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Contra Vance

There’s a lot more to Appalachia than what you find in mainstream books and movies

J.D. Vance accomplished several things with his 2016 best seller Hillbilly Elegy: he confirmed for a wide national audience the common stereotypes about Appalachian poverty—and he made a shit ton of money for himself, first from the book and later from a Netflix movie deal. At the same time, his book provoked a series of responses by writers and scholars who bring the kind of analytical skills that are entirely missing in his simplistic narrative.

Earlier this year, West Virginia University Press published Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Meredith McCarroll and Anthony Harkins, a collection of academic and personal essays that confronts the effects Vance’s “cultural memoir” has had on the region and on the national conversation about poor whiteness. And last year East Tennessee native Elizabeth Catte published What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, which she describes as a critical look at the “Hillbilly Elegy-ification of politics that uses radical history to challenge perceptions of the region as a hub of white, working-class woe.”

For those looking for deeper understandings than Vance provided, there was already Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, published in the summer of 2016. And in 2017, Fordham University history professor Steven Stoll came out with Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, which examines the powerful economic forces that have made the region what it is. Another addition to the Appalachia bookshelf, Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America (2018), won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction last month.

There was something in the J.D. Vance treatment that struck many readers—both inside and outside the Appalachian region—as pernicious.

Vance isn’t the sole reason for all the attention to rural poverty, of course. But there was something in his treatment of it that struck many readers—both inside and outside the Appalachian region—as pernicious. He writes as a self-described conservative, a person who feels lucky to have escaped his upbringings for an Ivy League education and sudden wealth, fame, and success. And in looking back at where he came from, he sees mostly a collection of morally flawed and weak characters. He tips off the reader early on that, while he acknowledges the “hollowing out” of the economic base of the region, his story is about something else: “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Toward the end of the book he worries about “a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government.”

But after retelling the narrative of his hardscrabble upbringing, he ultimately throws up his hands. There are no solutions to the problems in Vance’s Appalachia: “People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to ‘solve’ the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist.” Obviously, that’s an untrue statement. Appalachian scholars, artists, and filmmakers alike have been trying to show us that. Yet Vance gets all the attention—and resources—to encourage the nation to do nothing but blame.

From my perspective as a Deep Southerner, the only way to remedy this scapegoating effect is to reject outright the current way the nation talks about and depicts regional poverty. This process has already started in the broader South, where diverse voices have fought for their own space and have been recognized in critical conversations about the region. Though it would be nearly impossible to quantify, I doubt that any engaged thinker still believes the South is or ever was a white monoculture. This is happening in Appalachia, too, thanks to scholars like McCarroll and Catte. The “Appalachian Girl Gang,” as the two recently referred to themselves in a panel discussion in Oxford, Mississippi, refuses to allow Appalachian representation in film, history, and political culture to remain white, Vance-ified, and monolithic.

In the introduction to Appalachian Reckoning, the editors claim, “There is not a single ‘truth’ about Appalachia and its people, and the essays, narratives, and artistic expressions in this book, integrated in the best tradition of Appalachian studies, collectively break up this too solid image of the place simply by speaking multiple truths about multiple experiences.” Appalachian studies does its best work when it honors the vastly different experiences of Appalachian people.

Appalachian studies does its best work when it honors the vastly different experiences of Appalachian people.

In her essay in Reckoning, McCarroll describes her experience speaking at an Appalachian studies event. Her accent was assimilated out of her and repressed while living in Boston. She discusses what it was like to listen to writer Silas House speak with an accent, and to hear other scholars wax intellectual with their accented, elongated vowels: “I heard established scholars speak in accents and it did not change the content of what they were saying. It did not change the power of their intellect.” That an academic felt insecure studying her place while speaking with her place’s accent points to the way we culturally reject Appalachian and Southern voices in conversations about their own places, preferring figures like Vance. He does make it easy, after all, by arguing that Appalachia must “save” itself, leaving the rest of the nation unaccountable.

The stronger thread in the responses to Vance, though, concerns the blame cycle non-Appalachians use as a method that alleviates their own guilt. It feels good to have a scapegoat—even better when the scapegoat’s ethnic and cultural history is different from your own. In the introduction to Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, she says:

There’s not a single social problem in Appalachia, however, that can’t be found elsewhere in our country. If you’re looking for racism, religious fundamentalism, homophobia, addiction, unchecked capitalism, poverty, misogyny, and environmental destruction, we can deliver in spades. What a world it would be if Appalachians could contain that hate and ruin for the rest of the nation. But we can’t.

