In the new book “Appalachian Reckoning,” dozens of mountain voices combine to talk back to J.D. Vance’s best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy.” Today, an exclusive story from its co-editor and a powerful essay (which involves Granny, her .38 pistol, and some coal trucks) excerpted from the book.
“The thing I like about Appalachians is that they don’t need much to be happy. They’re content with making $24,000 year. They’re not showing off.”
At the launch of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy in Morgantown, West Virginia, an audience member stood up and shared this sentiment. “This is more of a comment than a question,” he began. The panel of writers and photographers who have spent their careers studying Appalachia cocked our heads and listened hard to understand where he was going.
The room was packed with intellectuals, artists, donors, students, the president of West Virginia University and the dean of its law school. We were in the heart of Appalachia. This audience member explained he isn’t from Appalachia, but that he loves how the Appalachian people in his town are so happy to be poor. He’d stood up to give his answer to a question another panelist had raised about what is quintessentially Appalachian. The panelists at this reading — all contributors to Appalachian Reckoning, a collection of essays and creative work I co-edited for WVU Press — did not deliver simple or easy answers.
We hadn’t responded with a quick list of Appalachian characteristics — not because we don’t know the place, but rather because we know it too well. This audience member, though, decided that rather than look around him at a room filled with Appalachian people, he’d tell us a story about poverty and gratitude. Complacency and simplicity. Unlike those of us who spend our time writing about, advocating for, and living within the region, this audience member knew exactly how to define Appalachia, and had no qualms about doing so.
Jonestown, Pennsylvania [photo by George Etheredge]
Every now and then, America remembers Appalachia exists. Reporters seek statistics on the opioid epidemic. Politicians talk about unemployment at a breakfast restaurant in the mountains. News shows cast climate change and the coal workers in a simplistic debate. TV producers scout for a reality show.
One of those moments came after the 2016 Presidential election, as America looked around — a bit stunned — wondering why the rural working class had helped put in office a wealthy businessman from New York. A book by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, was newly on shelves, there to explain the region for us: a story of a kid born into instability and drug abuse who joined the Marines, went to law school, and eventually made it out of Ohio. It was a runaway bestseller. And because this “memoir of a family and culture in crisis” (the book’s subtitle) is now being adapted to film — garnering much attention for the $45 million Netflix committed to the project — Appalachia will continue to be understood with Vance’s story, now directed by Ron Howard (raised in California), adapted to screen by Vanessa Taylor (from Colorado), raising questions about who controls the narrative of the region.
That Netflix sees an opportunity in Vance’s memoir is unsurprising, nor is it unusual that filmmakers from elsewhere will put their visual stamp on the region. Indeed, Appalachia has been shaped by outsiders’ images and strangers’ descriptions. As a result, complexity gets simplified, the edges get rounded out, and what remains is an idea that Appalachia is somehow different than America. Appalachia has been written about and photographed in such a compelling (if fabricated) way that the descriptions of passersby took on more weight than the lived experiences of the people being described. What remains is a concept of a place that is both wildly romantic in its natural beauty and backward enough to justify the destruction of that very nature.
Jamestown, Tennessee [Photo by Rachel Boillot]
There’s some debate about the earliest mapping of Appalachia, and contention still about what counts and what doesn’t. Early historians, geologists, and botanists like William Byrd II, James Watt Raine, and William Goodsell Frost identified this place stretching from New York to Alabama as Appalachia. Ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture where Appalachia is, and in 1935, they’d have drawn the line at the northern border of Pennsylvania. But a generation later, in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty from a Kentucky porch belonging to Tommy Fletcher, the map was redrawn. LBJ’s commission drew the northern line way up into New York — just a couple of counties from the Vermont border. Arguments about the 1964 borders happened county by county, often leading representatives either to push for inclusion (and funding) or exclusion (and freedom from association).
Augusta, West Virginia [Photo by Ed DeWitt]
Those borders snake back and forth like a river, maybe also looking for the paths of least resistance. To look at the borders and edges across time is to glimpse history in the context of sociology and politics. Mountain people served different purposes at different times — sometimes romanticized as “our contemporary ancestors” who held tight to hard-to-find ways of living with the close of the frontier, sometimes demonized as monstrous and backward to justify the destruction of the land they inhabited. For every map drawn and every person described, there has been another perspective and another story.
But beyond establishing this new map with the War on Poverty, Johnson solidified the image of Appalachia that we have today, and the one Vance evokes so effectively, focusing on Appalachia’s image of white rural poverty. As Johnson stood on that porch, casting the effects of capitalism in militarized language, poverty got a new face. It was a white face weary from hard work. The stories that went with these pictures were built around a stubborn determination that helped explain how they got like this. They were images meant to evoke sympathy, but which did not demand understanding.
Many were predetermined images that journalists and documentarians sought in the years following Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands (1962) and Charles Kuralt’s “Christmas in Appalachia” (1965). Scenes of rural poverty — linked to manual labor, love of land, and strong family connection — served a national purpose. They garnered support for federal funding, and they further set Appalachia as an always outside region, worthy of pity. And even if its people didn’t quite deserve the destruction of their natural resources, Appalachia became the region America could sacrifice.
At the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of the War on Poverty, photographer Roger May was thinking of those images. He was thinking about who got to shape the narrative back in 1964 and who could have a say in 2014. He posted an invitation on Instagram for photographers to share images of Appalachia. Any image from the 420 counties categorized as Appalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission would be interesting to see. Graciously overwhelmed by the submissions, he assembled an editorial team and advisory board. He launched a website. He imagined it would be a mark in time — this anniversary of a moment when Appalachia became an object. It was a way to control the narrative by making Appalachia both the subject and the object. He imagined the moment would pass. It did not.
