has been that Appalachian people are “Mountain Whites.”[3] The erasure of people of color from this story is important. The ways Vance treats race are important (see his comments on why he does not relate to President Obama (Vance, 2016, 191)). This myth—that Appalachia is a totalizing white space—is untrue. Movements such as the Affrilachian Poets as well as Black Lives Matter and Indigenous studies have all revealed the roles of people of color in the region’s history, and the erasure of these roles in prominent works of historical scholarship.

Intersectional critiques are not a consideration in Vance’s text. The role of gender in the plight and death of the hillbilly does not enter his account. As he observed when discussing the characteristics of his hard-living uncles, “I was in love with the Blanton men” (16). While his Mamaw was an important factor in his life, the work done by women, or the potential work by women goes largely unnoticed. While, yes, she was very important, Vance does not address her labor and the labor divisions (which cannot be separated from regional poverty) her life revealed. Labor and laziness are gendered issues and the solution, if Vance can be said to offer one, is dangerously gendered and simple; “Men need to work.” For instance, he laments,

Too many young men are immune to hard work. Good jobs are impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance . . . this is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America (Vance, 2016, 97).

I am not convinced it is that simple, nor should it be. Appalachia is not distinct from the larger landscape of America, rather the region is deeply connected. Further, the labor of the “wife-to-be” is never discussed. Vance is apparently unaware of the gendered divisions of labor Rebecca Scott has so carefully analyzed in her scholarship. The alternative economies within the region and Vance’s own situation and privilege—especially among his summer co-workers—go unquestioned.

Finally, Vance’s unquestionable “You are the answer” mantra reinforces currently prevailing individualistic social norms. Or, in the words of Vance’s Mamaw, “[D]on’t be like these f—–g losers who think the deck is stacked against them … [y]ou can do anything you want to” (Vance, 2016, 36). That is the advice Vance recalls from his Mamaw and that is exactly the neoliberal sentiment so dominant today that discredits structural (read, governmental) assistance or restructuring efforts in areas in which capitalism fails or which the market abandons. This directly influences policy which directly influences the lives of the working class.

The neoliberal dream is complicated and Vance is not the only popular culture writer to cling to it. He advances a perspective that can only be understood within its own structures and systems, which, because they are so dominant in our current culture, we have a difficult time imagining could be otherwise: “It’s [Appalachia is] unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work” (Vance, 2016, 21). Vance misses an opportunity to make an important connection between “interest in honest work” and the environmental and historical context of labor of the region. Environmental waste scatters the countryside precisely because of the jobs available in the area.  Those responsible for that waste (largely coal companies) are not held accountable, rather such a landscape is seen as a reflection of those who have to often been treated as “by-products” by the companies for which they work.

When discussing his upbringing and his own positionality, Vance looks to his grandparents as sources of strength. “Both did their part to ensure that I had the self-confidence and the right opportunities to get a fair shot at the American Dream” (Vance, 2016, 23). Vance also acknowledges education as a critical factor in his own ability successfully to realize the “American Dream,” but he does not address structural issues that often limit opportunities for others in the region (including his mother). As he noted, “[T]oday people look at me, at my job, and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today” (Vance, 2016, 2).  Being a white, cis-gendered-heterosexual-het man who, whose family for at least for a period in his life, enjoyed an income of more than $100,000 did make me wonder whether Vance’s ascent was truly as extraordinary as he appears to believe. A law degree from Yale is a great accomplishment and Vance has much of which to be proud, but he did not realize those accomplishments solely on the basis of his personal capacities. We live in a social system that caters to the success of men like Vance … even those who come from Appalachia. While we are in a patriarchal capitalist economy, we also are living in a time when the dominant social frame systematically blames poverty on the impoverished. That is what is exceptionally strange about this story—Vance’s lack of attention to systemic and structural inequalities.

