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.