“Hillbilly Elegy” Is the Last Thing America Needs in 2020
J.D. Vance's book and the new movie adaptation don't explain "Trump Country"—they help create it
My first novel was released within six months of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of Appalachian roots and a youth spent in a Rust Belt community with a dearth of jobs and resources. Vance’s book came out just before the 2016 election; mine was released just after. Donald Trump’s victory had made Elegy a publishing juggernaut. The readership supporting the book’s sales—largely left-leaning, NPR-loving, blue voters, still shellshocked from the election aftermath—were looking to Vance’s book, as well as every “Trump Country” piece flicked out by the country’s prestige publications, for a thoughtful explanation of “what went wrong.”
I’m from eastern Kentucky, not far from where Vance’s family originates. Like Vance, I left the region when I was young. Graduate school took me to one of the coasts when I was 25. I’ve lived in New York, on and off, ever since. Like many of those buying Vance’s book, I too, lean to the left, enjoy listening to NPR, and attend book festivals. And that year, from my author’s table, I watched book buyer after book buyer anxiously knuckling thirty-dollar hardbacks of Elegy. At first, I found the irony of this group paying an openly conservative Republican for his accounting of 2016 amusing. What happened? The short, satisfying answer: Appalachia happened.
As the year wore on and the book maintained its float at the top of bestsellers lists, my amusement turned to anger, then sadness, and then, finally, exhaustion. The old story of America’s weird, craven Son of the Soil, was taking hold yet again, baggage and all, and within a demographic supposedly too discerning to fall for it.
It’s fitting, then, that Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy was released in theaters just after the 2020 election, with a Netflix release slated for later this month. As in 2016, it is poised to serve as an explanation, of sorts, for the stubborn blush of Trumpist red evident across Appalachia, and the rest of the southeast. The story it offers is one of people who cannot help or save themselves—from laziness, from addiction, from a failure to develop the self-respect necessary to “pull themselves up” within an economy and social system that prevents them at every turn. The film is just another addition to a narrative that is managing to dig a trench between this region and the rest of the country, a divide that will continue to snarl elections and deal further damage to a population that has taken more than its fair share of abuse. And in a year that saw the Biden-Harris ticket win by thinner than anticipated margins, we need to take this opportunity to understand the region as more nuanced than the blighted backcountry that popular media pushes—and that liberal readers and viewers, amazingly, tend to believe.
Vance’s “hillbilly” is not a person so much as a cultural emblem used to sell things, from products to political and social ideologies. Understanding this distinction calls for a dissection of the emblem and its origins. Large corporate interests seized control of the Appalachian region’s natural resources just after the Civil War, generating huge profits from coal and timber while workers toiled in dangerous conditions for shoddy wages. These corporate forces fought unionization at every turn, with brutality and out-and-out murder. The area’s real history is defined by locals fighting these forces in organized, principled fashion, from the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 to late-20th century worker efforts to unionize against large interests like the Duke Power Company, detailed in the 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA. One of my fondest memories of growing up in east Kentucky is going to a punk show at an American Legion and hearing a band from New Jersey play songs about union life that made the audience, filled with rural kids, homemade mohawks, and unnervingly large ear gauges, go wild: never cross a fuckin’ picket line!
The American public was ill at ease with the idea of white poverty, and the region’s true, tangled history, involving manipulative corporate power, worker abuse, and worker uprising, implicated commercial forces that preferred a tidier story. Why was that quintessential American, the independent mountaineer, impoverished? Enter the hillbilly: an all-American icon of strangeness and stupidity, addiction, and laziness, whose poverty is his own fault, and perhaps even his due. Some of the most defining representations of the modern hillbilly—particularly Lil Abner—coincided, tellingly, with the Great Depression. Hillbilly iconography is easy enough to grasp: at best, hill people are rugged, clannish Scots-Irish stock whose genetic toughness can, presumably, absorb the misery and bloodshed of poverty. At worst, they’re degenerates. The hillbilly became the most convenient means by which to frame the wild fluctuations of the southern mountain economy.
The icon hasn’t changed much since its mid-century iteration; now that moonshine is an artisan delicacy, the jug labeled XXX has been supplanted by a meth pipe, or a syringe. We’ve reached a cultural apex at which the humor—for those who notice—has extended beyond The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw, and has begun to bend backward into itself in parody (in large part thanks to Adult Swim, which has aired such cult treasures as Squidbillies and The Heart, She Holler).
