Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I have a lot in common with Vance.  We are roughly the same age.  We both grew up poor hillbillies.  We both had a beloved older sister.  One set of grandparents was very important to both our lives.  We would both go on to attend elite law schools and marry good women.

There is also a fair amount we don’t have in common.  Unlike Vance, I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains proper.  Unlike Vance, I grew up in a stable, two-parent home.

Unlike the vast majority of people who have written about Hillbilly Elegy, I visited Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio.  Vance’s grandparents left their home in Jackson to go to Middletown for work.  Vance grew up in Middletown taking frequent trips back home to Jackson to see family.  It wasn’t that onerous for me.  I drive through Ohio and Kentucky several times a year trekking between the place I live in the Rust Belt and my home in Appalachia.  Oddly enough, that drive takes me the same amount of time as the drive between Middletown and Jackson took Vance’s grandparents (roads have improved considerably in the interim).  I took an unplanned trip home without the wife and baby this summer after my mom fell and broke her hip, so I took the scenic route on the way back and very briefly visited Jackson and Middletown.  Interspersed throughout my post are pictures from that trip.

Middletown

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Nonfiction: Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz

I love Tony Horwitz’s nonfiction.  He has a simple formula: he picks some interesting, underappreciated bit of history, then explores the modern day geography.  The result is a mix of travelogue and history as Horwitz interweaves his own adventures with the history.  His best known work is Confederates in the Attic, which I will eventually get around to covering here.  I was beyond overjoyed when I saw that he was returning to the South.

Spying on the South retraces the steps of Frederick Olmstead on a pre-Civil War trip through the South.  (It wasn’t my focus or his, but Horwitz’s portrait of a young Olmstead, well before his days as a famed landscape artists, is delightful.)  Horwitz alternates historical tidbits with his own misadventures.  I said travelogue, but that undersells it.  How many travelogues include one leg by coal barge and another by mule?  The real joy of these sections are the people Horwitz meets along the way.  He treats them with dignity and humanity, and their disparate stories will do far more to flesh out hillbillies and white working class Americans for the person who entry to the field was Hillbilly Elegy than a work like, say, Appalachian Reckoning.

I should make clear, though, that this is not a work that primarily focuses on hillbillies.  Horwitz starts in West Virginia, but he also spends time in Kentucky, Tennessee, along the Mississippi, in Louisiana, Texas, and on the Texas-Mexico border.  I was disappointed to learn that Horwitz only covers the there (not the back again) of Olmstead’s second trip.  He leaves out, then, stops in Chattanooga, Asheville, and Abingdon that would have been of particular interest to me.  And I loved the book, but the West Virginia chapter makes me really wish Horwitz had written a book on Appalachia and the Rust Belt instead.

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Nonfiction: To Live Here, You Have to Fight by Jessica Wilkerson

“I don’t want to go back to jail, but if it means helping Kentucky and helping my kids, I’ll do it.”

There are two basic problems with academic books for a popular audience.  The first is that the academic writing is frequently atrocious.  The second is that the topic is often very narrow.  I am glad to report that the first is not an issue with Wilkerson’s book.  The prose is competent, if pedestrian, and Wilkerson avoids the jargon-laden incoherence that has overtaken the social sciences.  The second isn’t exactly a problem, but there is only so big an audience for a book that talks only about poor, female activists in Kentucky coal country in the wake of the War on Poverty.  I might not have picked up To Live Here, You Have to Fight had I appreciated just how narrow the subject matter was, but nevertheless I am glad I did.  The result of a narrow focus is a depth that pretty much ensures you will learn something.

Wilkerson covers a time period that starts with “the top-down, federal War on Poverty from 1964 to 1968,” but her story stretches beyond the short-lived War on Poverty itself to “the grassroots war on poverty reverberated for over a decade.”  Appalachia got pulled into the War on Poverty for political reasons, which is about as good as we can expect, I suppose.  Appalachia’s perceived (and, for the most part, actual[1]) whiteness was used to blunt the racial connotations of the anti-poverty program.  The War on Poverty may have been much less successful than the New Deal, per Wilkerson, but it had two goals: economic development and “access to health care, food, water, and education.”  Importantly, pursuit of this second goal “invited local people to participate in solving problems” with “Community Action Programs (CAPs) [that] made decisions about funding and brought together stakeholders across multicounty regions.”

That second goal allowed the participation of local, poor and working class women like Granny Hager, Edith Easterling, and Eula Hall.  Wilkerson specifically focuses on Kentucky coal country.  After all, the image that “came to represent the War on Poverty” was taken in eastern Kentucky.

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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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