Given this reality, it is important to explore the ways in which Vance understands the neoliberal system that now dominated the United States and how individuals and communities function within it. In lieu of acknowledging that overarching set of claims and its roles in he conditions that Appalachia’s residents confront, Vance contends, “To these folks, poverty is a family tradition” (Vance, 2016, 3). Time and again, Vance embraces notions of a “culture of poverty” in his memoir. Poor people beget poor people and poverty is their culture of choice seems to be his logic. This proposition is nothing new and it surely reflects and perpetuates a social stereotype of the poor in the United States, but is has also been disproven repeatedly as economists and analysts have learned about how capitalism and varying methods of economic oppression work. Vance’s use of fatalism (“it is no surprise that we are a pessimistic bunch” (4)), depiction of the region and his evocation of those with a “hillbilly identity” as constituting a pre-modern space, and his continual (and repetitive) invocation of “hillbilly justice” (read: violent stories of his uncles beating men unconscious (Vance, 2016, 14, 17)) are all long-lived stereotypic generalizations that Appalachian Studies educators work against daily. These claims are nothing new, and they are certainly not the future of Appalachia. Rather, the future is being built by activists, scholars, farmers, preachers, lawyers, yogis, filmmakers, artists and others who reject such misleading characterizations as they search for possibilities to survive and thrive together in the region. 

Why these myths? Why these stories?

These stories are tired, but they are known. Such generalizations (the region’s supposed violence, whiteness, overwhelming poverty and rurality) allow Vance to identify with Appalachia in an essentializing and comfortable way. One quick glance at the “Appalachian Americans” Facebook page and it is clear that the relationships people build with one another, which allow them to self-identify and be a part of a place, are often reliant on dominant stories and value systems, or at least on a common rhetoric and vocabulary. As Powell has observed, “[r]egions are not so much places themselves, but ways of describing relationships among places” (Powell, 10, 2012).   The ability to re-tell accounts of such ties and his willingness to relate these dominant social generalizations of Appalachia constitute Vance’s “membership” in the region for his readers in a way that accords with stereotypes, rather than revealing the inspiring solutions and alternatives now in play across Appalachia. It is easier to draw on a stereotype than to imagine a different way of knowing.

In this way, Vance’s account of his life to date finds Appalachia again serving dominant social, cultural and political forces, rather than being explored as the vital and diverse region it is. For Vance, Appalachia is the setting – a relatable and believable one, in his presentation—in which white patriarchal heteronormative capitalist dreams may be born. As he frames his experiences, Vance is a wonderful poster child for the individualistic myth many have adopted in a neoliberal age.

Too often we miss the hidden resistances, the hidden structures of privilege and disenfranchisement because “the story” of Appalachia has been the story of “mountain whites” specifically, white men from the mountains. This makes invisible the diversity and many of the radical movements which the region should be celebrating. For example, how different would this story be if Vance were a woman? Queer? A person of color? Dis/abled? And how different would this story be if we were to think beyond capitalism? These questions and alternative avenues for exploration require an acknowledgement of privilege, which, indeed, is one productive conversation that could possibly come from discussions of this book.

What do we actually learn from this narrative?

Human beings generalize. We essentialize in order to understand, and in doing so, too often learn very little. Our performative self-construction is not questioned in a productive way. We validate our “Appalachian-ness” through the thickness of our vowels and through the food we make and surely this is a dangerous practice. In performing an “authentic” identity, privilege and discussions about intersectional struggles are lost in the dominating myths of what it means “to be” from this region. Vance does this through erroneous contentions, such as the claim that “[W]e do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the importance lies in how they look, how they act, or how they talk” (Vance, 2016, 3). But who is “they” and who are “we” and how do we deal with shifts in these seemingly concrete identities?

Shak’ar Mujukian recently published a brilliant blog post, “The Queer Poor Aesthetic,”  not in response to Vance’s text specifically, but to address stereotypical performances of identities and shared experiences without shared socio-economic positionality:

Class is powerful for another reason: it shapes how we view and in turn treat groups of people. Class structurally disenfranchises and criminalizes marginalized communities: it’s how anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism, transphobia, misogyny, and nearly every other kind of oppression legally operate and take real form.

That’s why it’s necessary to treat class how we treat race, color, gender, and sexuality. But first, we need to start by talking about it. (Checking your class privilege once is like saying ‘I’m a white male—I have privilege,’ and stopping there.) We need to have an ongoing, honest conversation and not abuse the ways in which we self-identify for our own benefit.

Our community has a phobia of privilege—especially when it’s ours. Because privilege isn’t cool anymore, we’re taking great measures to downplay ours and only selectively highlight the ways in which we’re oppressed. Because class is relatively invisible and awkward, it’s easiest to hide—especially when we’re marginalized in other ways. . .

If we are participating in this movement to destroy and bring visibility to all forms of oppression, we have to stop glamorizing the queers who are highest on the food chain and listen to and empower those who are most marginalized. We have to deconstruct the fucked up, invisible ways that we’ve been programmed to think and feel. And we must start by being honest about ourselves, our privilege, and our politics (http://www.the-hye-phen-mag.org/author/thehyephen/).

