Foreword Reviews

Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers Interviews Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll on Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy

Appalachian Reckoning cover and authors

Let’s play a word association game about stereotyping. What comes to mind when you read: Muslim in a hijab; Harvard-educated, white male judge; white guy in NASCAR cap with NRA stickers on bumper of pickup; Jewish philanthropist; Evangelical charter school teacher; Scientologist; LGBTQ+ activist; transgender mom; Native American; Honduran immigrant?

What’d you come up with? Did any of those labels trigger even a hint of a negative reaction? You’d be a saint if you said no, but we’re betting one or two hit you wrong.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing inherently suspect or threatening in that list. Your reaction is based on conditioning, and it’s something you should address—and, ideally, resolve—in a positive, tolerant way because there lies the roots of this country’s polarization.

This week’s interview delves into the stereotype hovering over the residents of Appalachia, a thirteen state region in the eastern US. In compiling their newly released Appalachian Reckoning, Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll sought essays, art, and poetry from an accomplished group of Appalachians, charging each of them to ruminate on J.D. Vance’s 2016 book, Hillbilly Elegy, as a way of exploring the complexity of the Appalachian experience.

Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers honored Appalachian Reckoning with a starred review in the March/April issue of Foreword, and we quickly put her in touch with Anthony and Meredith for this Face Off interview. Thanks to West Virginia University Press for bringing this important project to life.

Take it from here, Letitia.

In her review of Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of Colored People, critic Gabrielle Bellot makes outstanding points about the idea of authenticity, noting:

“Authenticity,” Salman Rushdie wrote wryly in “‘Commonwealth Literature’ Does Not Exist,” “is the respectable child of old-fashioned exoticism. It demands that sources, forms, style, language, and symbol all derive from a supposedly homogenous and unbroken tradition.” Authenticity is, in other words, a fraudulent romanticization, an oversimplification of identity, not unlike the European mythologizing of the East Edward Said famously critiqued in his famous 1978 study, Orientalism … there is no way to be ‘authentically’ black, even as many of the characters are convinced, even fatally, that there is.

Part of the conversation around Hillbilly Elegy also seems to be concerned with a notion of authenticity. What are your thoughts on authenticity as Appalachian Reckoning’s editors and as self-identified Appalachians?

Meredith McCarroll: What a perfect concept to open up a conversation about Appalachia. The questions of who counts and who doesn’t always feel like a distraction from more productive conversations. I am more interested in “Who cares about Appalachia?” than “How many generations has your family lived in Appalachia?”

I know that some people reacted to JD Vance’s book by questioning his authenticity as Appalachian. He was mostly raised in Ohio with roots in Kentucky. Good work by folks like Phil Obermiller situates this part of Ohio as a part of the Appalachian diaspora, so I think we can mark Vance as Appalachian if we want to get into categorizing by birthplace or zip code. I’m not interested in those ways of counting, though.

Perhaps I feel a desire to work in Appalachian Studies because of a personal connection. I’m not one to police who can do what work, though. An advisor in grad school, when I fretted about focusing on African American literature as a white person, told me to make sure the work is good. The rest is secondary.

Anthony Harkins: First, let me clarify that although I am a long-time scholar (most completely in my 2004 book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon) of the uses and misuses of the idea of Appalachia in national media and consciousness, I am not a self-identified Appalachian nor have I lived in the region, although I have lived in Kentucky for the past 16 years. This is why I am so honored that the many Appalachians featured in the book trusted me to help them tell and shape their stories. That said, I do think the concept of authenticity is both fused with the conception of “Appalachia” and is deeply problematic because it essentializes a single experience (often defined by poverty, social dysfunction, and violence) as authentically Appalachian. I believe, intentionally or not, Hillbilly Elegy too has been used to advance this vision. Our book is a deliberate attempt to de-essentialize the region and its people and to recognize that there are a great variety of authentic Appalachian experiences and viewpoints.

Thanks for that clarification, Anthony. I think my mistake actually points to my next question. When a concept’s situated within a nexus of geography, culture, language, and identity the way Appalachia(n) is, definitions and categories are challenging. Yet, categorization can be useful, especially for outsiders who’re wondering what gives the idea coherence. What’s the constellation of features you’re looking for in a definition of Appalachia and/or Appalachian?

