Who has the right to have an opinion about Appalachia? J.D. Vance opened this can of worms with his controversial book Hillbilly Elegy. After reading his book I asked myself if I had the right to have an opinion about Appalachia. Yes, I have lived in Appalachia my entire life, but did I really have an Appalachian experience? I have always felt like I had an average, middle-class American experience. Many have criticized J.D. Vance for his Appalachian adjacent experience which was limited to contact with relatives remaining in Appalachia, while he actually spent most of his life growing up in the Rust Belt.
Appalachian Reckoning is a collection of scholarly and creative writing determined to educate in the diversity of opinion that exist about Appalachia. The anthology offers a two-part response to Hillbilly Elegy. Part I is titled “Considering Hillbilly Elegy,” and is subdivided into “Interrogating” and “Responding.” I was immediately drawn to Kelli Hansel Haywood’s “In Defense of J.D. Vance” under the section “Responding.” I was not disappointed in what could be taken as an inflammatory evaluation of Vance’s work. Haywood summarizes the J.D. Vance debate in one sentence, “It is time to stop debating whether Vance is right or wrong—Appalachian or not” (p. 288). Hillbilly Elegy is classified by Haywood as mostly memoir, but Vance still uses this memoir format to make some far reaching and broad statements about Appalachia as a whole. Haywood argues that Vance has let the proverbial cat out of the bag about Appalachia’s deep-seated problems including poverty, drug addiction, resistance to change, and the engrained nature of people in Appalachia to diminish or hide problems. Haywood contends that instead of spending time and energy warring against Vance we as Appalachian citizens would be better served promoting our own talented writers and having real conversations about our problems and how to fix them. However, we should note that through evaluating works like Vance’s we can choose how we want to present our problems and how we would like those problems dealt with going forward.
In the first section “Interrogating,” T.R.C. Hutton takes a different tact in his response to Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Hutton quickly assesses the problem with Hillbilly Elegy as one that so many writers have had in an “attempt to explain Appalachia” (p. 49). While I was a history student at Marshall University, I gained a more in depth understanding of Appalachia through the writings of Henry D. Shapiro in Appalachia on Our Mind and Ronald D. Eller’s Uneven Ground. Shapiro and Eller both make it clear through substantial examples and years of study that many areas of Appalachian were internal colonies filling the pockets of out of state owners. Hutton shows how Vance chooses to ignore outside forces and instead he blames social issues on Appalachian residents.
Hutton strives to encapsulate Hillbilly Elegy with this— “The poor are, as the English themselves said in Dicken’s day, poor because of who they are not because of their circumstances” (p. 51). As Hutton notes Vance writes from the perspective that he is a hillbilly, but Vance also concurrently chastises hillbillies for their lacking moral fiber and willingness to pull themselves out of the dregs of society. On this point Hutton asks, “How, then, can the hillbilly be simultaneously praised and scorned, praised for her toughness and dedication to family yet scorned for her inability to escape the bonds of poverty?” (p. 54). If you think Appalachian Reckoning has nothing new to offer then I think Hutton’s closing words would change your mind— “The book (Hillbilly Elegy) should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn his hillbilly family—he wants to make them good proletarians like they allegedly were in the twentieth century” (p. 61).
Part II of Appalachian Reckoning is titled “Beyond Hillbilly Elegy.” This part of Appalachian Reckoning includes poems and other creative works. It was the title of Jim Minick’s submission that immediately drew me in. “How to Make Cornbread, or Thoughts on Being an Appalachian from Pennsylvania Who Calls Virginia Home, but Now Lives in Georgia” sums ups exactly how I feel about being Appalachian. I have lived in West Virginia my entire life, but I often feel like an outsider when I read about other people’s Appalachian experience. Minick wonders about his Appalachian identity since where he grew up doesn’t coincide with the government defined parameters of the Appalachian region. However, he now believes in his Appalachian identity after marrying into a “southern middle-class family” and moving to Virginia (p. 422).
After reading Appalachian Reckoning what I have grown to realize is you are an Appalachian if that is what you call yourself. Also, anyone has a right to tell their own story. However, with that being said I feel that J.D. Vance went beyond telling his own story and tried to speak for an entire region. When Vance tried to turn his memoir into a narrative about Appalachia, he failed to incorporate the deep history of the region and how those in the region see themselves. I believe that if Hillbilly Elegy continues to be an assigned text in schools then books like Appalachian Reckoning must also be assigned to offer a counterpoint.
Without including books like Appalachian Reckoning those outside of Appalachia will only see what the J.D. Vances of the world want to present Appalachia to be. In Part II Jesse Graves’ poem, “History,” so poignantly addresses the idea of a changing Appalachia. He says, “…myths of cycles and repetition. The loop you are in is imaginary; it’s a new world every hour. No history here” (p. 373). Part II of Appalachian Reckoning is full of creative works that round out the debate about Vance and showcases Appalachian creativity. I would highly recommend Appalachian Reckoning to anyone who is interested even passively in Appalachia. Through this collection a reader can gain a truer vision of an often discussed and scrutinized region of America. Once I completed this collection, I too began to realize I have the right to my opinion of Appalachia.
Aimie Copenhaver received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She is currently an Ed.D. student at Marshall University in South Charleston, West Virginia.