HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Critique

Updated: Apr 12


I picked up the book by J D Vance at the suggestion of a friend. I was writing a chapter of my memoirs, “The Silent Minority,” based on a paper I presented to the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, March 1978. My friend had suggested Elegy might be informative in my research on the plight of Appalachia and useful as a reference. It was neither. Nor was it worthwhile reading with the exception that Vance has a good writing style, albeit boring. I would not recommend Elegy to anyone studying the authenticity of the Appalachian diaspora. The book is not well documented and reads more like the ramblings of a dysfunctional family anywhere in the United States forced into “Appalachia” by the author. Not in anyway to belittle his service to his Country, but Elegy becomes a non-believable, fiction-like novel as Vance changes directions midway in the book, switching gears as he abandons his white trash hillbilly Appalachian background to undergo a miraculous total personality/life change by joining the Marines and subsequently graduating from Yale Law school. “What?” “What just happened,” the reader asks? It just smacks of “from trash to pretension.” Essentially the book is two books: the dysfunctional family USA and the perfect pretentious Yale lawyer.


I was also offended by the artificial and unnecessary insertion of Vance’s political position, lecturing the reader on the virtues of democratic liberal drivel.


I would recommend readers go to less biased, popularized, far more authentic, sources on the plight of Appalachians, such as: “The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats,” by Jim Goad, 1997; “White Trash” by Nancy Isenburg, 2016; “In Defense of Rednecks” by Edward Abbey. Perhaps the classic non-fiction, fiction description of the plight of Appalacians in the industrial Midwest is “The Dollmaker,“ a NY Times Bestseller by my friend, Harriett Arnow.


In summary, I would not recommend the book to anyone. There are far more in-depth, more accurate, not popularized books documenting the history of hillbillies and their struggle as the silent minority.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Critique©️

A Critique by Tom Tenbrunsel 6/16/2017



Authors Note: Hillbilly Elegy: A Critique of the Movie by Ron Howard©️


While the movie provides scenic and semi-authentic settings, in my opinion as a student of Appalachia, it is focused on an inept, degrading and grossly misrepresentation of Appalachian life. Boring at times, the script belabors the dysfunctional/addictive family, something one finds in every community in America, not just in Appalachia. “Hillbillies,” as in my Critique above are quite unique, misunderstood, resourceful, talented, peaceful family units, which should be heeded for their self-sufficient ways. The average Appalachian has a much higher than average common-sense I.Q.


In the movie J. D. Vance was portrayed as a loathsome, impressionable, angry child and adult with a temper. I’m certain Vance himself was not fond of Howard’s portrayal. Little or no time was spent in the movie on Vance’s success story in the Marines, as a Yale student or his successful career and what he has given back to the communities in Appalachia. Thank God for the excellent acting by Glen Close and Amy Adams, who single-handedly saved the film.


ADDENDUM

Hillbilly Elegy: Is it a fact? Or is it an opinion? (The following is an edited transcript of one of my literary discussion groups 12/11/2020


I was giving a lecture/reading, at a local library and I decided to read my rather scathing review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance. https://www.tenbrunsel.com/post/hillbilly-elegy-a-critique


When finished reading, a rather nice looking graying man stood up to challenge my premise. In Hillbilly Elegy, I said that the author, J.D. Vance was blowing smoke, that he actually was shunning Appalachians having become converted to real America by fleeing Appalachia to become a marine and then, praise God, having completed Yale. The man in the audience said that my facts were wrong. I stopped him right there telling him, it was my opinion. Isn’t that what reviews are - opinion? He said, “But . . .” I butted in again.


“You see sir, you have your opinion, I have mine, and in my opinion J. D. Vance presented his opinion of Appalachia. Neither, either and none are fact. Simply opinion. Simply point of views. There can be discussion, but no conclusion without fact. Facts are facts when you can find one, and opinions are a summary of one’s existence. There are infinitely more opinions in the world than facts, as a matter of fact (smiling at my oxymoranity). Mistaking fact for opinion makes for foolishness, but fiat is scarce.”


“Let me demonstrate, sir,” I said. “The sun came up today (stooping to peer out the storefront window at an unusually overcast day in Weaverville), sort of (laughter). Will, indeed, the sun come up tomorrow?”


“Of course,” the gentleman replied, anyone knows that” (sternly, beginning to get flustered at my metaphor).


“Is that a fact? Indeed, so do I, I replied. You see we both agree. In fact we agree, but agreement does not a science make. You see, sir, as much as all of us in this room agree, the sun might not come up tomorrow - agreement, opinion, fact? Not all that appears to be, is in fact, fact.” (Muffled laughter)


“Now ... What’s your name, sir?”


“Bob.”


“Now, Bob, as for Appalachian Vance, you see, my opinion, and the classic flaw of the book (and the subsequent Ron Howard movie), is that Vance struggled to leave Appalachia, to better himself - The so called American Dream! I say better himself from what? His momma, sister, Mammah, all liked it there. It was their world (even though Howard enhanced “Hillbilly Elegy” with ad nauseam and degrading hillbillies as scarcely less that drug addicts and thugs). The movie is worse than the book.


