INTERVIEW

Historian Anthony Harkins on the real story of white poverty and "Hillbilly Elegy"

Editor of "Appalachian Reckoning" on why J.D. Vance's simplistic tale of uplift became a national phenomenon

By Chauncey DeVega
Published December 27, 2020 1:10PM (EST)
HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Glenn Close ("Mamaw”), Amy Adams (“Bev”) (Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX)
HILLBILLY ELEGY: (L to R) Glenn Close ("Mamaw”), Amy Adams (“Bev”) (Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX)

J.D. Vance's 2016 memoir "Hillbilly Elegy," with its tale of white poverty in Appalachia, self-uplift and the author's escape from those origins to Yale Law School, and then to America's elite business and political class, is a cultural phenomenon.

Vance's book has sold more than a million copies, and "Hillbilly Elegy" was recently adapted into a Netflix film by Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, featuring acclaimed actresses Amy Adams and Glenn Close. While some critics have condemned the film as melodramatic shlock — the Atlantic declared "Hillbilly Elegy" to be one of the worst films of the year — the public appears to reject those judgments: "Hillbilly Elegy" is one of the most popular films on Netflix.

For a country and world struggling to understand the power of Trumpism and its enduring hold over the "white working class," "Hillbilly Elegy" was embraced, in part, as a Rosetta Stone for decoding the incomprehensible ascent of Donald Trump. Despite Trump's 2020 defeat by Joe Biden, the proto-fascist Trumpian movement continues to grow in power and influence. As such, "Hillbilly Elegy", both the film and the book, will continue to cast a long shadow over America's understanding of Appalachia, white rural poverty and the famed white working class. Deserved or not, J.D. Vance will continue to be a singular figure among the country's opinion leaders.

But "Hillbilly Elegy" has a foundational problem: It may be one man's story, but that does not make it valid sociology or revealing of greater truths about Appalachia as a whole. In many ways, "Hillbilly Elegy" is an example of poverty porn designed to appeal to the same type of (white) viewer who may believe they understand "urban poverty" because they watched HBO's "The Wire."

As sociologist C. Wright Mills observed in "The Promise of the Sociological Imagination," a distinction must be made between "personal troubles and public issues" if one is to possess a sophisticated understanding of society, power and politics. Applying Mills' wisdom, "Hillbilly Elegy" is a personal story that does not sufficiently account for the ways institutions and broader social structures impact life outcomes.

How does the "Hillbilly Elegy" story (meaning the overall narrative of the film and book) misrepresent Appalachia and the variety of experiences and people who live there? In what ways do stereotypes about the "hillbilly" complicate Americans' understandings of race, class and poverty? Why has Vance's memoir been so successful given its many faults? 

In an effort to address these questions, I recently spoke with Anthony Harkins, a professor of history at Western Kentucky University and editor (along with Meredith McCarroll) of "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to 'Hillbilly Elegy'." Harkins' previous book is "Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon."

What do people outside of Appalachia not understand about the region and its people? What role has the mass media played in this misunderstanding?

They essentialize the region far too much. The region is presented from a very narrow viewpoint, focusing on coal miners, for example. The coal miner becomes the model, when in fact they are just a tiny percentage of the workforce in the region — and becoming smaller all the time, for a variety of reasons. The number of coal miners has been decreasing for 50 years, but the idea of a hardworking white male working-class coal miner dominates the popular imagination.

Also, for a long time Appalachia has been presented as somehow outside of American culture, history, society. It is this land apart, the mountains have frozen it in time and space, it is a different world, with a different language and different rules, etc. Of course, that narrative hides the way that Appalachia is in so many ways completely integrated into American society. What is new with the "Hillbilly Elegy" vision is that it is reframing Appalachia not so much as completely apart from America but as a quintessential example of the problems that the country is facing. Moreover, Appalachia is framed as facing those problems much more intensely because it is imagined as being monocultural, all white and all working class.

But again, that is not true. There has always been diversity in Appalachia. Certainly the coal mines have always been diverse, and there is an increase in diversity in urban Appalachia as well. That increasing diversity includes gender, race and sexual orientation. The "Hillbilly Elegy" book presents the white, male, working-class story of Appalachia as the definitive one. In these discussions of Appalachia, the range of attitudes, experiences and openness to alternative political perspectives held by the people living there is often lost.

What type of political and social work is being done by the image of the "hillbilly" in the American popular imagination?

My earlier book, "Hillbilly," examined the construction of that stereotype. One of the main points I tried to make in that book was that the hillbilly is a type of dualistic image. That dualism has helped to make the image and idea appealing and relevant and enduring. On the one hand, the hillbilly is an image of whiteness which can be celebrated as some continuation of "our" heroic ancestors who tamed the wilderness, carved out civilization and maintained their old-fashioned values about religion and culture.

The other side of that image is that the hillbilly and their culture are a problem that "civilization" has to eradicate. The hillbilly can easily become the wild savage. Family and community, which are good things, can then be distorted into aberrant relationships with family members and inbreeding. If the hillbilly archetype is imagined as being self-sufficient and able to survive on their own, then those traits are turned into violence and aggressiveness.

