Op-Ed

Appalachian Reckoning: Excerpts from a region’s response to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Chattanooga, Tennessee: Young folks from Appalachia in solidarity with communities at the Southern Movement Assembly fighting for prison abolition. This is not the Appalachian apathy and isolation readers of Hillbilly Elegy might expect; this is young people working with people across geographic boundaries to fight a $444 million federal prison in eastern Kentucky because we know that our communities deserve better and we know that a just future for Appalachia doesn’t look like supporting the prison- industrial complex. This photo appears in ‘Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.’
Chattanooga, Tennessee: Young folks from Appalachia in solidarity with communities at the Southern Movement Assembly fighting for prison abolition. This is not the Appalachian apathy and isolation readers of Hillbilly Elegy might expect; this is young people working with people across geographic boundaries to fight a $444 million federal prison in eastern Kentucky because we know that our communities deserve better and we know that a just future for Appalachia doesn’t look like supporting the prison- industrial complex. This photo appears in ‘Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.’

Appalachian Reckoning—published earlier this year and excerpted in today’s Lexington Herald Leader—is a book born out of frustration. It is a book born out of hope. It attempts to speak for no one and to give voice to many. Our book is one that could have emerged without Hillbilly Elegy, but it was also created in the explicit context of a post-election, post–Hillbilly Elegy moment. It therefore attempts to respond to those who have felt they understand Appalachia “now that they have read Hillbilly Elegy” and to push back against and complicate those understandings. It is meant to open a conversation about why that book struck such a deep nerve with many in the region, but it is not meant to demonize J. D. Vance. Instead, the contributors to Appalachian Reckoning prioritize focusing on the region, reclaiming some of the talk about Appalachia, and offering ideas through the voices of many who have deep, if varied, lived experiences in and of Appalachia. This book provides a platform for reactions to and insights about Vance’s book and its reception, but also for art and writings that reach well beyond Hillbilly Elegy to consider the many ways that Appalachians experience their Appalachianness. The contributions include photography, poetry, personal narratives and reflections, and scholarly essays.

Not since Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1963) has a nonfiction book on Appalachia attracted such widespread national acclaim and success as J. D. Vance’s 2016 account, controversially subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance’s account of growing up in Middletown, Ohio, and visiting Eastern Kentucky as a member of a multigenerational family scarred by drug abuse and alcoholism has resonated with many readers, including some Appalachians. Yet Hillbilly Elegy and Vance have been criticized by many within the Appalachian region and beyond as anti-intellectual, overly anecdotal, and attempting to revitalize widely discredited “culture of poverty” explanations for persistent inequities in the region. Regardless of their particular perspective on Vance, though, all the voices in our book stress that Appalachia is a far more diverse and complex place and identity than Hillbilly Elegy and the media’s interpretation of it imply or that the president tweets about.

Post-election America has made it strange to be from Appalachia. Many of us have not liked the way that Hillbilly Elegy has been used as a shorthand way to explain the Trump phenomenon. While it is frustrating to have one person speak for a place, it is worse to have so many people listen to that one person and assume that he’s right and representative of all of Appalachia. So we’re passing the microphone. We hope that this collection reminds us all that there is and always has been space to differ and for all of us to reclaim Appalachia as it is for us.

Anthony Harkins is Associate Professor of History at Western Kentucky University. He is the author of Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2004) and “Colonels, Hillbillies and Fightin’: Twentieth-Century Kentucky in the National Imagination,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 113 (Spring/Summer 2015), and coeditor, with Douglas Reichert Powell and Katherine Ledford, of the “Media” section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 2006).

Meredith McCarroll is Director of Writing and Rhetoric at Bowdoin College, where she teaches courses in composition, rhetoric, Southern and American literature, and lm. She earned her PhD in English at University of Tennessee. Her essays have been published in Bitter Southerner, Avidly, Southern Cultures, and the Guardian. Her scholarship on regional identity, racial construction, voice, and literature has been published in Appalachian Journal, Pluck!, and Praxis. She is the author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018). Her work is situated at the intersection of race and regional studies, with a focus on cinematic representations of this intersection.

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