Hillbilly Challenges



During this election year, J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy has been received as providing insight about Appalachian people.  With some solidarity they supported Presidential candidate Donald Trump during the primary season.  In the blog amendoon we have discussed Appalachian heritage.  One article “Encrypted Appalachian” documents my own family’s travel from Southeastern Tennessee to California in the early 20th Century.


“Encrypted Appalachian” considers values that support resilient actions.  The essay also observes Appalachian cultural actions do not appear to advance transformational educational opportunities.  This is similar to the engaging story presented by Mr. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.  He presents a heritage and a daily existence full of violence and alienation.  He overcomes it by perseverance, intelligence, Marine service, prodigious college academic performance, support by strong women, and a Yale Law Degree.

Culturally, many Appalachians have sought a better life.   Often they have not been agile enough to overcome economic displacement from industrial change.  They have remained tethered to their mountain life-style.  As J.D. Vance documents incidents of substance abuse and strong personalities predominate.  In the older Appalachians there is often a strong individuality but basic decency.

I have always tried to advance pride in hillbilly ancestry to my children.  They are all upwardly mobile and most of them seem to manifest little interest in their Polk County, Tennessee history.  They loved their grandfather who was born in Tennessee, but who lived most of his life in Central California.  His lifestyle exhibited so many Appalachian characteristics and he personified Appalachian values such as independence, self-reliance, pride, familism, love of place, and patriotism.  These values came from a powerful historical context, which was the migration of the Scots Irish and other Protestant groups into the mountains of Southeast America.

I have come to learn that my father was exemplary of a historical tradition that began in America when his Scot (Campbell) and Huguenot (Bodine) ancestors moved from New Jersey to Virginia and then onto Tennessee in the 18th and 19th Century.  The journey of the Scots Irish is well documented in an online video the Appalachian people.


The context for this was described by Theodore Roosevelt in his work The Winning of the West.

‘The Presbyterian Irish were themselves already a mixed people. Though mainly descended from Scotch ancestors—who came originally from both lowlands and highlands, from among both the Scotch Saxons and the Scotch Celts,—many of them were of English, a few of French Huguenot, and quite a number of true old Milesian Irish extraction. They were the Protestants of the Protestants; they detested and despised the Catholics, whom their ancestors had conquered, and regarded the Episcopalians by whom they themselves had been oppressed, with a more sullen, but scarcely less intense, hatred. They were a truculent and obstinate people, and gloried in the warlike renown of their forefathers, the men who had followed Cromwell, and who had shared in the defence of Derry and in the victories of the Boyne and Aughrim.’”   Michael Cullinane, “Roosevelt in the Strangest Places”,  http://blog.theodoreroosevelt.org/roosevelt-in-the-strangest-places/, March 24, 2014.

Though for his time President Roosevelt was precocious on racial issues dining at the White House with Booker T. Washington in 1901, he nevertheless retained strong opinions about the qualities of races and “people”. (For the complexity and contradictions of Theodore Roosevelt’s views see Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex, pp 52 – 58).

Theodore Roosevelt could see both stubbornness and the ferocity in the mountain people.  Possibly because of these qualities and historically a larger cultural presumptive focus on them, they were for many years lost to the view of the common American culture.  If seen at all, they were the stereotypes of the movie Deliverance and the cartoon Li’l Abner.  These diminishing and two-dimensional presentations did nothing to recognize the hearty and resilient qualities of a mountain people.

J.D. Vance’s book presented a compelling and personal story about hillbilly communities, largely in Ohio and Kentucky.  It partially explains their current position as a constituency in the American election.  The New York Times’ columnist David Brooks captured this in his column “The Revolt of the Masses”.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/28/opinion/revolt-of-the-masses.html?emc=eta1&_r=0    I provided a context for it in my essay, “Rubes, Barbarians and the TVA”  http://amendoon.net/rubes-barbarians-and-the-tva/

Appalachian groups have been relatively ineffective in advancing their priorities through public forums.  This may be inherent in their lifestyle which is characteristically remote and independent.  I am not aware of an established movement that achieves the visibility through public dialogue to advance hillbilly achievements and progress to the general American public.  I am not aware of a prominent network of hillbilly anti-defamation and political groups that interact with the media, state and federal entities and non-profits to develop programs advancing hillbilly people.  Some publicity from Mr. Vance’s book may help the cause, but it will not directly advance the success of the hillbilly people over more than a media moment.

Resilient actions to advance these people are the behavior of individuals or closely associated groups.   The hillbilly’s five minutes of fame from Mr. Vance will not necessarily support a stubborn eye on the prize and effective cultural consolidation and leadership.  Their most pressing need is to address the “moral and cultural crisis” in their communities.  The Federalist makes the point that this pressing need is aggravated by government transfer payments and the lack of mobility among many Appalachian people.  The challenge to hillbilly people is both addressing the immediate crisis of their cultural group and simultaneously developing and improving their prospects as a people.


I admire Appalachians and hope that their recent publicity may lead to national recognition and possible interest towards solutions for the conditions that afflict them.  This will require inspired leadership and concerted organization effort.  It will require networked solidarity based upon a compelling prize that addresses America’s willingness to dismiss and denigrate hillbilly people.  I am hoping Mr. Vance has an interest in this role because he is  intelligent and potentially an effective leader and spokesperson.

Rubes, Barbarians and the TVA

Tufts Magazine, 2013, Colin Woodard, Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Tufts Magazine, 2013, Colin Woodard, Illustration by Brian Stauffer


Watching Bill Maher after dinner is entertaining.  He has guests who talk about interesting issues in engaging conversation.  For me, he also has a distracting penchant for the “F” work and the “R” (Rube) word is used on the show.

In my opinion denouncing “rubes” is not useful.  For some, it may have a “shock-jock” entertainment value, but in my opinion it is low-brow exchange, like an ethnic joke.  In many “better” venues, the discussion always seems to move towards the alleged stupidity of America’s “rubes” who by clinging to their coal, gasoline, Bibles, birth-certificate-determined-bathrooms, American jobs, and guns are retrogressive citizens.   The stated truth for many is their tenacity to these life-choices simply distracts us from the self-evident truths buttressing America’s new economy.

One of Bill’s recent guests, the liberal author Thomas Frank, had much to say about this phenomenon in his book Listen, Liberal.  The focus of the book is that our nation is being shaped for the “new economy”.  The thrust is to shed labor as a major constituency for the Democratic Party.  Instead of the blue collar worker and formerly the smaller farmer, the primary constituency of the party has become the elite, educated professional and the manager.  The alliances which have been created are powerful, but by-and-large, they leave out the high school educated (or less) worker that once was such a strong component of the Party.  We are a nation of urban area “metros” and old economy “retros” – separate and unequal.

Continue reading Rubes, Barbarians and the TVA