Appalachia’s Ongoing Literary Reckoning
Somebody hit a nerve. Feller by the name of J.D. Vance. Wrote a book called Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture and Crisis, which came out in the summer of 2016, just before The Election That Changed Everything. The book created a sensation. Vance, who grew up in a small Ohio town but whose family had roots in eastern Kentucky, became the darling of bootstrap conservatives and ascended into the chattering class. This guy right here, they said, can explain the baffling tsunami of white working-class anger, went the cry.
Vance refused to absolve the plight of his pitiable people, the Appalachians, a bunch that would rather fight than eat cornbread. At the same time, he didn’t quite let them or even his own family off the hook. After all Vance himself beat the odds, having earned a law degree from Yale, a feat as rare and miraculous as teaching a dog to make an omelette.
It turns out that some people from the same general part of the world who earned one too many degrees themselves had a thing or two to say about Vance’s work, and they appear, collected, in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, from West Virginia University Press. Edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, it’s a collection of essays, research, verse, photography and uh, other, that collectively amount to more than 400 pages of “that’s not how I remember it.”
Growing out of a 2017 roundtable about Elegy, the book provides a mildly repetitive but necessary counterpoint to a work I enjoyed very much. “It is not meant to demonize J.D. Vance,” its editors stress at the outset. Yet, understandably, some of these contributors had strong and not-so-neighborly reactions to Elegy. Every few years somebody rediscovers this strange and violent place and there come the stereotypes roaring back. Dogpatch, Andy and Opie, about half the Steve Earle songbook. Cue the banjo lick from Deliverance. The perpetuation of presumptions makes its own cream gravy.
It’s not a fair fight, of course. But some of these punches just don’t land. Vance owes no apology to Ivy Brashear for not chronicling the experiences of people like her parents, who hung Van Gogh prints on the walls of their home and listened to NPR on Sunday mornings. But one contributor, Kelli Hansel Haywood, has the nerve to title her offering “In Defense of J.D. Vance.” She has points, too.
Sometimes cacophony yields to clarity. That might not be the case here. But if you thought you were done reading about Appalachia, you’re maybe not.
(West Virginia University Press, February, 2019)