Exploring Southern Appalachia: ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ Stereotypes And Academia

Sep 4, 2019

  The Appalachian Studies community is a tightly knit group of academics, writers and historians from across the country. When news happens in the community it spreads fast - or at least that’s what happened when “Hillbilly Elegy” came out.  

The best-seller’s subtitle says that it’s “a memoir of a family and a culture in crisis.”  

That line is what upset many of the people in the Appalachian Studies community, like novelist Silas House.  It's been three years since the book came out and he’s sick of talking about "Hillbilly Elegy." House is from the Kentucky coalfields and currently works at Berea College with his husband, who is a writing professor. He lives outside of the mold in Vance sets up in his book. 

“So many of us have spent our lives being defined by what people have seen in movies and they just assign to us. they say to me: "The only Appalachia that I have ever been in contact with is 'Deliverance',” says House, who is a professor of Appalachian Studies. 

Film rights for "Hillbilly Elegy" were picked up by Netflix this year. The $45 million production is being directed by Ron Howard and some of it is being shot in Clayton, Georgia where "Deliverance" was also filmed. 

This won’t be the first film to be made as a result of the book’s success. “Hillbilly” directed by two women from Appalachia hit theaters last year, racking up awards as it explained President Trump’s election from the perspective of director Ashley York, a Kentucky Native who moved to LA to be a filmmaker. Sally Rubin co-directed.

House was an executive producer on the film.  He says Appalachian people often tell him “Hillbilly” is the first time they have seen themselves accurately portrayed on screen. 

“I think that the main thing is that Appalachians haven’t been in control of art about themselves until very recently,” says House, who is the author of "Southernmost." “But I do think that is changing and I do think that is something that the film “hillbilly” shows. It zooms in on media makers.” 

Elizabeth Catte’s “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.” was written in response to Hillbilly Elegy. At just over 100 pages, the book seeks to counter most of J.D. Vance’s points. 

 There’s also “Appalachian Reckoning”, a collection of about 40 responses from authors like Crystal Good of Affrilachian Poets and Catte to provide a span of scholarly, poetic and photographic reactions. 

“Beyond the scholarly - reckoning I suppose -  we also wanted to show what’s happening in the region more broadly.” 

That’s Meredith McCarroll who edited the book with Anthony Harkins. She teaches writing at Bowdoin College in Maine. She’s from Waynesville. 

Even in Waynesville there are as many different experiences of being Appalachian as there are people in Waynesville,” says McCarroll. “But you can’t hold J.D. Vance 100 percent responsible. There were also a lot of people that were excited  to hear that there is nothing done - that this is just the way that people are.”  

Ivy Brashear wrote an essay for “Appalachian Reckoning.” She’s a fifth generation Kentuckian who works as a journalist and for The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.  She saw "Hillbilly Elegy" as a personal attack on her grandmother. 

“The reason that we exist today in Southeastern Kentucky is because of the women in my family who were able to cook the food, grow the food, give the caregiving aspect of life that is really crucial,” says Brashear. 

This is the crux of the conversation for many Appalachian scholars says Brashear - defending their homeplace while also looking for ways to improve life in the future. 

“I have lived my whole life seeing these cycles of media extraction and I know how it works – something like this catches fire in the media and the national psyche and it then becomes really hard for those of us doing work in the region who know the region very intimately it becomes very hard for us to say,’no, no, no, that’s not it,’” says Brashear. 

House sums it like this: 

“There is just as much stereotyping in romanticizing a place as there is in vilifying it. So we have to be critiquing it enough and celebrating it enough to get at that complexity.”  

But as it turns out, one of the most well-known symbols of Appalachian culture - the banjo - has a history just as complex.

“Exploring Southern Appalachia” is a Blue Ridge Public Radio series on how the 1972 Burt Reynolds’ film “Deliverance” touched Southern Appalachia. This series will explore the film’s mark on literature, whitewater, music, academia and the cultural identity of the region as a whole.