Review | New Book on Appalachia Gives J.D. Vance His ‘Reckoning’

A collection of essays by scholars and activists attempts to reshape our understanding of the southern mountains. Before you fall for the trope of Hillbilly Elegy and Ron Howard’s proposed film adaptation, get a more complex and complete picture from Appalachian Reckoning, says our reviewer.

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Review: Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy
Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, editors. West Virginia University Press, 2019. 

If footnotes were arrows, J.D. Vance, author of the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, would look like a porcupine once the authors of the new critique of his book and his flawed facts and ideas about Appalachia are finished with him.

Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy is chock full of articles by academics and activists who reckon the Silicon Valley venture capitalist cum-spokesman for the Southern mountains is about as clueless about real Appalachian life and real mountain people as that porcupine.  In a review for the Daily Yonder, I labeled Vance’s book an “autobiography” of a young man who grew up in an Ohio steel town far outside the mountains who set out to explain why poor Appalachians voted for Trump and ended up producing nothing more than the story of his family “dysfunction on steroids.”

Appalachian Reckoning, edited by scholars Anthony Harkins of Western Kentucky University and Meredith McCarroll of Bowdoin College and published this month by West Virginia University ­­Press, is timely because Vance’s book is still a hot seller and has become a staple in college courses. It is soon to be the basis of a Netflix movie by Ron Howard – “Opie” to those who know an Appalachian foothills Mayberry where there were only a couple of misfits like the occasionally sober Otis and the rock-throwing Ernest T. Bass.  Everyone else on “The Andy Griffith Show” had great rural values and made us all pine for a time when sheriff deputies had only one bullet and that one not in their gun.

READ AN EXCERPT: “How Appalachian Am I” by Robert Gipe

Dwight Billings, emeritus professor of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky, in his essay in the book, “Once Upon a Time in Trumpalachia,” describes Vance’s portrait of the region as “a media-constructed mythological realm, backward and homogenous,” full of Scots-Irish hillbilly welfare queens and kings too lazy to work who spend most of their time drinking moonshine and getting high on opioids.  There is an opioid crisis in Appalachia, just like in almost every state and city in the U.S.  All you need to know about how this crisis arrived first in the mountains is that one pharmaceutical company shipped 10,000 prescription opioid pills every day to Kermit, West Virginia, a little coalfield town of fewer than 400 people.

Billings says Vance’s depiction of southern mountaineers “makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from the fictional Tony Soprano.”  He also points out that the prevailing political theory that mountaineers loved Trump is a bit math confused since what the voting pattern shows instead is that they were not particularly attracted to Hillary Clinton, a DINO, Democrat in Name Only, who promised to put the remaining few coal miners in the region out of work.  Vance and all the other commenters who blame “deplorable” West Virginians for electing Trump ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders defeated Clinton in all 55 counties and did so in most of the counties in Appalachian Kentucky.

He notes that the national media descended on McDowell County, West Virginia, a mined-out section of the southern coalfields, to confirm Vance’s uninformed opinion that mountaineers had created their own poverty hell and “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.”  “These problems were not created by government or corporations or anyone else.  We created them, and only we can fix them,” Vance proclaims to people in an area he has never visited.  Sanders won twice as many votes in the county as Trump in the primary.

Significantly, in the general election 73% of the voters in McDowell County stayed home.  Apparently coal miner families who have had their land and lungs crippled by outside corporations are pretty good at spotting candidates like the Clintons who have made their bed with Wall Street.  Don’t be too surprised that a progressive Democrat like the still beloved FDR and JFK will do very well in Appalachia in the next election.

One of the best counters to Vance in the book is by William Turner, Ph.D., an African-American scholar and activist who grew up in the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal town of Lynch, a US Steel-built coal town and mining complex that employed hundreds of black “Afrilachians” that don’t exist in Vance’s portrait of Appalachia as a haven of down and out Scots-Irish who would just as soon shoot you as shake your hand.

Turner does a remarkable job in his essay, “Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies,” recounting all the blacks who attended the segregated schools of Lynch and, unlike the unmotivated depiction of mountaineers described by Vance, overcame racism and poverty to graduate college and rise to fame in a score of professions.  His description of these students, some of whom I knew as classmates at Berea College, is truly inspiring, even more so than Vance’s path out of dysfunction to graduate from Yale Law School.

I won’t spoil Turner’s essay for readers by reciting it all, but this quote says all one needs to know to conclude that Vance does not know how truly strong mountaineer’s bootstraps can be compared to his:

In Harlan County in 1960, we were, to be sure, isolated from the rest of the world, but we had homefolks who came back regularly whose lives were marked by unusually high achievements and accomplishments, living legends (one who became a player for the Harlem Globetrotters) who let us young ones know that we too could ‘be somebody.’  Fact is, every one of the eleven Thomas children—their dad an Alabama-born and raised Methodist preacher and US Steel-employed coal miner—graduated from college.

Billings, Turner, and many others in this book make clear that there is some perverse malady in both neo-conservative and neo-liberal philosophy in this country that needs to have an “other” who does not share their high values, high motivation, and righteous indignation about freeloaders and never-do-wells, remarkable in being homogenous Scots-Irish, who pass on a dysfunctional culture to their dirty-faced young ones in dark hollows and dilapidated coal camps.

Truth be told, as many writers in this book make clear, the problems in the mountains have been mostly imported and imposed from the outside by land grabbers and resource thieves, abetted by politicians who declare a whole people “deplorables” or else pronounce them residents of “shithole” places that should have solved their own problems with factories that moved to China or Mexico, lungs clogged by black lung disease, and wages at less than survivable levels.

It’s a good bet that Ron Howard movie will be more like “Deliverance” and the “Beverley Hillbillies” than the “Andy Griffith Show.”  Vance and his ilk that imagine whole societies where every individual, mostly from rural areas, have created their own problems, should have to cuddle up with that porcupine.  I’ve traveled, researched and written about Appalachia for more than five decades.  Never have I met Vance’s hillbillies.  This book does a good job of describing the real Appalachia.

Jim Branscome is a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Business Week, and Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Kentucky.  He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.  He was born in Hillsville, Virginia, and is a graduate of Berea College in Kentucky.

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