There is a war going on in the rugged communities of Appalachia, and it all started with a book. In 2016, J.D. Vance released his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” about having grown up in Appalachia with a drug-addled mom and surrounded by a cast of quirky, strong-willed family members.
By coincidence, the book hit around the same time Donald Trump was elected president, largely with the votes of the white working class in rural areas, such as in Appalachia. Some pundits viewed Elegy as a way to explain what had happened in the election with working-class voters and as a “window” on the overall Appalachian region.
The book made the New York Times best-seller list and Vance became a regular on cable news shows and the lecture circuit.
But all was not well in Appalachia with Vance. A pushback began against Vance over how he portrayed the people of Appalachia.
Now, there are at least two books responding to Vance: “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte, and “Appalachian Reckoning” by Meredith McCarroll.
Both books take Vance to task for Elegy, saying he fostered broad generalizations and negative stereotypes about the people and culture of the region.
Vance was born in 1984 in Middletown, Ohio. Because of his mother’s instability, he was largely raised by grandparents. His family has deep roots in Eastern Kentucky where he also spent a lot of time as a child.
After finishing high school, Vance joined the military and served in Iraq before returning home to attend Ohio State University and then Yale Law School. He became a wealthy venture capitalist in California and has dabbled in Republican politics.
In Elegy, Vance tells of his difficult childhood and of the cultural currents which he believes were part-and-parcel to that.
In one passage, Vance complains that Appalachian people talk more about work than actually working:
“People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”
Vance is also critical of how working-class whites in the region tend to blame government for their problems rather than confronting their own shortcomings:
“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”
One of the main themes of Elegy is that the working-class Appalachian culture fosters the idea of helplessness — that no matter how hard you work, you won’t get ahead, so why try hard:
“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.”
“Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.”
But Vance’s critique of his Appalachian upbringing and the “Hillbilly” cultural influences he wrote about didn’t go over well in his home territory.
In the two books mentioned above — and in numerous blog sites — there has been a backlash against what critics say is Vance’s stereotyping of the region as a poverty-stricken backwoods. These critics say Vance went too far when he painted the entire Appalachian region as poor and backwards, populated with lazy, working-class whites whose culture is deeply flawed.
In her response to Vance, McCarroll wrote:
”He crossed a line when he began to use ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ I didn’t like what he said about ‘us.’ Moreover, I didn’t like the idea that any individual could speak for a 13-state region. Many people from Appalachia were angry about the book. They didn’t like the idea of Vance as a spokesperson for Appalachia, especially one who blamed the poor of our region for their poverty.”
Ivy Brashear, who wrote an essay in “Appalachian Reckoning,” is even more critical of Vance:
”Elegy has no class, no heart, and no warmth. It’s a poorly written appropriation of Appalachian stereotypes about violent, ignorant, and slovenly hillbillies who refuse to help themselves despite having every opportunity to do so.”
One aspect of this debate is in defining what is “Appalachia?”
When President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s, the legal definition of Appalachia expanded, in part so that more counties could get federal funding. Even wealthy, urban counties like Gwinnett are considered part of Appalachia. (Jackson, Banks, Barrow and Madison counties in Georgia are all considered Appalachian counties by the Appalachian Regional Commission.)
But Appalachia is not a monolithic region. The local economic conditions vary from upper state New York to the Southern Appalachians in northern Alabama and Georgia.
The poorest part of the region is in its center — West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, Southeastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
It is difficult, then, for Vance to use his experiences in one area and extrapolate that to an entire region. Appalachia may be geographically defined for legal reasons, but it is hardly unified in history or culture. Vance’s critics are right that given the diversity of Appalachia, Vance should not be seen as its spokesman. That is an overly-simplistic view which has been promoted by national media outlets who book Vance on their shows to speak as an expert on Appalachia.
And critics are right that Vance didn’t explore the impact of outside forces — namely exploitative mining firms — on Appalachia. At least some of the problems in the region have come from those outside economic influences and the systemic problems they created in the region.
Finally, Vance’s experience with poverty growing up in Appalachia reflects what appears to be a declining aspect of the region. Government programs and economic expansion since 1960 have greatly reduced poverty and “distress” in many areas of Appalachia, according to ARC data. A little over one-third of the counties in Appalachia — 138 — have improved from “distressed” to “not distressed” between 1960 and 2000. That doesn’t mean all is well; 85 Appalachian counties remain distressed, many due to the decline in coal production. But at least some progress has been made in parts of the region to improve the lives of residents.
But Vance’s critics are wrong to dismiss his cultural critiques out-of-hand. The culture one grows up in — good or bad — has a huge influence on that person’s trajectory in life.
Despite his critics, Vance is correct that some aspects of Appalachian culture engenders self-destructive behavior. The opioid epidemic is just one example — it is a crisis largely rooted in Appalachia with four of the top five states for overdose deaths between 2013-2017 being in the region.
One can debate the reasons for that, but Vance didn’t create the idea that there is a sense of helplessness in some poor rural areas of Appalachia. Poverty often begets poverty and Appalachia is not immune to the kinds of social pathologies that often grow out of poverty — drug abuse, low education rates, unemployment and violence.
Those pathologies certainly exist in other geographic areas of the nation. But it is not enough for Vance’s critics to dismiss his critique by simply saying, “Well, problems exist everywhere.”
In fact, some of Vance’s critics actually reinforce his thesis with their intense defensiveness and air of denial. Some of what his critics have written contain a chip-on-the-shoulder-how-dare-you tone, as if Vance had somehow betrayed his upbringing by daring to discuss the dysfunction of his own family and of the community he grew up in.
I am a child of Appalachia with roots in Northwest Georgia, Northeast Alabama, Eastern Tennessee and all along the Appalachian region. My own experience, however, was nothing close to what Vance described in “Hillbilly Elegy.”
But that doesn’t make Vance’s critique wrong about his own upbringing or life experiences.
Perhaps his answer to the problem — get off your butt and leave Appalachia for more opportunity elsewhere — is overly simplistic and naive. That worked for him, but it’s not the solution for everyone stuck in rural poverty.
Still, Vance’s willingness to hold a mirror up to the problems confronting Appalachia has been worthwhile. If nothing else, it has sparked an intense discussion about a region most Americans overlook, if they bother to think about Appalachia at all.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.