“Looking at Appalachia” is now in its fifth year, and continues to evolve as a project that enables self-representation. The website divides the selected images by the states they represent, and now includes 563 images. Scrolling through the website, you see Appalachia. Mechanics, farmers, poets, tattoo artists, preachers, and builders. Mountains under descending fog, mountains with their tops blasted off, mountains covered in snow. Car lots and tobacco barns and trailer parks and factories. Schools and rivers and kudzu and train tracks. Dancers and soldiers and barbers and loafers. Laughter and pride and sorrow and regret. You see Appalachia and know that it is also America.
Collectively, the photographs resist consensus. They make those round edges jagged simply by including so many pictures from so many perspectives. To empower people from Appalachia to show what they see is to complicate Appalachia. Without effort, the place is cast as messy and contradictory — like anywhere else. In the collection, there is no apology for the river baptisms and the tent revivals. There is space for a lawn strewn with toys and for a tidy woodpile. The power of this experiment of radical self-representation is that there is no controlling for an agenda. There is no purpose other than to show Appalachia as it is. And by existing, these people, these places, and these images blow up the stereotypes that fit neatly in a frame and can be cordoned off with a county line.
Asheville, North Carolina [Photos by George Etheredge]
There’s a map in my office in Maine, where I teach at a small college. It’s one of those topographical maps. Raised relief. This one is titled “Knoxville,” but spans all the way into western North Carolina, where I was raised. Sometimes a student will ask where I’m from, if they notice my accent. I walk them over to the map and point. Sometimes they’ll reach up, too, and run their fingers along the ridges and bumps. Waterrock Knob, where I will scatter some of my mom’s ashes, remembering sunset picnics with her. Saunook, where my pa was born in a cabin to a tiny woman who was both fierce and gentle.
A framed map has limits. On a map, rivers end at the edge of the page, interstates stop, and lakes have a flat border, like they’re held in by aquarium glass. In truth, mountains creep into and roll from one county to the next. The red lines marking a state road leads somewhere beyond the map. The ocean pulls the smallest stream from a mountaintop off the edge of the border.
Sometimes a student will ask what it’s like in Appalachia. They’ll look at my bookshelves or the movie posters hanging on the wall. They’ll sometimes mention what they’ve heard on the radio or seen on TV. They’ll mention J.D. Vance or the MTV reality show Buckwild. Is it true, they wonder?
When Hillbilly Elegy seemed to be all anyone talked about, and when I realized people associated that book with me because I’m Appalachian, I read it with eagerness and curiosity. And though Vance’s story was different from my own, I read with empathy for his unique experience. But he crossed a line when he began to use “we” instead of “I.” I didn’t like what he said about “us.” Moreover, I didn’t like the idea that any individual could speak for a 13-state region. Many people from Appalachia were angry about the book. They didn’t like the idea of Vance as a spokesperson for Appalachia, especially one who blamed the poor of our region for their poverty.
I didn’t want to silence Vance, and I didn’t want to be mean-spirited. Instead, I wanted to follow Roger May’s lead and complicate any singular view simply by including multiple ones. I wanted to create a chorus of voices, “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,” to borrow from Walt Whitman’s view of place.
So I read and listened, and tapped into the dense and rich and longstanding tradition of Appalachian writers. Along with Anthony Harkins, I collected voices of Appalachia — to create a snapshot of a place and a time that makes it impossible to believe the idea Appalachia is dead and in need of an elegy. Roger May not only inspired this work, but he collaborated with us to include photography from the region. The result, Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, is a book that intends to offer context for some of the claims Vance makes in his book when it moves beyond memoir, and to pass the mic to a wider range of writers, poets, photographers, activists, and artists who make Appalachia a place far too complex to capture and far too dynamic to die. As long as we keep our eyes open, we will continue to find an Appalachia that evolves, and to build on a strong history of activism and art — and pushback.
Just spend some time with Looking at Appalachia, and you’ll see that. Read writers from that place. Study art from the mountains. Listen to the Trillbilly Workers Party podcast. Follow the work of Y’ALL (Young Appalachian Leaders and Learners) and the STAY Project. Check out Appalshop and their Appalachian Media Institute, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. Read David Joy and Bell Hooks and Robert Gipe and the Affrilachian Poets and Silas House and see how they don’t sound one bit alike, even though they’re all Appalachian.
Berea, Kentucky [Photo by Meg Wilson]
The perception that mountain folk like to be poor serves someone — but it’s not the poor mountain folk. The representation of Appalachia as all white is not only inaccurate, but it preserves a false and destructive ideal of imaginary “pure white stock.” Images of decay and absence allow those in power to turn away from a place that has been forgotten, but has not disappeared. The narrow ideas that circulate about this broad place do active harm. To more fully understand a place — its real poverty alongside its potential for renovation, its history of fierce activism alongside the stories of extraction and abuse — requires a sort of patchwork panorama, made up of many angles and many points of view.
Maps capture only one point of view. Who holds the camera matters as much as who’s in the picture. What lies outside of the frame can matter as much as what we see. What is left out is a story of its own, even though we have time and space for complicated and multiple stories. The more stories and images and sounds we can access, the more full our lives can be. It is a range of truths — hard to sum up — that makes Appalachia, like America, a place to rally around and a place to love.
Meredith McCarroll was born and raised in western North Carolina. She is director of writing and rhetoric at Bowdoin College. McCarroll is author of Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018) and co-editor with Anthony Harkins of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019).