In response to J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ regional writers stake a claim to political and cultural diversity in the Southern mountains.
by jesse fox mayshark • march 11, 2019
The book "appalachian reckoning" on display at Union ave books in downtown Knoxville.
Meredith McCarroll grew up in Haywood County in Western North Carolina, up against the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains -- a place that promises tourists “a truly authentic Appalachian experience.”
A free event Tuesday night at the Knoxville Museum of Art brings together a range of Appalachian voices.
She now lives in coastal Maine, where she is director of writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College. A few years ago, like a lot Appalachian expatriates, she started hearing a refrain from well-meaning acquaintances who had just finished a bestselling memoir by writer J.D. Vance.
“People said, ‘Oh, I read Hillbilly Elegy, I sort of get where you’re from now,’” McCarroll said in a phone interview last week. “And I was like, hell no you don’t!”
McCarroll is co-editor of a new book, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, conceived as both a rejoinder to Vance and a celebration of the region’s diversity and complexity. She and several other contributors to the collection will gather to read and share their thoughts at a free event at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 12, at the Knoxville Museum of Art. (For more information, see the Facebook event page.)
“There’s no part of me that wants to censor his book, there’s no part of me that wants to discredit his experience,” McCarroll said of Vance. “My motivation was, let’s let him have his voice, but that is one perspective. All you have to do is take a glance to see how complex the region is.”
Among those participating tomorrow night will be Knoxville poet Linda Parsons, represented in Appalachian Reckoning by a meditative poem about her mother.
“Just like the book itself, it’s going to be a range of readers with different viewpoints but all kind of a chorus,” Parsons said of Tuesday’s event, which is sponsored by Union Ave Books with support from the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.
That diversity, as wide-ranging as the mountains themselves, is what McCarroll and her co-editor, Anthony Harkins, wanted to capture in their anthology.
McCarroll read Vance’s book shortly after the 2016 election, when it was being heralded as a regional Rosetta stone, a way to decode Appalachia -- and, implicitly, to understand the success of President Donald Trump, who posted big wins in coal country.
“I thought it was a compelling story,” she said, though, she adds, “not particularly well written.”
But what rankled was Vance's extrapolation from his tale of family trauma to explain -- and, in some ways, indict -- an entire 13-state region, boiling down Appalachia’s history and culture to a grim depiction of stubborn, self-destructive people whose biggest obstacle is their own intransigence.
“What really bothered me was the way he blurred the lines between memoir and kind of a pseudo-sociology,” McCarroll said.
Vance’s book is subtitled, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” It leaps beyond the specifics of the author’s own saga -- which include his mother’s drug addiction and multi-generational violence and alcoholism -- to broad statements about disintegrating work ethics and a cultural failure to modernize.
Hillbilly Elegy was popular and much discussed, and is being adapted for Netflix by Ron Howard. It has also spawned a cottage industry of arguments and rebuttals from critics who argue that Vance overlooks the real economic history of Appalachia, ignores its long traditions of labor and environmental activism, and fails to reflect or recognize its diversity.
Several of those critics have Knoxville connections. Last year, Elizabeth Catte -- an East Tennessee native and graduate of the University of Tennessee -- published What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, a short and fierce response to Vance. Bob Hutton, a senior lecturer in the History Department at UT Knoxville, wrote an essay called “Hillbilly Elitism” for the left-wing magazine Jacobin.
Catte and Hutton both appear in Appalachian Reckoning, and Hutton is among those who will read at KMA tomorrow night. McCarroll also has Knoxville ties -- she lived here from 2003-2010 and earned her PhD in English at UT. “Knoxville is my favorite place I’ve ever lived,” she said. “I love Knoxville.”
Appalachian Reckoning came together after McCarroll published an essay in the journal Southern Cultures about deliberately losing her Southern Appalachian accent and then attempting to regain it. The essay, which is included in the book, prompted West Virginia University Press to ask if she wanted to expand it into a memoir.
“I said I was pleased to tell my own little story,” McCarroll said, “but there were a lot of voices out there, and I’d rather hear from all of them.” So she started working with the publisher to pull together personal writings on Appalachian culture and identity.
At the same time, WVU Press had engaged Harkins, a history professor at Western Kentucky University and the author of the 2004 book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, to edit a collection of political and academic responses to Vance’s book.
Eventually, the two projects merged into Appalachian Reckoning, which brings together scholarly and socioeconomic pieces with deeply personal reflections. A review in the New York Times last month called it “a volley of intellectual buckshot from high up alongside the hollow.”
Not all of the pieces are anti-Elegy. The book includes Kelli Hansel Haywood’s “In Defense of J.D. Vance,” which argues for facing up to the social ills Vance illuminates. It also includes pieces like Parsons’ “Tonglen for My Mother,” which connects to Vance’s tale on an emotional rather than political level.
“Like Vance’s mother, mine suffers from addiction and mental illness,” Parsons writes in a brief note accompanying the poem, “and, like Vance, as a child I escaped to the saner harbor of my maternal grandmother and later my father and stepmother, moving from Nashville to Knoxville to live with them.”
The poem uses as a metaphor the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, in which practitioners envision taking in pain and suffering on the in-breath and then exhaling compassion and forgiveness.
“I do see my poetry as a healing practice,” Parsons said. “I always feel that even though I may begin in a dark place, I’m always reaching toward the light in any individual poem.”
Buddhist meditation may seem far removed from the concerns of Hillbilly Elegy, but Parsons said she finds familiar mountain echoes in the wryness and self-effacement of Buddhist philosophy.
In its own way, that makes her poem representative of Appalachian Reckoning’s core vision -- of an Appalachia that is expansive and connected to the world, not some lost continent of inbred dysfunction.
“People in this region are deeply engaged artistically, politically,” Parsons said. “It can’t be pigeon-holed and it shouldn’t be. Part of the problem with Vance’s writing is that he does pigeon-hole it.”
McCarroll said Vance’s book and the debates about it have at least helped refocus attention on the region. “A positive thing to come from Hillbilly Elegy is an increased attention to Appalachia,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to capture the wide range of really vibrant, diverse voices.”
As for her own essay about reclaiming her mountain accent, McCarroll said that effort is still a work in progress. “It depends on where I am and who I’m with,” she said. “It’s still really hard. It’s still really hard to stand up in an academic space in Maine and find that voice.”
But, she added, “When I’m in Knoxville, my vowels are going to be able to relax.”