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Help the Hillbillies—and Help Them Help Themselves

Pushback against ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ as a snobbish outsider’s view of Appalachia is inaccurate, unfair, and—worst of all—unhelpful.
November 1, 2020
Help the Hillbillies—and Help Them Help Themselves
J.D. Vance, author of the book "Hillbilly Elegy," poses for a portrait photograph near the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., January 27, 2017. (Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

J.D. Vance can’t seem to catch a break. Sure: he’s got a Yale law degree; a New York Times bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy; a venture-capital firm; and, coming soon, a Netflix movie based upon his book. Yet he’s catching heat from every direction. He’s at odds with pro-market globalists and the chamber of commerce types. And progressives cast Vance as an inauthentic grifter earning cash off the backs of the hardworking sons of the soil he claims to champion.

I didn’t realize Vance-hatred was a thing when I first read his book. Like many other readers, I was captivated by it. My own upbringing was far more comfortable than Vance’s, but I recognized the world he depicted. Growing up in the rural South, I saw it in the lives of friends. As a high school teacher in Alabama coal country, I saw it in the lives of too many of my students. Digging around in the family past, I realized what a grace it was that a few of my relatives made it out of the coal country, or my own story might have looked a bit more like Vance’s.

As it turns out, though, some Southerners find Vance’s story offensive: disingenuous at best, manipulative at worse. When Netflix dropped the trailer for Hillbilly Elegy, a segment of social media was quick to pan not just the movie, but Vance’s entire project. The music writer Marissa Moss quoted the erstwhile alt-country singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, who does not mince words.

That’s rich coming from Simpson, a talented songwriter who regularly graces the pages of Garden & Gun, a fine publication, but one that presents the South as a happy social club of well-heeled white people enjoying oyster roasts and organic Chardonnay on the shores of Pawleys Island. Still the dismissal of Vance as some sort of coastal elite is downright bizarre, almost a progressive inversion of right-wing talk radio grievance. There’s no disputing that Vance is now part of the elite demographic, but in his writing and interviews, he hardly comes across as a pompous, coastal elite. In fact, Vance’s frustration with the market orientation of conservative policy holds more than a tinge of rural resentment to it.

Part of the criticism stems from the fact that Vance did not, it is alleged, grow up in Appalachia. Vance is from Ohio, to be sure, but he takes great pains to emphasize both the degree to which his town was populated by Appalachian refugees, as well as the extent of his time with family in the poor regions of eastern Kentucky. American nonfiction is full of people, of all walks of life, writing about and wrestling with their own family geography, even if they grew up in another region of the country. It’s hardly a serious complaint again Vance, given that he grew up in a neighboring state full of native Kentuckians, West Virginians, and Tennesseans.

When someone like Simpson takes on Vance for elitism, what he really means is that he resents Vance’s criticism. It’s not a stretch to think that if Vance’s conclusions were different, then his critics would not be so concerned with his provenance. No, the outrage is ultimately centered on Vance’s belief that the problems of Appalachia are of its own making. For a certain type of cultural critic, Vance offers nothing more than “up by the bootstraps” moralizing. (See this influential piece from The Bitter Southerner.)

Yet how curious that Vance’s critics would pooh-pooh a narrative of personal responsibility. A growing number of conservatives are recognizing the need for limited state action to prevent struggling regions from falling further behind. Vance himself is far more skeptical of the free market than much of the modern conservative movement is, going so far as to echo Tucker Carlson’s hackneyed claim that “libertarians” have hijacked the movement over the last generation. But at his core, Vance recognizes that individuals, families, and communities must retain some fundamental moral agency, even when all other odds seem stacked against them.

Except in well-defined matters of law and justice, it rarely falls to the government to give hard words to struggling people. But if we cannot look at one another, firmly but lovingly, and say “get your shit together,” there will be some portion of our struggling society that we will never reach. People in a community can love one another and, at times, should make this plea. How sad that so many of Vance’s critics recoil at the very idea.

If Vance’s critics can’t stand to watch the movie, perhaps they can switch to another streaming service and watch Friday Night Lights. Though set in the Texas hill country instead of Appalachia, the show is about a town of people facing hard times: single parents struggling to get by, teenagers raising themselves in lieu of absent parents, health problems—all with a backdrop of a slow, largely rural economy. The show’s main characters—Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (Connie Britton)—understand that things can happen to people far outside of their control. When his quarterback breaks down in the midst of a personal crisis, wondering “What’s wrong with me?” Taylor reassures him: “There’s nothing wrong with you at all.” Eric and Tami Taylor never let the young people in their care, nor their parents, give in to their circumstances; the real misfortune of life is never an excuse for bailing on one’s duty to family, community, or to oneself. In truth, it’s cruel to not tell people that.

Vance doesn’t allow his fellow hillbillies—and they are his fellows; the “you ain’t from around here” claim is patently absurd—to excuse drug use or illegitimacy or sloth even as he’s sharpened his criticism of the free-market right. The outcry over Vance’s work reveals a cultural fissure that mere politics cannot address. An honest assessment of conservative commentary—stripped of all the layers of Trumpian nonsense—demonstrates an increasing willingness to recognize the moral dimensions of capitalism and therefore call corporate elites to task for the cascading consequences of their business decisions. Yet as long as personal responsibility can’t be broached at all, the poorest among us will continue to suffer.

Matthew Stokes

Matthew Stokes is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Alabama Daily News, the University Bookman, and the Gospel Coalition. Follow him on Twitter: @yellingstopal.