Nonfiction: Appalachian Reckoning, Hillbilly Elitism by T.R.C. Hutton

Appalachian Reckoning is a collection of essays and creative material responding in one way or another to J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy.  Lord knows Vance’s book needs response.  This blog is, at least in part, a response to Hillbilly Elegy.  But I did not go into Appalachian Reckoning with high hopes,[1] and good Lord were my low hopes immediately dashed by the first essay—Hillbilly Elitism by T.R.C. Hutton.

Hutton violates Kant’s categorical imperative by using hillbillies as means, not ends.

That is one sin of which Vance is not guilty.

Hutton makes his single strongest point, I think, when he says that “the story [Vance] 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.”  I myself am guilty of conflating hillbillies and white working class.  They are distinct groups with significant overlap.  There are issues to each not shared by the others as a group.  And, of course, there have always been poor hillbillies by the pickup full.  People only started to notice white working class issues when they spread beyond Appalachia.

He mentions structural issues.  (Of course he does.  “Structural issues” is practically a mantra in certain quarters.) They matter here.  Appalachia has a distinct culture, but it is also a bifurcated one with a dividing line built of coal.  And hillbillies have always suffered under absentee landowners, from timber barons to coal magnates to the federal government.

Hutton wants to criticize them.  Fine.  That’s good.  Write your own book.  But don’t pretend that hillbillies are people who can only have things done to them.  We have agency.  The downside of agency is admitting that we all play a part in our downfall.

Hutton criticizes Vance for not calling for policy changes.  But, if Hutton were only to read the National Review articles he uses to tarnish Vance by association, he would see that Vance has policy ideas a plenty.[2]  But given the choice between taking concrete steps to improve our own lives and waiting on the federal government to fix things for us, I wouldn’t wait around for the latter.  (Hutton may or may not have noticed that we have a bit of sclerosis in Washington these days.)  More importantly, even if you accept that policy choices have played a role in creating cultural issues in Appalachia, simply fixing the policy will not fix the culture.  Reversing policies does not reverse the consequences.

He also dismisses Vance’s proposal “that social services loosen regulations on foster parentage so that grandparents, aunts, and uncles can help endangered children” as “eccentric but fairly harmless.”  It’s not that Vance didn’t call for policy changes, apparently, it’s that Hutton just doesn’t care about them.  We are talking about the welfare of real families and children.  But to Hutton hillbillies are means, not ends.  What matters is how hillbillies serve his views, not the state ripping apart actual families.

Hutton is less concerned with Vance’s policy proposals, though, than with making one of his more tendentious arguments.  Vance argues that hillbillies give an “outsize role” to the extended family.  Other Americans also give an outsize role to the extended family.  Ergo, “Vance [is] describing a problem as specific to his setting when it is arguably universal to the American experience.”  It is universal in that everyone has an extended family, but different cultural groups give it different levels of importance.  The fact that one cultural group shares some views and mores with another cultural group does not mean that those cultural groups do not exist as distinct groups.

I’m not sure that Hutton would accept that hillbillies have cultural issues and that white working class Americans have cultural issues.[3]  Which is, at this point, the leftwing equivalent of people who claim there are no issues with race in America.  It is literally a thing that people say, and it flies in face of the evidence.

Hutton has a point when he notes that Appalachia and Yale Law School “exist in the same nation-state.”  That is a true statement.  But Hutton has his head very firmly in the sand if he doesn’t think there is anything to the assertion they embody “worlds that couldn’t be farther apart.”  An embellishment, to be sure, but pointing that out doesn’t get you around the massive cultural and sociopolitical divide.  Even if were true that hillbillies “are as likely to be rich as they are to be poor,” the same can hardly be said for Yalies.[4]

Hutton’s notes that we have “reappropriated” the term hillbilly and “others like it” such as redneck and white trash.  True, although the three remain distinct groupings (I will eventually get around to providing a taxonomy).  Hutton, though, criticizes Vance for embracing the term hillbilly but not accepting it as a straitjacket according to Hutton’s terms, because Vance uses it to “distanc[e] himself from the Other.”  Of course to Vance, hillbillies aren’t the Other.  They’re just his people.  His identity is as much a matter of his own choosing as it is shaped by his culture.  Hutton would rob us of agency, but people have a terrible habit of exercising agency nonetheless.  Hutton both accuses Vance of failing to hew to his own culture and of treating culture as deterministic.  I’m confused as to how Hutton can walk away from an entire book encouraging cultural change thinking that (there is no support for Hutton’s contention that “Vance seems to think that only he, among hillbillies, is capable” of going to college).

