You can learn a lot about Hillbilly Elegy and Appalachian Reckoning just from the names. Several of the writers here protest that Vance does not and never did live in Appalachia. But Vance uses the term ‘hillbilly.’ You can take the hillbillies out of the Appalachian Mountains, and we have left in droves, but we do not cease to be hillbillies. Nor are all residents of the Appalachian Mountains hillbillies. Appalachian Reckoning is much more concerned with those people. Vance is talking about a culture, not a region (and, more narrowly, a family and he himself). The subtitle here is a lie. Appalachian Reckoning cannot be said to speak for the region. Many residents of Appalachia are poor, many do not have college degrees; the contributors are members of America’s new, education-based elite. Nor is it much of a reckoning, although at least that language is upfront about the position the vast majority of the contributors take.
I reread Hillbilly Elegy after reading Appalachian Reckoning just to make sure I wasn’t misremembering it. Appalachian Reckoning, as it turns out, did Vance a great favor. I went into Hillbilly Elegy with my back up, the natural state for a hillbilly reading about his people or region. Appalachian Reckoning reoriented me, and I was fully able to appreciate just how poignant and powerful a work Hillbilly Elegy is on my reread. I also confirmed that the early essays in Appalachian Reckoning are deeply unfair and incredibly sloppy.
I expressed my frustrations with the first essay in this collection at length. I don’t want to belabor my points here. And, frankly, there is nothing I can say that will undercut the essays in the first part of the book more than the essays in the second part of the book. The first set of essays are “directly assessing or commenting on the words and impact of Vance’s influential work.” Most of the unsupported assertions in these essays are contradicted by the “autobiographical reflections on the book” and “narratives and images that together provide a snapshot of a place.” The first tells us that Vance’s experiences and observations are a lie; the second gives experiences and observations remarkably similar Vance’s.
The essays in the first part of the book are scholarly, written by working academics. It is ironic, then, that they are so much less rigorous and serious than Vance’s own book, written for a popular press by a layman. Rather than serious academic work, most of the early essays provide at best a “mere flirtation with scholarly literature and policy.” Rather than facts, the essays tend to deal in innuendo. They repeatedly mention Amy Chua. She was an important mentor to Vance, but her work isn’t related to his. It isn’t clear why her name is relevant, except to tar Vance by association with a professor who has skewered elite shibboleths. Similarly, the essays repeatedly mention Charles Murray. Vance does rely on Murray’s work—Murray’s work and that of a long line of other social scientists. But only Murray gets mentioned because it is an easy way to take a cheap shot at Vance. What the essays do not do is refute the social science. One essayist describes the thought of Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan, and Milton Friedman as marginal. Three of the four won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The essayist has not won a Nobel. But being a Nobel prizewinning economist doesn’t count for much with people who think slapping the label “neoliberal” on someone is the ultimate scarlet letter (use of neoliberalism as a slur is a reliable indicator of economic illiteracy). The essays are less legitimate scholarship than the written equivalent of the protesters who heckled Vance at the 2018 Appalachian Studies Association conference.
You get the sense that the contributors are offended that Vance has broken their self-claimed monopoly on speaking for my people. More voices are welcome. But their arguments will have to stand beside Vance’s, and they don’t stand up well. The first tranche of essayists don’t want to add voices; they want to subtract them. Thankfully the editors also give us the later, legitimate essays.
The later essays are a rule excellent. The one early essay worth reading is by Roger Guy, who writes about hillbilly migrants to Uptown Chicago. There is some slight connection there. The last of the old hillbilly honky tonks in Uptown was Carol’s. As a hillbilly migrant to Chicago, Carol’s was one of the first places I hung out with my now-wife. Guy’s essay is one of the few of the early essays that shows evidence of reliance on the scholarly literature; it is also one of the few that admits that scholarly literature informs Hillbilly Elegy.
