Rebuttals to ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Published 6:30 am Saturday, September 21, 2019

By Vivian Blevins


Director Ron Howard will soon wrap up the Netflix movie he is making based on J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. He filmed in Middletown, Ohio, for a few days, but did most of the filming in Georgia where there are attractive financial incentives for filmmakers.

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In the July 19, 2017, issue of the Piqua Daily Call, I wrote, “Vance’s book reinforces stereotypes and perpetuates an American consciousness that says of all the ethnic American groups, this is the only one that can be spoken of in such a derogatory way without raising an eyebrow.”

Time out. I was wrong. Eyebrows are now raised and some of the contributors to the 2019 anthology Appalachian Reckoning have used photos, poems and essays to attack Vance’s book. Before you begin watching Howard’s film, I’d like to share with you some of the commentaries in the anthology.

The editors have chosen to use the word “Appalachian” in the title. Not only is it more dignified, but it is also more inclusive. “Reckoning” is not meant to be thought of in usage such as “I reckon I’ll be goin’ south tomorrow.” It means “the settling of accounts” as the artists and authors are doing through the publication of this anthology.

William Turner has an illustrious academic career and is currently at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. After presenting in “Black Hillbillies Have No Time for Elegies” a lengthy list of highly successful African Americans who have come from along Looney Creek in the Tri City area of Harlan County, Kentucky, Turner posits this question, “If black hillbillies can make it in America, then what’s Vance’s family’s excuse?”

In “Once Upon a Time in Trumpalachia,” Dwight B. Billings, an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky, asserts, “The great danger and ultimate tragedy of Hillbilly Elegy is not simply that it perpetuates Appalachian stereotypes. It is that it promotes toxic politics that will only further oppress the hillbillies that J. D. Vance professes to love and speak for.”

“At no point,” indicates T.R.C. Hutton in “Hillbilly Elitism,” “does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement. That would run in the face of his bootstraps thesis. Such concepts would interfere with Vance’s aim in writing Hillbilly Elegy, for the book is primarily a work of self-congratulations- a literary victory lap- and a vindication of a minimalist safety net. ” Hutton, author of 18 volumes and winner of numerous awards, is writer-in-residence at Thomas Moore College in Kentucky.

Appalachian transition coordinator at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky, Ivy Brashear claims, “Elegy has no class, no heart, and no warmth. It’s a poorly written appropriation of Appalachian stereotypes about violent, ignorant, and slovenly hillbillies who refuse to help themselves despite having every opportunity to do so.”

Robert Gipe, recently retired from his position as Appalachian program director at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in order to devote full-time to his fiction writing (Recent novels published by Ohio University Press, Trampoline and Weedeater), writes in “How Appalachian I Am,” “I’d say I was raised, by both my mother and father, to make my own sense of the world. I was taught that meaning is complex and shifting and difficult to state…that one won’t be able to make any sense of a thing until one hears not one but many stories about it.”

There are many writers and artists in Appalachian Reckoning who have opted to tell their personal stories of growing up in Appalachia, of leaving and returning, of being laughed at while away for their speech patterns and accents and of fielding questions about moonshine and snake handling, of forgiving parents who were ineffectual, and of singing the praises of parents and grandparents who filled their lives with the food, the stories, the honor that so many Appalachians have in large measure.

Vance’s story is his story and he has a right to tell it, and Netflix has obviously seen the commercial value of his account and paid 45 million dollars for the rights to the film adaptation. However, as we respond to the book or the movie, we should realize that there are many other stories. Editors Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll have brought two dozen plus together so that we might have a small sampling.

Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at