For the last decade, Appalachian artists have worked to take back their stories from a world that seemed more than happy to let the stereotypical tropes of the region drive our national discourse about the area, and its people.
As part of that new group of writers, author J.D. Vance’s memoir is another brick in that wall. His is a story of overcoming the types of dysfunction that exist in the small, burned out manufacturing towns across the country shines a light on what it means to live in a place that is perpetually stuck just a few minutes behind the present.
And would he have left his story with that, Hillbilly Elegy would have been a solid book. Where it veers off track is in the Vance’s ruminations on poverty in Appalachia. In the last third of the book, as Vance achieves success beyond his childhood dreams, he tells the reader that the problems of Appalachia could be solved — no, can only be solved — if Appalachians do better, work harder, and be nicer.
The exposition makes little sense coming after chapter upon chapter in which he talked about the long, slow decline of opportunity in Middleton, Ohio, the story’s setting. As the steel mill slowly shuttered, businesses around town began to fail, and many were left with no real opportunities. In that, Vance’s cry to “work harder” felt disingenuous.
In many ways, his own personal narrative intermixed with that exposition decrying the moral state of the Appalachian people felt like a betrayal worse than H.L. Mencken and the journalists who originally painted the region’s people as wild, uneducated hillbillies.
However, Vance’s ruminations didn’t seem mean-spirited. Quite the opposite. A self-stated conservative, Vance seemed to be wrestling with the question of how Appalachia might be reinvented and reinvigorated. While his conclusions seemed devoid of the historical reasons for poverty (read
The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia for that), his own explanations seemed borne from a place in which he wanted to understand his home.