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.

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Nonfiction: Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer by Nick Adams

Nick Adams’ argument against college, Class Dismissed, might seem an odd fit for Hillbilly Highways.  But, coming from a rural, working class, blue collar background, college was my gateway to the professional and managerial elite.  I experienced firsthand some of the class bias embedded in the process.  And I saw friends who should have gone to college not go and friends who shouldn’t have gone to college go.

This is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse because the question at the heart of the book is more relevant—and higher stakes—for a people who are disproportionately working class and blue collar and who are more likely to be first generation college students.  Adams’ target audience is 17-year-olds trying to decide if they should go to college and their parents.  My target audience for this review (or “review”) is roughly the same then, but specifically thinking of the people I know (and I’m of an age that I have a lot of high school friends who are in this boat with their kids).

Of course I have a pretty big vested interest in all this.  My college experience is as anecdotal as any of the stories Adams tells.  But it did prove hugely beneficial for me personally.  I teach at a regional public university (you will see me stick up more than once for regional publics).  The amount of money I’m putting into my baby daughter’s college fund every month shows I’m pretty damn confident she will go to college.  I am a big proponent of the skilled trades—a large part of the impetus for writing this review—but I also live in a state with a shrinking pool of high school graduates.  More money for skilled trades necessarily means less money for four-year universities.  But I also feel like I can say what I think because I lack the power to bring the entire system crashing down around me even if I wanted to (and because the First Amendment, tenure protections, a union contract, and a thin veil of anonymity shield me from retaliation).

This is a big issue.  Two-thirds of high school graduates go to college, but fewer than 40% graduate in four years.  That 60% have a problem.  They borrow more money for school.  And if they never finish they earn significantly less than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree but significantly less than the average holder of an associate’s degree.  And there is a big class divide in that stat.  Your parents earn more than $90k per year?  You have a 1-in-2 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by 24.  Your parents earn less than $30k?  Your chances drop to 1-in-17.

There is a regular cottage industry in running down our higher education system.  I have seen too much commentary less interested in seriously engaging with the issues than with scoring cheap points, easy clicks, and book sales.  From commentators who probably happily cash the checks and send their kids to Ivy League schools.  Adams, at least, doesn’t fall into that group: for one, he doesn’t have kids.  And he has the right basic approach to the book.  It is a meandering but that left me underwhelmed, nonetheless.

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Nonfiction: Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots by Michael Penman

As I mentioned in my post on Braveheart and Outlaw/King, the history of the Scots-English border region is the history of hillbillies.  There is no Scots-English border region, and thus no distinctive culture for David Hackett Fischer to catalog, without a Scotland to provide one side of the border.  And there is no Scotland without Robert the Bruce.

Braveheart features the Bruce in a bit role that is only a little bit historical.  Outlaw/King is centered on the Bruce but, like most accounts, it only tells the tale of how he won the realm, not how he kept it.  Penman’s account’s primary selling point is that he devotes as much attention to the Bruce’s post-Bannockburn career as to what happens before.

Sadly, Penman falls into the academic history trap of sucking all of the tremendous inherent drama out of his narrative.

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Friday Night Lights Fridays: Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream

It has been a long time and a lot of miles since I last read Friday Night Lights.  At the time, I had lived in only one state in memory and had ventured beyond my small hometown just to the weird cocoon of college (and the even weirder cocoon of grad school).  Since then I’ve lived in six more states, worked in three professions, and started a family.  Notably, I did a swing through Texas itself, if there can be any comparison between Houston and Odessa (probably not, no).  I consumed the movie and TV series the book produced and gobs of movies and TV and fiction and nonfiction besides.

I almost put Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream down as soon as I picked it back up.  The book starts off displaying some of the worst pretensions, literary and otherwise, that I have come to despise.  Bissinger is a smug, elitist asshole.  But don’t let that fool you—he has written a phenomenal book.  By dint of luck and talent, if not good intent, he captured a magic, manic season in a place gutted by an oil bust and gone mad for football.  This is a book well worth reading whether or not you care about high school football or that big empty part of Texas.

(My review, by the way, is of the version featuring a new afterword written a year after the original edition was published, not the 25 year anniversary edition.)

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Nonfiction: The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson

That is a mighty audacious title, self-consciously placing The New Mind of the South as a successor to W.J. Cash’s seminal The Mind of the South.

Thompson gives two catalysts for writing this book.  First, she discovers that one of her ancestors was a Union sympathizer.  As someone who grew up in southern Appalachia hearing (inflated) stories about how much Union support up there, I was a bit bemused at her overreaction.  Thompson’s second catalyst is the disappearance of sorts of the South.  This is certainly true, but only to a point.  W.J. Cash’s closing paragraph still rings true today.  Thompson sees the South as defined by, first and foremost, two cultural institutions: slavery and evangelical Protestantism.  The small fact that slavery no longer exists does little to lessen its influence today.  The ruts and scars are still there.  The South has always been religious, and even as the ubiquity of religion has faded its intensity has grown.

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Nonfiction: Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

Love wins.

The first step to writing a nonfiction book like Rising Out of Hatred is to have a good underlying story.  Saslow has a great one.  How does the scion of a leading white supremacist family and the heir apparent to the movement go from that to rejecting white supremacism in the space of just a few years?

Derek Black is the son of Don Black.  As a teenager, Don (former KKK Grand Wizard and the founder of Stormfront) carpooled to a white supremacist conference with David Duke (former KKK Grand Wizard and elected member of the state legislature in Louisiana) and Joseph Paul Franklin (serial killer and maimer of Larry Flynt).  He was shot in the torso in high school by the brother of James Earl Ray (Martin Luther King’s assassin) while attempting to the steal the membership list of a rival white supremacist organization.  Don would later go on to marry Duke’s ex-wife and sire Derek, who Duke would treat like a godson.  Small world.

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Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

I learned two things when I opened White Working Class.  One, I am a class migrant (“someone who has moved from one class to another”).  Two, apparently I’m not working class at all, and never was.  Williams curiously defines “working class” to mean middle class.

She defines working class as: “Americans . . . with household incomes above the bottom third but below the top 20%.”  She adds in as well “families with higher incomes but no college graduates,” highlighting the increasing relevance of education to class in America.  This results in a range of family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962.  Williams has a point when she says that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class.  But calling couples who make $130,000 a year “working class” is silly.  Williams contrasts the working class with “elites,” i.e., “Americans with household incomes in the top 20% and at least one member who is a college graduate.”  This elite is largely a professional and managerial elite (PME).

By this measure I was only working class for a brief few years between grad school and law school.  Otherwise I have been poor or elite my entire life.

(I don’t like Williams’ definition, but for the purposes of this post, when I say “working class,” I mean working class as she defines it.)

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