Rather than the bootstraps prescription Vance offers to get Appalachians to heal themselves, Catte’s response—which is rooted in national and regional history, as she is a historian—delivers the uncomfortable message that we as a nation are culpable for the problems we collectively dispose of in the mountains of Appalachia.

The Netflix film adaptation of Vance’s memoir, which will be directed by Ron Howard, could not be happening at a worse political moment. It’s likely to reinforce the political narratives that are already tiresome, thanks to the long history of journalists venturing forth to find an “out-of-work coal miner” to interview for their deep dive into “Trump Country.” But, thankfully, there’s an antidote to the film version of Hillbilly Elegy, too.

McCarroll, who in addition to teaching writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College also studies film, published Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film last year. Like the collection of essays, her study of Appalachian film highlights the multiplicity of the region and refuses the monolithic and prescriptive tendencies of un-Appalachian critics. While most of the films she analyzes in her book fail to reclaim any semblance of Appalachian selfhood, she does find that documentary and indie filmmakers buck the problematic narratives that are put forth by Hollywood and that will, inevitably, be put forth by Vance’s film.

In Unwhite, McCarroll dissects how the rest of the nation has come to “backward” conclusions about Appalachia through the ways its people are shown in film. She looks at Deliverance first, but also addresses films like Cold Mountain, The Dollmaker, and Medium Cool. What she finds is recurring racialized tropes that depict Appalachians. It’s no exaggeration to assume that most Appalachian people have heard “Dueling Banjos,” the theme from Deliverance, when they claim their place in polite conversation. Her thesis is that Hollywood films set in Appalachia get the place wrong, relying on tropes like the “wilderness savage” trying to survive a dying region while also depicting the place as monolithically white. These films present Appalachians that uncomfortably sit along race and class binaries. In other words, the films show white-looking people who haven’t quite become fully “white,” who are often stereotyped as other yet are sectioned off on maps in a region that is wrongly considered purely white.

That filters into political, social, cultural, and economic conversations that try to “diagnose” Appalachia. No matter which prism outsiders use to peer inside the “strange land and peculiar people” of the Primitive Mountains, the place will continue to be seen as a backward void of irresistible yet loathsome “unwhite” or impure people. The cyclical abuses and neglect will continue. That is, at least while the economics of poverty is ignored and until the American television, film, and news industries stop getting nearly orgasmic kicks out of exploiting poor people with accents.

The Deliverance effect is still strong in popular culture, and figures like J.D. Vance are celebrated by Hollywood.

Despite the useful work that groups in Appalachia are doing to reject the problematic images that media loves to buy into—as McCarroll notes in Unwhite’s chapter on documentary film in the region—we’re still throwing money at films and representations of a backward, straight, white, Protestant region that never fully existed. This isn’t for the region’s inherent lack of desire to reclaim their diverse voices. Writers like David Joy, intellectuals like Meredith McCarroll and Elizabeth Catte, artists in groups like Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY, and nonprofit groups like Queer Appalachia are doing the work.

Yet the Deliverance effect is still strong, and figures like J.D. Vance are celebrated by Hollywood. Netflix won the rights to produce Hillbilly Elegy with a bid to spend $45 million on his film. Last April, the Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners (Y’ALL) protested Vance’s presence at the Appalachian Studies Association’s annual conference, and they were met with calls to be good, civil academics. Vance was invited to the conference to speak on a panel about opioids. That he portrayed his mother’s struggles with addiction, it seems, made him a qualified speaker on the topic.

By contrast, Andi Morrow, an actor, writer, director, and artist from East Tennessee, premiered her short film Pusher at the Pasadena International Film Festival this spring. The film addresses the complex relationship between poverty, drug abuse, and personal responsibility, but it doesn’t engage in the same clichéd discussions of opioids that put addicts into the lazy category of genetically flawed “trash.” The protagonist, Brittany Lee, is a person with agency, and Morrow explores the totality of Lee’s choices with her intimate knowledge of Appalachian community at the fore.

For every depiction of Appalachia that depends on classist, dysgenic, and monolithic tropes, there is an Appalachian voice with a response. People from other regions can continue to diagnose the problems in Appalachia and posit solutions—things like teaching unemployed coal miners to code—but none of these solutions will be adequate, helpful, or non-exploitative unless we stop giving money to figures who perpetuate the deeply flawed images of the Deliverance effect in action. America already loves to hate the poor and have their classist beliefs confirmed. It feels good to assign racism and structural inequality to an imaginary region, because to do so assuages the guilt of the white middle class. If we didn’t use Appalachia as a scapegoat, we’d have no one to blame for national economic suffering but ourselves.