A “hillbilly eulogy” for Appalachia is long overdue. I barely recognize my own culture in Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy that is now showing on Netflix. The film is based on the book of the same name from author J. D. Vance. It is subtitled as “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” He means the culture in which I was raised and have worked most of my adult life. We are a culture that has crises and has overcome crises in the past. To describe us as a “culture in crisis” is misleading. I propose a remedy for the mischaracterization. I offer the hillbilly eulogy.
The Beginning of the Eulogy
The mistake of Hillbilly Elegy is simple to define. One should not analyze an entire culture through the lens of one’s own dysfunctional family. The film is about Vance “getting out” of the family dysfunction. I understand the drama of the story. But there is nothing particularly Appalachian about a nurse being addicted to drugs, high school aged women being pregnant, or pistol-packing grandmothers. More to the point though, There is nothing particularly Appalachian about poverty.
My play on words comes from the fact that Eulogy is an antonym of Elegy. The latter is mourning over a loss. The former is a tribute to what was or what is. J. D. Vance mourns over something he never had. He was only tangentially connected to the culture.
We Ain’t Object Lessons
The most important part of my hillbilly eulogy is to describe what I have. I grew up here in Eastern Tennessee. I centered my working life here too in communities that have seen all of the social ills described above. My grandmother married my grandfather at the age of 16. Her husband of 55 years never got beyond the third grade in his education. This is my mother’s family. My father’s family were more prosperous in their origins. My grandparents on that side were able to receive their high school diplomas. J. D Vance spent the summers of his childhood among his extended family in Kentucky. I come from and live among people who raised their own food and did not have electric lights until the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to them and often needed the help of their relatives. Sometimes, we were those helpful relatives.
Ron Howard’s film is about escape. It is a story of a grandmother fighting to get her grandson an opportunity through education. Howard adds “hard work” to the formula of escape after young J.D. overhears his grandmother beg for extra food. Vance being on the brink of escaping but getting drawn back into the mess that is his family is the whole plot of the film. The story is about his choices contrasted with the choices made by others in his family. The message is simple; poor Appalachians make poor choices. If we only chose differently we could escape to internships in a high powered Washington law firm.
Personal choices matter. But one must have options. Vance’s grandparents sought options by moving to Ohio to work in the steel mill. My grandparents moved to Maryville to work in the Aluminum plant. Other members of our grandparents’ generation moved to Michigan and Illinois for factory jobs in the automobile industry. And they often thought of home.
The Appalachian mountains drew settlers because of their beauty and their bounty. Making a living was possible here. My ancestors took it, literally. The communities built and rebuilt here do not stagnate even though the roots of the people have grown deeper. When other people want the natural resources, Appalachian people are either employed or cast aside. Each of these times crises have arisen. Appalachian people have fought back and fought hard. We have won and lost. And yet, we persevere.
Ending The Hillbilly Eulogy
We have our music, religious quirks, and dancing. We eat ramps. Appalachian hillbillies harvest mountain ginseng. We hunt and fish. Eating off the land is part of the culture. This culture is alive. And it can improve. The global neo-liberal economy has caused a large gap between rich and poor here too. Increased poverty has contributed to addiction rates and other social ills. Wealthier people from other parts of the US have come again to retire and displace some of us.
The land is revitalizing with new vineyards now being planted. Our rivers are becoming cleaner. The diverse ecosystems remain for now. Appalachian culture has more to celebrate than Ron Howard, J.D. Vance, and our own politicians would have us believe. We could enhance our culture by decentralizing medical care and providing new resources for education. Changing the criminal justice system to end taking advantage of the poor would help immensely. Once a person gets into trouble with the law, the system is too byzantine and expensive to get out of it. One would think a lawyer like J. D. Vance would recognize these problems. We have a long way to go. People who are not merely tangentially connected to the culture will remedy the problem.