“And now, look, Bob in his book, Vance purports his righteous indignation upon his own poor Appalachians. Misgiving the dignity of their lifestyle,Vance fails to raise them up, to give dignity to a whole people, his people. Perhaps, my beef is simply with the title? His memoir should contain itself to Vance, the memoir, and not attempt to paint all of Appalachia as degenerate morons. Appalachia has a rich history and strong people. Certainly, not anymore degenerate than the rest of the country. The book is Vance’s sophomoric opinion. The fact that a million readers now look down on poor, poor Appalachia as a place to leave to succeed, is an incorrect view. I think that’s what irks me.


“Here’s the fact, Oh sorry, the opinion. Who is better off, Appalachians or a politically educated society moving toward socialism? You have your biased opinion. I have mine. Vance has his. They have theirs. Each is entitled to their own opinion. Vance has his book. I have my review of his book.


“Appalachians go to school every day, 24 hours a day. Do they know the ways to survival? It’s in their blood. But then you have your “Pocket Outdoor Survival Guide” to rely on to survive crisis. Do they read books on it? They live it.


“Do they know world history, probably not the details, but they know of the wars. They came out of the hills to fight for their country every time. They are patriots to the bone - Are you?


Do they go to the grocery, salon, barber, the butcher, the mechanic, the builder? Or do they do it themselves. Why, they have canning and preserving food and root cellars. Who needs a grocery. They grow their food and preserve it. And they make their own tools. They still live the so called lost skills.


“Are they glued to the TV or computer? No. They play music and dance and party as families and neighbors instead. Sometimes on Thursdays, you’ll find real hillbillies a coming into Marshall at the Luna Restaurant to clog to Bobbie Hick’s Emmy Award music. You have your opinion of music and custom. They have had theirs for eons. They get all the news they need on the weather report.


“They are as bright as any other cross-section of the population. Appalachians have extremely high common sense quotient. Don’t underestimate their ingenuity or ability to adapt. They have inhabited those mountains since the beginning of this Nation.


“Once they came out of the mountains by the 2 millions, to become the workers and tinkers of the industrial revolution. Most stayed. Some came back home. Boone Bus Line, Southern Airlines, then Republic Airlines, now Southwest Airlines we’re formed out of the Appalachian diaspora to the Industrial Midwest.


“They are a God fearing, God loving society.”


“Isn’t opioid addiction and alcoholism rampant in Appalachia, as J. D. Vance suggests in his book,” asked another lady up front?

“Have you listened to the news, maim, read a newspaper lately? There is an opioid crisis of biblical proportions across this nation, and that engulfs every sub-culture or cross-section of the entire population. Alcoholism has been with us since the beginning of time. Why would you single out Appalachia? Of course they have the same problems reflected across America. Don’t single them out though. It’s all of our problem and responsibility to take aggressive action in combating addictions, especially opioid addiction.”


“Isn’t there just a lot of incest in Appalachia,” another fella chimed in?”


“John, have you picked up a morning newspaper lately?”


“But aren’t they just dumb hillbillies?”


“Remember, that’s not fact, it’s your opinion. There are many good books on Appalachians: Redneck Manifesto by Jim Goad, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, In Defense of Rednecks by Edward Abbey. Perhaps classic non-fiction, fiction description of the plight of Appalacians in the industrial Midwest is The Dollmaker, a NY Times Bestseller by my friend Harriett Arnow. Why not go-to-school on it and see if your opinion changes (and I don’t mean go to Yale).”


“But don’t they have unnecessary hardship they face everyday? Isn’t that just awful?


“Don’t we all? They have their ways of adapting.”


“Yes, Appalachians face hardships everyday. Are they stupid uneducated hillbillies? Shouldn’t they want to join the marines and end up at Yale? You might want to do a gut check before you make a fool of yourself for trying to make fools of the millions of Hillbillies who came to this country sames’ you did and settled in them-thar-hills and they ain’t coming out anytime soon. They have made one hell of a go at it, by hook and crook and common God-given sense. So the next time you want to make fun of them as Hillbillies, ask God for His opinion.


“And, folks, when the lights come on again, who will walk out of the mountainside?”


As people were leaving, and I was signing books, the graying man came up to me, touched me on my shoulder, and said simply with a smile, “Thanks!” I stopped signing and reached under the table for a book I had already autographed and handed it to the fella with a wink and a smile. As he walked toward the door, he opened and saw what I had scribed, “Without opinion there can be no progress” signed me. I glanced up as he walked out the door. Bob looked back with a smile raising the book in thankful salute. I raised my hand in a single wave. He found the courage to open his mind. My courage comes from my Appalachian people.

tom tenbrunsel

Poet Laureate of My Domain



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