Hillbilly Memories

//Hillbilly Memories

Hillbilly Memories

President David Johns

(January 6, 2021) One of my teachers used to say that no one should publish a book before turning 50. That was overstated, to be sure. However, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is a good example of why memoirists ought to have gray hair.

“Hillbilly Elegy” became a New York Times bestseller shortly after its release in 2016, and it has sold more than 3 million copies. Its soaring popularity is due in part to its portrayal of misunderstood and politically forgotten America, an America that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

Because of good luck or bad timing, Vance was quickly regarded as a spokesperson for disaffected Appalachia. Yet, his tempestuous family tale sits heavy in the stomach of some he claims to describe.

But, it’s important to note that Vance does not claim to be the voice of Appalachia. He is criticized by some for presenting an universalized view of the area and its people; but really, who in their right mind would ever claim to speak on behalf of an entire region? Vance certainly did not.

Some of his critics published a collection of essays, “Appalachian Reckoning: a Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.” This is a book-length tug of war for who can speak truthfully about Appalachia. The essays range from mildly appreciative to excoriatingly Vance-shaming, denouncing the memoir as a deeply flawed, imperfect story that is out of tune and out of touch.

It is true, however, that the public often rushes to stereotype and generalize because it’s easy, and because it has little patience for the complexity of just about everything, including Appalachia, and including 2016. Impatience made “Hillbilly Elegy” something more than it ever should have been: a singular memory of one young man’s family.

The story is now filtered through Ron Howard’s lens, and he fills the screen with poorly drawn caricatures of Appalachia set against a backdrop of beauty, addiction, and poverty. But like most stories we tell, this one is true only in part.

I am projecting my own experience on Vance, I realize, but my background is similar to his. He grew up in Ohio, so did I. His family was from Kentucky, mine was from West Virginia. We both left in the pursuit of education and careers — a law degree for Vance, a PhD for me.

My mother grew up in the hollers near Coburn, West Virginia, where I spent time as a child. Family networks there were tight and extensive; family secrets, which were never secret, ranged from shocking to comic. My maternal side of the family emigrated to Ohio looking for work in the rubber plants in Akron and in the warehouses at the Diebold Safe and Vault Co. in Canton, Ohio, where I was born.

Vance was 32 when Elegy was published, but I will subtract a year or two for writing and shopping the manuscript to publishers, and assume he was 30 years old when Elegy was written.

When I was 30 or 32, I was completely unprepared to tell my family’s story. I was still too angry and ashamed. I was still differentiating from my Appalachian upbringing, a decade away from acknowledging the courage and wisdom of my blue collar family.

Vance may be able to tell his family’s story better than I would have been able to tell mine nearly 30 years ago. I would have been unkind and unfair. Nevertheless, rather than silence his voice, I would like to see Vance tell his story again after he turns 50.

Our perspectives change over time and we make peace in new ways with the people and places we have left behind. We are more measured and more tentative in our generalizations and in our depictions.

I admit, my remarks are more confession than critique. These days I am ashamed for having ever been ashamed of my Appalachian birthright, for having bought into a belief that I had to “move out to move up.”

We lose a lot when we think this way, and I have spent decades recovering what I cast aside so cavalierly as a young man. I cannot and will not say that this is Vance’s experience, but it was mine. For me, admittedly a slow learner, it has taken years to become proud of my Appalachian roots, and to embrace my family, so precious and real and flawed and perfect.

And to let each one of them live inside of me.


This column by President David Johns appeared in The Roanoke Times and The Franklin News-Post. President Johns may be reached at president@ferrum.edu.