Culture is a thing first imposed on us that we begin to shape as soon as we make choices that affect our own lives.  We can choose to reject it entirely, but we can also choose to reject discrete aspects of it (as cultures themselves can, over time), or we can merely reposition ourselves relative to it.

I am myself participating in that reappropriation.  I am sure Hutton could find plenty here to critique.  But a hillbilly is what I am.  I could choose to not be a hillbilly, but I do not.  That does not mean that I have to, for example, accept the misogyny and xenophobia thick in hillbilly culture.  But I choose to do so on hillbilly terms.  My extended kinship networks cannot reasonably be expanded to cover everyone people insist to me are “us.”  And my faith teaches me that all of the “them” remain God’s children.  And they are no more “them” than the “them” that wrongly claim to be part of my “us.”  Extended kinship networks are exactly that, networks.  They are not race-based.  This is not me “distancing [my]self from an Other,” it is exercising agency in my own life.

But, of course, Hutton’s essay “is aimed not at that underclass . . . , but rather at a middle- and upper-class readership more than happy to learn that” Hillbilly Elegy is badthink by a bad guy and an thus be safely ignored.  They can continue to refuse to preach the bourgeois values that they practice—Vance preaching what he practices is a grievous sin in their eyes—while patting themselves on the back that they correctly know that “structural issues” are to blame for the deplorables, who they hate, but really they are derivatively hating elites because the poors lack the ability to fix their own lives, all while doing no more to fix those structural issues than reference the president in a few angry tweets (not that any of their policy prescriptions would actually help).

Hutton provides little argument.  He relies heavily on a set of schema his elitist audience will walk in with.  Hutton need merely mention names like Peter Thiel, Charles Murray, and Amy Chua.  He doesn’t actually tell you why you ought think them awful, or even how association with them impugns Vance.[5] How clear is it that Hutton is talking only to a very particular audience? He complains that Vance doesn’t define “American Dream”!  Hutton is apparently unaware of a rich history of discourse on the American Dream.

Hutton is also prone to wildly unsubstantiated claims like that Hillbilly Elegy is “a book about race, more so than region or class.”  Hutton notes that Vance ask use to consider “how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.”  Asking people to not filter their views through a racial prism is taboo.  Everything simply must be about race.  Hillbilly has all sorts of racial connotations that Vance is held responsible for.  What connotations?  It depends on what part of the essay you’re reading.  This, at least, tells us more about why Hutton thinks we should think Vance bad because he thinks we already think Murray and Chua bad.  They, too, asked us to consider these issues without filtering our views through a racial prism in Coming Apart and The Triple Package.  Murray’s book is filled with the sort of white cultural degradation we are told does not exist; Chua’s book is filled with multicultural “up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale[s]” that we are told are prevented by structural issues.

(I’m also confused as to what the critics who say that black hillbillies are underrepresented wanted Vance to do—invent his own T-Bone?)

What is falls before what must be.  Hutton criticizes Vance for “staunchly defend[ing] the up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale.”  The problem is that . . . Vance is telling a true story about his own life.  A certain sort of Leftist will insist that the Horatio Alger story does not insist.  It takes chutzpah to do it in response to an actual Horatio Alger story.  But stories like Vance’s and stories like mine must not exist, so they do not.  We have always been at war with Eastasia, so evidence to the contrary must be erased, even if it is a person’s lived experiences.

Hutton claims it “appears almost pointless to” work.  It does indeed appear so to hillbillies.  Vance is arguing that they are wrong.  He is right, both economically and morally.  The elite denigration of both work and a middle-class lifestyle is wrong and it hurts real people in real ways.

Hutton mentions David Hackett Fischer but clumsily attempts to lump him in with Forrest McDonald and Grady McWhiney’s “Celtic thesis.”  (Hutton also makes sure to mention that they are “beloved by conservatives.”)[6]  But he avoids Fischer’s much stronger arguments.  As anyone who has read Fischer’s Albion’s Seed could tell you, Appalachia is culturally distinct from the South’s plantation heartland.  Only the former is “Celtic,” and that only nominally so—Fischer ably argues that rather than any distinct Celtic culture it was the culture of the Scots-English border region that settlers brought to Appalachia.  Reading Albion’s Seed was reading a description of just how I was raised.  Leaving the hills to go live in the lower South taught me the two cultures are distinct.