MM: At a recent reading, a member of the audience asked us what redeemable or positive characteristics of Appalachia can we suggest to counter the negative ones that Vance’s book applies to Appalachian people. There was a long pause among the panelists, which the audience member later told me he read as proof that we were somehow biased (I’m not sure how) and that we had no answers. I think our collective pause was about the fact that there are too many answers, not too few. Imagine asking a group of female panelists to say what is great about being female. There would be myriad and contradictory answers, and to be able to give a concrete answer is necessarily simplifying and generalizing. He asked us to do better, and so I’ll try to give an answer that satisfies his request but also gets at your more complex inquiry.

For me, being Appalachian was defined by a deep love of a specific place. Particular peaks and pastures and creeks feel like family to me, and connect me to generations that I never met. For me, a way of speaking was a part of my Appalachian experience. When I am around other people who use phrases or pronounce vowels in a particular way, I feel linked to a place and a people. And for me, gardening and canning and cooking fresh food was a part of my Appalachian experience. You see, though, that none of these are only Appalachian. Some of it is rural. Some of it is mountainous. Some of it is generational. I can’t speak for anyone else who is Appalachian, but I assume something shared when I’m around other people from the mountains. If only a common experience of being misunderstood and laughed at.

AH: Perhaps the simplest answer is someone or some place that is from and/or in Appalachia even if they are no longer living there. We stress in the book that there is not a singular Appalachian experience or identity except perhaps the need to push back against the limited ways the region and people have been framed in national media of all kinds. There are some characteristics that are common to many (although not all) Appalachians: the desire to preserve cultural traditions that have shaped them, closeness to kin and place, a strong awareness of the negative environmental impact of extractive industry, and a clear sense of the social costs of overdependence on a single industry. Yet these ideas and feelings, though in some cases felt more intensely, are not unique to the people of Appalachia. What is unique, though, is the awareness of feeling otherized and diminished because of where you live or how you talk and the need to define oneself against how others (based largely on second hand information) have misdefined you.

Sample size, context, and comparison have a lot to do with how anything’s defined, and who’s considered in-group and out-group can change depending on context. Several essays in this book explore Appalachian mobility and the ways Appalachians have thrived outside the region while maintaining a sense of Appalachian-ness. Do you see any utility in a taxonomy of Appalachian identity that would formalize, or at least give language to, these concentric rings of connection? Perhaps one already exists. Either road, I’m interested in how this is or might be negotiated.

MM: As someone who lives away now, I hope that there is a more flexible definition of Appalachia that still connects me. If I’m not Appalachian, I don’t know what I am.

Photographer Roger May talked recently about the importance of leaving home to see it fully, which echoed a conversation I had with Robert Morgan over twenty years ago. Both of these Appalachian-born men spent time away, and both are as Appalachian as you can get, spending their energy preserving the region in their various modes.

When I write in my piece about feeling connected to my Granny through the tomato I grew on my fire escape in Boston, I meant to show that I carried Appalachia with me. In Jim Minick’s piece in the collection, he writes about the ways that he wrestles with identities in different geographies, and he finds ways to carry Appalachia with him. Elizabeth Hadaway writes, “One thing about Appalachia is that you get used to leaving and being left.” That leaving might be physical, but I don’t think it’s emotional. At least as the writers in this book talk about it, Appalachian identity is not a thing you set down if you move away.

There’s a group called Expatalachians who send out a newsletter every week and are active on Twitter. I love this term, and I love what their work shows. Carrying Appalachia with them.

I don’t know that anyone needs to develop a taxonomy. I think that if someone claims Appalachia, there’s room for them.

AH: I’m really not sure—taxonomy is not my strong suit! I’d say that Appalachia through most of its history has always been shaped by the mobility of its people—that large in-migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the at least equally large outmigration in the mid to late 20th century have been central to the Appalachian experience, especially since that moving away for many included regular or periodic trips “home” (to a greater degree than most other American areas of out-migration have). The Appalachian diaspora therefore is very much connected to and part of the larger Appalachian story and have shaped the identity of those who have not left the region to almost as great an extent as it has those who did.

I’m sold and am immediately throwing out taxonomies in favor of your discursive answers, which seem like wonderful microcosms of Appalachian Reckoning‘s whole approach. One of the most repeated points your contributors make is to point out and reject the pernicious and persistent stereotype of Appalachians, many of which go back over a century and get recycled in media’s “discovery” of the region every couple of decades or so. What are some erasures that occur in Appalachia’s stereotypical depictions that you wanted to give voice to in Appalachian Reckoning?

MM: In a word, what is left out of depictions of Appalachia is complexity. Any stereotype of any group is simplistic, of course. And like any group, Appalachia sometimes fits the typing, but as often Appalachia is left out or flatly contradicts those types.