Hillbilly Elegy may be Vance’s honest account of his life to date, but it is a cripplingly limited gaze. Historically and culturally it is not a full picture of Appalachia.  Perhaps Vance is unaware of the powerful movements in the region. Perhaps he is unaware of Appalachian Studies. Affect and somatic modes of intellect are integrated in the neoliberal era. We no longer distinguish the difference between fact and feeling. So what is clear by the book’s number 9 debut on the New York Times bestseller list is that Vance is an author who has found a hungry audience, weaving the stories readers need to hear in a time of affect driven politics; politics not about policy, but about representation of who we want to be and the power we are afraid we are losing. It is a story that celebrates a few individual success stories amidst widespread systemic inequality and fails to acknowledge how we are all deeply connected.

To return to the quotation with which I began this essay:

At any site on the landscape, multiple definitions of a place are continually in play and at work, sometimes convivial and sometimes antagonistic. Ideas of property, of homeland, of natural resource, of infrastructure; of city, county, school district, economic development zone, environmental hazard; of shit-hole, unspoiled paradise, dullsville; of wildness and weirdness and domestication and discipline–all swirl and interconnect and contend and contest in any given space” (Powell, 2012, 5).

The Appalachian story is not given room to swirl, interconnect and contend in Vance’s narrative. The hillbilly is not afforded space to be characterized fully.  With statements such as, “Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people” (Vance, 2016, 21), it is difficult to illuminate legacies of resistance or place-based oppression.  “Hillbilly values,” as Vance describe them, are tired stereotypes. What Vance does get correct is that migration and intertextual exchanges (horror films, music, cinema, and memoirs) have spread those characterizations and given them an undeserved place in the nation’s social psyche. At any rate, to assume people from the region have similar values requires a grand level of essentializing. To assume that these values are something spread like an infectious disease is classist and class-phobic.

Vance concludes his introduction with the assertion that there are “no villains in this story”—just a “ragtag group of hillbillies” (Vance, 2016, 9). But there are indeed villains. The power to name such rogues represents the potential for change and here, in a critique of place, a celebratory song for the death of a region, authors and storytellers such as Vance are indeed villains—their “swansongs” are simply recreations/reincarnations of the structures that support systemic oppression and challenge transformation in the region. In lieu of embracing dominant neoliberal tropes and blaming those victimized by such thinking, analysts must identify the systemic oppressive self-governance of capitalistic systems as the actual “villain” in Appalachia’s complex story.

While I value the power of affect, which Vance’s memoir surely represents, what is missing from his story of “death” are the many births of alternative economic structures, creative place-making initiatives, and grass roots campaigns unfolding in the region every day. Indeed, ultimately what is missing from Vance’s memoir is the strength and diversity of the region.

If you would like to learn more about regional scholarship, the Appalachian Studies Association national conference will be held at Virginia Tech in March 2017. Details may be found here:  http://mds.marshall.edu/asa_conference/.

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Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Anchor Books: New York, NY, 1991.

Shak’ar Mujukian, “The Queer Poor Aesthetic” http://www.the-hye-phen-mag.org/author/thehyephen/

Powell, Douglas Reichert. Critical regionalism:  Connecting Politics and culture in the American Landscape.  University of North Carolina Press Books, Chapel Hill, N.C. 2012.

Vance, JD. Hillbillty Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper-Collins Publishers, New York, NY,2016.

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Foot notes

[1] Local Color fiction refers to the post-Civil War literature movement which highlighted extreme characterizations of various localities in the United States. Appalachia was by far the most highly written about region.

[2] Joseph Campbell has perhaps most famously written on the topic in The Power of Myth.

[3] See “Whitewashing Appalachian Diversity” by Rachel Ellen Smith for more on this. http://appvoices.org/2014/02/07/whitewashing-reality-diversity-in-appalachia-2/

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jordan-laney-picJordan Laney is a first generation college student completing her dissertation, which addresses bluegrass festivals, in the innovative ASPECT doctoral program.  She previously earned an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University and a B.F.A in Creative Writing from Goddard College. At Virginia Tech, she teaches for the Department of Religion and Culture. She serves as the co-chair of YALL (Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners) and as a Founding Fellow for the Virginia Tech Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence. Biking, walking dogs, sewing, yoga, and attempts to learn banjo tunes take up most of her free time. Her current work can be found here: www.jordanlaney.com

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