Appalachian Reckoning has a long bibliography and the contributors have written many books. I have very little interest in the vast majority of them. I have a copy of Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. After her essay, it certainly isn’t at the top of my reading list. Roger Guy’s book From Diversity to Unity: Southern and Appalachian Migrants in Uptown Chicago, 1950-1970 is a big exception. The hillbilly highways themselves have been too long neglected on these pages.
The early essays can be extraordinarily offensive. See, for examples, references to “dying but not yet dead enough Scots-Irish regional culture.” But there is good news—according to the essayist our culture “doesn’t really exists”! Or see references to “‘hillbilly values’ (if they really exist).” Better to be maligned than erased entirely. The essays can also be remarkably tone-deaf. One essay laments that progressives do not ridicule Vance in the same way they do Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson. For an essay ostensibly about race, any chance that race drives the willingness of white progressive mediocrities to mock black men who reached the pinnacle of their field passes unremarked.
The one essay openly supportive of Vance isn’t very convincing. An essay that marks the shift between sections is much more convincing, despite the vitriol it directs at Vance. The essayist “would never, ever—in [her] wildest dreams or imaginings—disrespect her [grandmother] in any format because of her fierceness by calling her a lunatic.” Even, presumably, if she set her grandfather on fire. You just don’t talk about your family to outsiders like that. This is an example of that hillbilly culture we are first told doesn’t exist. Later we are told that “[i]n Appalachia, everyone has a ‘fierce granny’ story.” The later essayists represent lifestyles and histories the early essayists tell us do not exist or dismiss as anomalous. The grandfather of one essayist killed a man. His father killed three. Both his father and uncle were themselves killed. (Okay, maybe that is a little anomalous.)
The later essays are better in every way. The Miracle and the Fall in The Hillbilly Miracle and the Fall are present in Vance’s narrative of post-hillbilly highway hillbilly history. The early essays deny Vance’s facts without evidence; the later essays admit that “as late as 1990, family composition in working-class Appalachian neighborhoods was similar to that in white affluent areas” but that “[q]uality-of-life statistics for Appalachia are unquestionably disheartening” as “the region ranks near the bottom” in just about every category “of social stability and health.”
Early essayists repeatedly assert that Vance does not acknowledge “structural economic factors.” A later essay admits that he does, as anyone who has read his book can attest. The later essays also admit that personal choice and responsibility play an important role in outcomes and that government programs can hurt as well as help. One essay undercuts the structural thesis, despite embracing it, by giving a long list of successful African-Americans from Kentucky coal country.
The later essays, rather than contradict Vance’s narrative, add to and expand it. The popular conception of Appalachia sometimes seems to begin and end with Kentucky coal country. We hear from essayists from the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia and elsewhere and are the better for it. The strongest responses to Vance are those that come at his book from an angle. One essay, for example, makes a strong argument that the most apt way to think of Vance’s story is that of a “transcender” of his dysfunctional family life. The best of the later essays concerns Jeremy Jones’ love of Ernest T. Bass from The Andy Griffith show. It is bizarre, entirely off-topic, and wonderful.
Vance’s story is remarkable and well told. It also benefited from an enormous stroke of luck as to timing. The run-up to the election spurred interest, and the election of Trump resulted in a passing bout of national sanity. People, ever so briefly, stopped to consider why people on the other side of the political divide voted the way that they did. That, of course, could not do. The early essayists repeatedly mention that a large chunk of Hillbilly Elegy’s readership is made up of liberals. It is to the essayists’ fellow liberal white elites that the essays are aimed, not at hillbillies. The message is that it is safe to ignore hillbillies. No preconceived notions need be challenged, nor are any unorthodox perspectives need: the essayists will tell you everything you need to know, and everything you need to know conveniently fits into what you already believe. It is hard to imagine the early essays changing anyone’s mind, but that isn’t the point. They are there to affirm an existing decision to ignore Vance’s message. At least that is the idea. Unlike Vance’s work, almost no one will read Appalachian Reckoning.
And they aren’t missing much. The few excellent essays would benefit from better company. I may return at some point to one or two and highlight them in posts of their own.
3 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Appalachian Reckoning.
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