Vance has contributed several articles for National Review.  This gives Hutton an excuse to go off on a merry tangent about Kevin Williamson.  He doesn’t bother providing any connection between the views of the two beyond that they both write at National Review (a publication whose writers don’t even agree on Donald Trump).  Hutton’s target is (of course) Williamson’s infamous article arguing that “dysfunctional, downscale communities . . . deserve to die.”[7]  This is what would seem a banal point.  (Albeit one with which Vance himself surely disagrees.)  I grew up near a high school named using the first letter of several local mining communities.  None of those mining communities continue to exist in any significant form.  The idea that sometimes communities die, that this is okay or even good, and that the people in them ought to move, rather than keep those communities on life support via subsidy, is in no way remarkable.  Nor does it imply that the people in those communities should die.  I appreciate a desire to stay.  But if hillbillies always stayed, this blog wouldn’t be called Hillbilly Highways, and Vance, Williamson, and I wouldn’t be telling the same personal stories.  But, to Hutton, the underlying motivation for Williamson’s article simply must be class-based animus.  No mention is made of Williamson’s own hardscrabble upbringing in the panhandle of Texas.  Or that he turned his infamously barbed pen toward an aristocrat who spoke favorably of the actual destruction of poor bodies and did so in class-based terms.

In season 2 of Justified, Margo Martindale’s hillbilly crime matriarch Mags Bennett declares “We got our own kind of food, our own music.  Our own liquor!  We got our own way of courting, and raising children!  And our own way of living and dying.”  Not so, to here Hutton tell it.  He instead suggests hillbillies are bound “by a culture imposed upon them by market forces.”[8] Of all the things that have, can, and will be taken from us, I expected and will stand for robbing us of agency over our own culture least of all.  I don’t mind Hutton criticizing Hillbilly Elegy.  I just wish he wouldn’t gladly sacrifice hillbillies to do so.


[1] If the New York Times, of all people, says that for every essay “that’s provocative, another is unreadable,” that is a very bad sign.  But a book that includes an essay about Ernest T. Bass can’t be all bad.

[2] Rather than read his own words and judge him by that, Hutton decides Vance’s “professional trajectory . . . suggests a politics probably defined by Reagan era conservatism.”  Um, okay.

[3] Does “culture of poverty” make a derogatory appearance?  Of course it does.  Although Hutton’s essay, unlike the introduction, doesn’t insist on prepending “long discredited” to the term.  Probably because Hutton’s audience has already convinced themselves, and having done so relieved themselves of any guilt for refusing to preach what they practice.

[4] Hutton teaches at a university in Appalachia.  Believe me: he knows how far it is from Yale.

[5] He does say that Murray and Thiel are “openly antidemocratic.”  So is everyone who thinks that Obergefell v. Hodges was correctly decided.  So is everyone who wants to keep the First Amendment.  Being antidemocratic doesn’t say much.  It is the pure democrats who are the radicals.

[6] Hutton also states that McDonald and McWhiney “served as directors of the white nationalist League of the South” but fails to note that McDonald and McWhiney denounced the League’s more radical turn.  Vance is too casual with his language.  He isn’t the only one.

[7] In my ARC, at least, Hutton conflates that article with another Williamson article you can find here.  He clearly references this article and cites to it in the endnotes, but quotes the other article.

[8] Hutton cites Christopher Lasch for this proposition.  I went back and forth over whether Hutton is really making this assertion.  But I went back and read the cited pages in Lasch’s book.  Hutton’s reading of it isn’t unfair, but it is very aggressive.  In my experience, academics don’t make aggressive readings of a work unless that is the line they are pushing.

11 thoughts on “Nonfiction: Appalachian Reckoning, Hillbilly Elitism by T.R.C. Hutton

  1. I have to process this a bit before I make a more substantial comment, but for now: Hell yeah! Well done.
    Academics robbing their “subjects” of agency makes me see red. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This essay is great, and I have to say I agree entirely. Well, almost entirely. My sympathies today are Unionist (to the extent they aren’t to-hell-with-all-y’all), and I grew up hearing about the Unionist sympathies of southern Appalachia. But the extent of Unionist sympathies are overstated, especially outside of a few enclaves.

      I need to reread the hillbilly section of Albion’s Seed and write a post on it. I used to think of myself as Southern until I, you know, started meeting actual Southerners. I get very annoyed when people conflate hillbillies and Southerners. Fischer shows the two groups have distinct folkways but also gives us plenty of hints why they generally politically line up opposite the other major groups in the US (e.g., relatively less harsh toward violence, relatively harsher toward property crime, historically higher rates of material inequality).


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