When “Hillbilly Elegy” hit bookshelves in 2016, it elicited myriad impassioned responses. It came as Donald Trump was dominating nearly every political headline, and as Americans nationwide struggled to understand the motivations and inner-workings of the Rust Belt, a region believed to be comprised of poor, working-class whites who tend to vote conservative.
The book, written by J.D. Vance and described as “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” evoked especially strong responses in Appalachia, the “culture” Vance attempted to portray in his memoir. He described growing up surrounded by addiction, poverty, lost jobs and domestic violence, watching those around him regularly abuse social welfare programs.
For many, this isn’t an unfamiliar story, but it’s not a catch-all for Appalachian experiences. That fact is what inspired Meredith McCarroll and Anthony Harkins to join forces and co-edit the anthology, “Appalachian Reckoning,” which was published by the West Virginia University Press earlier this year.
The book is comprised of essays, poems, songs, recipes and photos from artists throughout the region that depict different facets of Appalachian experiences.
“After reading ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and listening to the conversations it was drawing and creating, my instinct was to not really discredit [Vance’s] experience, but create a broader conversation,” McCarroll said. “A chorus of voices, not just a solo.”
“Appalachian Reckoning” was framed as a response to “Hillbilly Elegy,” but not every piece included regards Vance’s writing negatively. Instead, the book offers a mix of perspectives urging people to not take Vance’s narrative as gospel.
For Harkins, who describes himself as a historian to complement McCarroll’s background in literature, the national interest in “Hillbilly Elegy” was due to a lot of people not wanting to exert the energy to understand that Appalachia is a complex, layered region, with many different stories and cultural perspectives. The book gave them an easy thing to digest: a one-dimensional example of poor, white people who could be as bad as statistics sometimes suggest.
“I’ve been looking at the image of mountaineers and hillbillies for a long time. When people speak of hillbillies, generally, they make people of the mountains seem all of one sort, and we know that’s not true,” Harkins said. “I think it was a product of the Trump election and people trying to understand Appalachia and its support of him. [‘Hillbilly Elegy’] was being discussed as if it were a scholarly book, this one man’s story, and it’s not.”
Harkins teaches history at Western Kentucky University, and McCarroll is the director of Writing and Rhetoric at Bowdoin College, in Maine. Since both co-editors work in academic spheres, it was alarming to them when “Hillbilly Elegy” started to become a classroom assignment and book club regular.
“Being an academic from Appalachia, in a region with very few other Appalachian academics, I did feel generalized in a pretty negative way, and I felt the need to complicate the dialogue,” McCarroll said.
She said people at her college in Maine would come up to her and tell her they’d read “Hillbilly Elegy,” and felt they understood more about her home — “which wasn’t true; [Vance] and I had very different lives and backgrounds.”
That, in sum, is the whole point of “Appalachian Reckoning” — to broaden the conversation around Appalachia and its residents, especially as it occurs outside the region.
“We wanted to show the many ways of what it is to be Appalachian, and to open up the conversation about these complexities,” Harkins said. “If nothing else, we wanted to ensure there was an acknowledgement of the complexities out there.”
McCarroll and Harkins will be presenting at 11 a.m., Saturday at the West Virginia Book Festival, in Conference Room 216 of the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center. As they do with most of their speaking engagements and readings, they plan to be joined by some of the contributors to “Appalachian Reckoning,” McCarroll said.
“The guiding belief of this book is that no one book can, or should, speak for Appalachia, so no two people could ever stand up and say that this is the definitive text on Appalachia,” McCarroll said. “This is really, in some ways, just taking a snapshot of this moment in Appalachia. This is what’s happening in terms of the activism, the scholarship, the literature, and it’s nothing new — this has been going on for a long time. Appalachia has always been a vibrant, rich culture.”