The idea of Appalachia as white is simply an uninformed idea. But when Frank X Walker looked up the word Appalachian, he found the word “white” right there in the definition. He coined the term Affrilachian to push back and complicate the assumptions of what Appalachian means in terms of race. When Appalachia is shown as conservative, where are they hiding the Trillbilly Worker’s Party or STAY or Y’ALL? How much more visible does Appalshop have to be to show that Appalachia is diverse, progressive, complex, and alive?

AH: Against the monochromatic vision of a place that is exclusively white, poor, socially backward, and defined by its past not its future, I’d stress the diversity of the Appalachian identity(ies)—in terms of race, gender and sexuality, politics, location, occupation. That not everyone is poor or faces social dysfunction, or works in a coal mine, or is mindlessly violent. That many who have left Appalachia, temporarily or permanently, continue to feel an intense kinship to the place and its people. That the region undoubtedly faces many economic and social problems, but that it’s also a place of intellectual vitality, cultural creativity, and resilience.

Appalachian Reckoning challenges and complicates ideas around Appalachia and what it means to be Appalachian. One of the most novel approaches—one that really stayed with me—was the choice to include visual art and poetry alongside more traditional essays, both scholarly and creative. Could you speak a little more about this choice and why it was important to you?

MM: My intention with this project was to collect as many voices as possible to create a chorus—maybe not to drown out JD Vance, but at least to join his solo and make the sound more dynamic. Some of the voices showed up as narrative essays. Others were poems. And some were images. It matters to gather different forms of expression because it’s not only the content that is diverse, it’s the format that takes different shapes, too.

Some of my favorite writing about Appalachia is poetic in form. The brilliant poet Jesse Graves loves Appalachia with a ferocity that is unmatched. His language, though, is quiet. Subtle. The ways that he describes work or a field is understated in the most Appalachian way imaginable. (The Appalachia I know leaves much unsaid and is nuanced with language.) A poem can do things that prose cannot, serving as a bridge from the longer narrative essays to the single image contributions in the piece. So poetry had to be a part of this—it’s an essential component of the Appalachian chorus.

Photography was essential to this collection because photography has been such a powerful tool to misrepresent the region. Appalachia has a mired history of documentarians arriving to capture a predictable image, and Appalachia has been misunderstood by the rest of the world because of the power of those images. I simply wanted to be sure to show images from Appalachia that shows that it is alive. That it doesn’t need an elegy.

Roger May’s amazing project, Looking at Appalachia—in its 5th year now—destroys the possibility that any one image could represent a place as broad and diverse at Appalachia. Roger worked with us to include images that are collected at Looking at Appalachia, and his thinking about the project was crucial. He guided us to resist being mean-spirited and to counter through evidence the things that Vance doesn’t show.

In some ways, [Appalachian Reckoning] is like taking a water sample. What shows up, when we merely take the time to collect it, is proof of the diversity, complexity, vitality, and hope that is in every square mile of this thirteen state region.

AH: Although it was not part of my original vision for this project, I am delighted that as Meredith and I merged our two projects into a larger more inclusive one, we decided to include photography and poetry throughout the two broader sections of the book. Our goal was always to stress the diversity of the region and its people and what it means to be Appalachian, and as we worked on blending our contributions, we came to realize that nothing could show this more clearly than offering as diverse a range of media windows as possible—scholarship, personal narrative, poetry, reflections on recipes and cooking, and even photography. Together, I think the different forms beautifully complement and complicate one another and in so doing offer a richer sense of the ways Appalachians see themselves than any single type of writing ever could.

I’m hoping you’ll have time for a quick lightning round: Can you throw out the names of some favorite Appalachian scholars, artists, writers, or other creators you think people should know about?

MM: David Joy (fiction), bell hooks (scholar, poet), Silas House (fiction), Jeremy B Jones (literary nonfiction), Dom Flemons (musician), Marie Cochran (Affrilachian visual artist), Doug Reichert Powell (scholar), Emily Satterwhite (scholar), Robert Gipe (fiction), Keith S. Wilson (poet), Elizabeth Catte (historian/scholar), Appalshop, Y’ALL, STAY, Bitter Southerner, Looking at Appalachia.

AH: Favorite scholars: David Whisnant, Dwight Billings, Altina Waller, Jerry Williamson, Chad Berry, Emily Satterwhite, and Doug Reichert Powell.

Favorite creators: all the poets and photographers in our book!, especially Roger May, the 1960s Kentucky photographs of William Gedney, the poetry and writings of Jim Wayne Miller and Silas House, Elizabeth Barret of Appalshop (and really all of Appalshop), and the 1920s string band The Hill Billies!

Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers

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