For the good of the poor and common people: What Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong about Appalachia and the working class

Over at the New Republic, Sarah Jones has a blistering take on J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the social analysis of Appalachia’s “forgotten” white working class masquerading as a regional memoir and current favored text for understanding the inner lives of economically precarious white voters. Her piece works better than most because it attends not only to the central themes and lessons of Elegy, but also to the media oversaturation of Vance as a white working class whisperer and his eagerness to embrace the role of political analyst during and after the election.

From local papers to the national press, from Fox News to NPR, from the lecterns of state schools and business schools, Vance has served up “straight talk” about the white working class that both conservatives and liberals are eager to consume. For conservatives, Vance’s rags-to-riches story – from his broken childhood in rural Ohio and Kentucky to the heights of Silicon Valley’s venture capital world – is confirmation that the American Dream they’re selling works: that through hard work and bootstrapping all is possible, handouts be damned. At the same time, liberals applaud Vance for demonstrating the dangers inherent in what he characterizes a veil of misunderstanding between coastal elites and rural whites. The problem, as Sarah Jones writes, is that the “media class fixated on the spectacle of white trash Appalachia, with Vance as its representative-and-exile” and stopped looking for any other voices or perspectives. If your goal is to rebuild coalitions of working class whites and win back their votes – and this is the angle that Jones covers – it might be time to consult a new expert, or perhaps just actual working class people. I’ll leave that angle to others, but keep reading, because I have a good recommended text.

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Pick 5: Excerpts from a Century-Old Seance

In honor of Halloween, here are 5 excerpts from a series of seances performed in 1906 by a Mrs. Smead at the behest of Dr. James Hyslop, an investigator from the American Society for Psychical Research. Dr. Hyslop found Mrs. Smead to be a credible psychic, not only owing to the quality of her performance but also her refusal to accept any “pecuniary reward” for her services. Although the fate of Mrs. Smead is unknown, Dr. Hyslop died in 1920 at the age of 65, and purportedly continued to communicate to his loyal secretary through mediums and spirit writing, most often with the morose complaint, “I find it difficult to assume that I am dead.”

These excerpts are well paired with Shannon Taggart’s photographs of New York’s Lily Dale community, the former center of the Spiritualist movement.

Tennessee Historical Commission tells Memphis it must keep hated statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that the Tennessee Historical Commission rejected an application made on behalf of the Memphis City Council to relocate a statute of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest to a new site more appropriate to the interpretation of Civil War history, with expressed interest from Shiloh Historical Park cited. The statue currently sits in the Health Sciences Park in the city’s growing medical district. The Memphis City Council has argued that the historic statue – gifted to the city in 1905 – is incongruent with the area’s modern overlay of professional offices and the function of the park as a recreational spot for medical students and downtown residents.

The application is part of a review process set forth by the 2013 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act (revised 2016), which is why it sticks to uncontroversial facts to argue for the relocation of a controversial statue. The THPA prohibits the removal, renaming, relocation, and alteration of memorials, statues, and buildings dedicated to military heritage, including what lawmakers call “the War Between the States.” While the law cites a broad cross-section of historical resources, it’s important to acknowledge that lawmakers created the THPA to “protect,” above all, the public display of markers related to Confederate heritage and, indeed, this very statue. The THPA establishes an exemption process governed by the Tennessee Historical Commission, and the application by the Memphis City Council was its first test. While the Memphis City Council was unsuccessful, it is the Tennessee Historical Commission that failed.

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There is no neutral there: Appalachia as a mythic “Trump Country”

Of the 2016 presidential election, New York Times international affairs correspondent Roger Cohen wrote, “The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character – a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness – resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country, and cussedness are core values.”

Cohen’s dispatch is one of many now forming a distinct genre of election writing – the “Trump Country” piece, which seeks to illuminate the values of Trump supporters using Appalachia – and most often West Virginia – as a template with little variation in content or approach. “To understand Donald Trump’s success,” their composite argument flows, “you must understand Appalachia.”