The hillbilly is a type of white Other in that imaginary. They are white people but they are also imagined as having characteristics that are similar to people of color such as Native Americans or Black people. The hillbillies are violent, lazy, oversexed, isolated, primitive and ignorant. All those stereotypes about nonwhites can be transferred to hillbillies as the white Other.

The image of the hillbilly in the mass media could be Jed Clampett or "Deliverance" on one extreme and then J.D. Vance on the other end. A common theme across those examples is the idea of a dysfunctional community that a person has to rise above in order to be successful.

With the rise of Trumpism, there was a renewed interest in the so-called white working class as well as the white poor in regions such as Appalachia. The popularity of "Hillbilly Elegy" reflects that.

One of the things we tried to do in "Appalachian Reckoning" was to emphasize photos of the real Appalachia, with the diversity of the people there — the political activism, the idea of simply being children and a celebration of life, rather than this vision of death and despair. That is a contrast with the cover of "Hillbilly Elegy," which is an abandoned farm next to an empty dirt road. Appalachia is a space of difficulty and hardship, for sure, but also one of vitality and resilience.

How have conservatives used the idea of poor white Appalachians (and poor and struggling whites more generally) to further their agenda?

The white voters in Appalachia are solid Trump voters. Conservatives can rely on them for support. There is also the claim that by helping racial minorities it comes at the expense of white people. And there is the racial fear that whites are becoming a minority population in America.

The discourse around "hillbillies" shifts according to the country's mood. How is the economy tied to this?

We see this in during times of economic difficulties and crisis such as the Great Depression. We also saw a resurgent focus on the image of the hillbilly during the 1960s and the War on Poverty.

During times of economic uncertainty, the hillbilly takes a more central place in America's narrative because many people fear that they too could become hillbillies if the economic problems continue: "We will have to live off of the land because we don't have money or food. We modern, city-dwelling people won't be able to survive." The deeper overall fear is that the hillbillies and other people at the bottom of the social hierarchy will be able to survive the economic disaster and those in the middle class for example will not.

Why was "Hillbilly Elegy" so popular?

For many people, the Trump phenomenon seemed to come out of nowhere. They were desperate for answers and explanations. "Hillbilly Elegy" seemed to provide some of those answers. Part of the popularity of the book is also driven by how the lives of the white working class are imagined as being so difficult that they were desperate for new possibilities and Trump represented that hope to them. Vance's book is also popular because of its dramatic narrative.

In my opinion, it is not particularly well-written. However, it is a compelling story of someone overcoming hardship. "Hillbilly Elegy" is very much a Horatio Alger story. Through luck and pluck, Vance pulls himself up. The book, of course, really understates the role of the state in his achievement.

"Hillbilly Elegy" was popular with the pundit class because Vance had become associated with that very same class of people. By the time Vance writes the book he is in San Francisco working for Peter Thiel. Vance went to Yale. He is connected with real elites. In many ways these factors came together to make Vance into a legitimate spokesman — at least for a certain audience — for a white working class that he is in fact no longer a member of.

"Hillbilly Elegy" is a memoir. It is a story, one that by its very nature obscures, embellishes and omits certain facts and details. It is an interesting story, but it is not a sociological text — despite how many people wish it to be one. For example, where is the evidence for the claims that Vance is making in the book?

The subtitle of the book is "A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." The idea of a memoir of a culture is one of the things that got people upset who live here in the region and who also study Appalachia. Vance's approach is presenting his personal story as the story, the one and only Appalachian story. By doing that, all the other stories about Appalachia are erased. That is a very anti-intellectual approach.

"Hillbilly Elegy" cites very few sources. Some of the information in the book is quite wrong and Vance does not seem to really care. His use of "hillbilly" is done without context for how such language has been used in other ways. What is appealing about the book for many people is that Vance does not get bogged down in the details. For example, the book does not acknowledge the differences of life experience and how race, class and gender impact people in a range of ways.

The biggest issue is that in "Hillbilly Elegy" Vance does not acknowledge the larger systemic factors and forces that shape and limit people's lives. Much of the book is just about how people are too lazy to find work. Or he suggests that if people can just overcome their drug and other dependencies, they will succeed in life. Vance does not recognize in the book how larger economic and social forces impact people lives, and how people find themselves in the challenging situations that he is describing and critiquing. Except for his grandmother and a few other people, "Hillbilly Elegy" is a story about one individual rising up from his circumstances, rather than seeing his experience as being part of a collective community.

What would a more nuanced story about Appalachia look like?

There are strong progressive forces at work in Appalachia. The history of unions for example. One of the other elements missing in Vance's book is that it is such a male-focused story that it hides, denies and limits the experiences of women, gays and lesbians, and other marginalized groups. With "Appalachian Reckoning," we are trying to do something quite different from what Vance did with "Hillbilly Elegy". Our point is not to deny J.D. Vance the right to his own story, but rather  to argue that we need to many stories which reflect the diverse range of experiences in Appalachia. In many ways, the appeal of "Hillbilly Elegy" is to frame the region in very limited racial terms. Ultimately, the problem is that Appalachia has been defined too much by the idea of one single story or narrative. There should be multiple voices and multiple perspectives.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVegaFOLLOW chaunceydevegaLIKE Chauncey DeVega