Hillbilly Elegy — Really? This Isn’t a Poem and It Isn’t About an Area That Is Dead

A note to a friend:

Thanks for the book Hillbilly Elegy. I really wanted to read it. I thought I was going to like it. I hoped it offered a rich perspective on an area by a person from the area.

I struggled to get through it, disliking it all along the way but not knowing exactly why and then I realized it was a one-person, one-dimensional, simplistic, flat-line, broad-brush condemnation of an incredibly diverse area from an ideologically conservative perspective. The author does a disservice to both Ohio and Kentucky.

I think the author is too young to write a memoir. I think he is too enamored with his new-found upper-class status, his “celebrity,” his wealth, etc. He is smart, but not yet wise.

He offers scant solutions aside from the standard conservative drivel: work hard, go to church, don’t be a deadbeat, don’t be a welfare queen, “the answer is not more government but a loving home.”

Okay, he lived it and I didn’t, but I lived next to Appalachia for seventeen years (central Kentucky’s culture being different to a degree from the mountain culture) and I know fine people from the mountains who don’t fit the author’s stereotype.

It is a culture rich in history, music, art, storytelling, writing. One of my favorite poets and wise commentator on culture and environmentalist is Wendell Berry who works a small farm along the Kentucky River just outside of the mountains. The late, great short story writer Jesse Stuart lived deep in the mountains, just to name two.

Does the area have its problems? Is the Pope Catholic? What area doesn’t?

The late Harry Caudill wrote an in-depth sociological study about the area Night Comes to the Cumberlands back in the 60’s. I don’t remember much about it except that I liked it because it got at the root of many of the problems, that being avarice and exploitation of the people and natural resources by outsiders.

I have a retired Presbyterian friend who would have some thoughts on all this as a minister who lived for several years in the hollers of West Virginia with the West Virginia Mountain Project: http://www.creeksidepress.com/biography.html.

For all of the pluses, Holland, MI (where I live) and southwest MI are still dominated by super-rich, right-wing lug-nuts religiously and politically who think they have all the answers but hide the skeletons in the closet and the bodies somewhere in the dunes along Lake Michigan.

Sure, in Jackson, KY there are families like the author’s; mother’s like the author’s, etc. They can be found anywhere. They can be found in nearby Pullman, MI which looks more like Kentucky back roads than Kentucky back roads. They can be found next door and sometimes, as all families are human, flawed and sinful, they can be found inside the door.

Domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse are found in every city, every town, every segment of society. The wealthy just have more ways to hide it.

I felt insulted for the people of the great Commonwealth.

Here is a link to a response to the book: https://theoutline.com/post/3147/elizabeth-catte-what-you-are-getting-wrong-about-appalachia-interview?zd=1&zi=rm7crra6.


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