My concern is less about unpacking these articles individually – although I confess I’m not exactly sure what “cussedness” is or why it is ascribed as one of my core values – but rather pulling back and examining what the sheer volume of these pieces might tell us. We need to examine why journalists from elite and prestige publications are invested in presenting Appalachians – and particularly West Virginians – as representative of all Trump supporters, to the extent that they write, as John Saward does in Vanity Fair, “I am in West Virginia to understand Donald Trump.” Why aren’t pockets of Trump supporters in Oklahoma, Idaho, Florida, New York, and New Jersey the subject of similar profiles? To be sure, I’m certain that there isn’t a red state in America that hasn’t been described as “Trump Country” by at least one journalist, but the compulsion to hold up Appalachia as representative is unique.

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Teaching Public History with King of the Hill (redux edition)

Peggy: If we don’t learn from the past, what’s the point of even having one?
Vance Gilbert: That’s going in the brochure!

“What is public history?”

Although we exist in different interdisciplinary fields and seek varied vocational attainment, perhaps the one thing that truly unites us as public historians is that we’ve all had to flub our way through precisely that question.

It’s a topic that I devote a lot of space to in my undergraduate public history classroom, because grappling with this question is often the start of an intellectual process that ends with a new appreciation for power and the production of history. And because this process is so important, I start it off with a long look at a fictional museum of prostitution from the cult television show King of the Hill.

Yes, I’ll explain.

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Pick 5: Mothman

He’s the quintessential Appalachian monster. Like so much mountain lore, his origins tell a story about the decline of the natural environment at the hands of exploitative outsiders. According to legend, he rose from the acid-infected ruins of the West Virginia Ordinance Works on a cool night in 1966, but he’s best known for his appearance at the Silver Bridge collapse the following year. Locals interpreted previous sightings of the strange creature as a warning of the tragedy yet to come, which claimed the lives of 46 men, women, and children in 1967. In the years that followed, Mothman became a harbinger of doom, the sign of a bad moon rising.

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, has hosted its annual Mothman festival since 2002, the year John Keel’s Fortean-inspired book The Mothman Prophecies became a major motion picture starring Richard Gere. In post-industrial West Virginia, the festival is now a vital source of revenue for the dying town. Tourists can run in the Mothman 5K, watch the Miss Mothman pageant, take a bus tour of area Mothman haunts, or meet amateur cryptolzoologists. Although he remains thoroughly in the realm of the kitsch, his likeness occasionally appears on anti-fracking literature as a supernatural defender of the mountains.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first Mothman sighting, and the 15th anniversary of Point Pleasant’s Mothman festival, here are 5 images that celebrate the patron saint of rural poverty line. Hail the misunderstood monster who’s still trying to save his small corner of West Virginia.

White Flight in the Heartland: The (Un)Built Landscape of Cairo, Illinois

To some degree, what compels those who seek to untangle Cairo’s complicated past is the refusal to believe that a town – an entire town – is an artifact of racism.

In May 2011, the governor of Illinois called for the evacuation of Cairo, a sparsely populated and predominately African American town located at the confluence of the flooding Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Years of neglect left the town’s levees in poor repair, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers assessed an imminent breach. The Corp of Engineers made the decision to intervene and perform a controlled breach to divert flood waters several miles upstream in Missouri, instigating a federal lawsuit that placed the interests of productive heartland farmers against socially and economically devastated black families. Although the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, the controversy served as an uncomfortable reminder that past struggles, when detached from collective memory, can quickly resurface in new battles.

Cairo, 2014. Photograph by Elizabeth Catte

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The Event Has Left Marks: A Nostalgic Review of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Walking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness

With its soaring elegiac score and beautifully detailed environment, you can be forgiven for describing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture through poetry. It is in Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” after all, that we learn that the end of the world comes not with a bang, but a whimper.


Rapture is that whimper, recreated in the fictional town of Yaughton, Shropshire. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” isn’t the only immediate literary reference that springs to mind during your gradual introduction to Rapture’s picturesque lanes and public footpaths. Yaughton also telegraphs the sinister coziness of Agatha Christie’s infamous St. Mary Mead remixed with elements of John Wyndham’s unique brand of pastoral science-fiction. Village homes boast comforting British tidiness in the form of floral wallpaper and gleaming sinks, front doors left ajar as if the occupant had simply stepped out for a moment. In the pub, half-smoked cigarettes still smolder and turn to ash underneath a dartboard paused in the middle of a never-to-be finished game. Advertisements for the annual church fete and village production of Peter Pan – a sweet bit of foreshadowing to the importance of stars to this unfolding story – appear on bulletin boards and shop windows next to official council notices that Yaughton is under quarantine.

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