One of the most objectionable aspects of Elegy is how Vance has politicized his own story with a worn “bootstrap” edict; the problem, he claims, is that the region’s people do not want to work, and are content to drain the welfare system dry. The hillbilly’s biggest obstacle is their own unearned cynicism, a “learned helplessness.” The strain of hillbilly that surfaces in Elegy, mentioned either in passing or as an element in the book’s many pieces of anecdotal evidence, is remarkably similar to the commercialized Hollywood model: nuance-free and vaguely threatening (Deliverance = pig fucking, Next of Kin = Swayze with a crossbow—admittedly, the best of a bad lot).
Both book and film position Vance as a translator of Appalachian people and culture; his hillbilly roots have been softened, we’re told, by a college education and a degree from Yale Law. This lends an upper-echelon credibility to his theories of regional degeneracy, at a time at which the public is developing a more critical sensibility to such objectification in other social groups. Simply put, woke culture has overlooked Appalachia, and work like Vance’s is one reason why. Commercial appeal might be a reason for this: the hillbilly is low-hanging fruit, but Christ, can he sell. Indeed, Vance’s approach has the feel of both a grift—a fairly transparent one, but one that works—and the initial public entry of one planning to run for political office.
Much of the audience for this book, and the audience for this movie, will enter with comfortable expectations about the story they are about to follow, and those expectations will be fulfilled. A film version—helmed by one of the country’s great directors, and Oscar nominees with accents that fall closer to “goose absorbing enema” than “Breathitt County, Kentucky”—only ensures a wider audience for Vance’s account, for which Netflix paid a stunning $45 million.
One questions, then, what this narrative is meant to inspire in its audience. For those outside the region, Elegy quietly reinforces the understanding that Appalachia is not worth financial and political investment, influences that could translate into meaningful results. Commerce will be less inclined to come to the region. Transformative policies will be slower to legislate.
For many Appalachian viewers, the reaction will likely be one of weariness. The social, political, and personal ramifications of the hillbilly projection are contributing to a specific strain of culture war. At a time at which the threat of fascism has never felt closer, the last thing the country needs is a narrative that alienates an entire region, deepening an already-substantial fissure between Appalachia and the rest of the country. When appealing for votes in the southeast, Trump presented himself as an outsider, and many Appalachian voters—not without good reason—responded to that assertion, so much so that Mitch McConnell found himself leaning on his association with Trump while successfully campaigning for his reelection to Kentucky’s senate seat this year. It raises the question: what would the electoral map look like if we took the “hillbilly” out of the equation and, instead, considered Appalachia as a constituency worthy of decency and respect? If nothing else, common sense calls for the public to add some perspective, and some humanity, to its regard for the region. The response could inspire major political shifts, and elicit meaningful reform.
I left the region because I knew that my own personal “bootstrap” story was going to be a lot harder in a place with an unstable economy. I remain terrifically homesick. And yet my own hillbilly status is often a liability in my world. The accent I slip into when nervous (say, during a job interview) or angry (when, say, publicly cut off by a panelist, or brushed off in a seminar) dooms me. I’ve lost jobs and opportunities, first impressions and peer regard, because of where I am from. Grimaces. Rolled eyes. The woman at the esteemed magazine who attempted a braying southern accent when I left the room. The dentist at the sliding scale clinic who took one look at my teeth—admittedly a wreck—and asked me, “Do you all have fluoride down there?” then jovially called me a “jackass” while my mouth was crammed with cotton. My cynicism may have sprouted at home, but it was sharpened to a razor’s edge by countless encounters with condescension and occasional, out-and-out cruelty in the outside world. Works like Hillbilly Elegy have made my professional and personal life more difficult, and will continue to do so.
Here’s the truth about Appalachia: I know far, far more people who bust their asses working than not, and those who don’t have a job at which to do that spend their time frantically looking for one. Where I am from, people have sufficient empathy to recognize that, if you are physically and mentally able to work, you are lucky. And if there is a job for you to go to, every day, you are lucky.
I’ve occasionally used the term “hillbilly” myself, with a grudging fondness. But the way in which Vance has molded the term to his particular agenda has renewed my distaste for it. If the culture tossing the word around can’t use it responsibly—that is, without an agenda that includes money or political influence, and without causing harm to the human beings who bear its particular stamp—then it shouldn’t be used.
If we are going to make anything substantial of the next four years, we’re going to have to let our sense of empathy drive us to a point of true reason. Let’s start with losing the kind of monikers that sell these books and movies. Let’s engage in honest exchanges about how one’s chances for financial security and professional success rely more upon one’s geography, community, and particular, occupied notch in the socioeconomic ladder than on any flimsy notion of individual “grit,” and how we might bring the jobs and resources that power other regions to this area. Let’s focus on work and reportage that reflects Appalachia’s fierce intelligence and rich history. It’s time to stop the grift.