Appalachian writers and scholars rebut the “gross simplifications and stereotypes” of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016).
Often cited as a way to understand the working-class voters who helped elect Donald Trump, Hillbilly Elegy has been a longtime bestseller, will soon become an HBO movie, and has made Vance a media expert on Appalachia. Indeed, it is the most widely read book on the region. Now comes this thoughtful and provocative anthology of essays, poems, and photographs arguing for treatment of Appalachia as a “diverse and complex place.” Edited by Harkins (History/Western Kentucky Univ.; Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, 2003) and McCarroll (Writing and Rhetoric/Bowdoin Coll.; Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film, 2018), the book ranges widely in its single focus, with contributors variously attacking, defending, or simply critiquing the book. All deem Hillbilly a biased work reinforcing stereotypes of the region’s people (snake handlers, mountain men) as understood by a conservative Kentuckian born into a poor, unstable family who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, attended Yale Law School, and became a venture capitalist. The result, writes Tennessee historian T.R.C. Hutton, is “a Silicon Valley millionaire [who] is now the most popular source for understanding twenty-first century rural poverty.” In other pieces, Kentucky sociologist Dwight B. Billings calls the memoir an ad for “capitalist neoliberalism,” and California law professor Lisa Pruitt, who is “from hillbilly stock,” finds it reminiscent of her childhood but filled with “ill-informed policy prescriptions.” Like others, she believes systemic societal problems—not only personal choice and accountability—help shape regional life. Vance’s defenders say he is entitled to his personal story and to his interpretation of his early social environment. Writer Ivy Brashear, a 10th-generation Appalachian, notes that the book lacks class, heart, and warmth. Others offer nuanced considerations of race, sexuality, and drug use.
A welcome and valuable resource for anyone studying or writing about this much-maligned region.