Nonfiction: Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

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.

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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 an elite law school and marry a good woman.

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: 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: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry).  Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia.  Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).

Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed.  It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy.  Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky.  The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal.  It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.

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