The Mythic Whiteness of the Hillbilly
J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis three weeks shy of the 2016 Republican National Convention, just as presumptive candidate Donald Trump was barreling toward the nomination. The memoir chronicles the author’s rise from “hillbilly” poverty and dysfunction in rural Kentucky and Rust Belt Ohio, through a tour in Iraq as a Marine, and then to a GI-funded degree from Yale Law School. As Hillbilly Elegy shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, Vance, who considers himself a recovering hillbilly, became an overnight media sensation as the de facto explainer of poor white Americans everywhere. He was here to tell coastal elites why the rural white poor thrilled to the sound of Trump’s pro-manufacturing, pro-America, anti-immigrant rants.
Since 2016, the iconography of the hillbilly, from scraggly beards to Confederate flags, has been folded into the symbolism of the revanchist militias that Trump has clearly come to think of as his good ol’ boys.
But 2020 America is, in certain senses, a quite different country than 2016 America, and one way to track the difference is to consider the shifting meaning of the idea of the hillbilly. During the four years of Trump’s presidency, the hillbilly—at least, its pop culture simulacrum, an identity that centers proud, fighting, poor white masculinity as the ur-expression of Americanness—has come in for a startling recuperation. Its iconography, from scraggly beards to Confederate flags, has been folded into the symbolism of the revanchist would-be militias that Trump has clearly come to think of as his good ol’ boys.
Against this backdrop of hillbilly fandom among certain segments of the far right, Ron Howard’s new Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (streaming November 24)—with its sentimental, feel-good portrayal of Vance as the Hillbilly Who Made Good—strikes a particularly dissonant note.
I know hillbilly. I was raised in rural western Pennsylvania, in a county well within the sweep of what demographers call Greater Appalachia. Growing up, the first day of hunting season was a school holiday, Perkins was a fancy restaurant, and the demolition derby at the county fair was the highlight of every summer. My home county voted 68 percent for Trump on November 3, a tick up from the 67 percent he received in 2016. And though I moved away thirty years ago, I continue to follow the evolution of my hometown’s political climate—increasingly, like so many uprooted Americans, via social media contact with family and old acquaintances. This often-melancholy pursuit has given me anecdotal insight into just how central the hillbilly identity (as myth, not geographical reality) is to U.S. politics.
One Facebook feed, of the friend of a childhood friend, in particular often catches my attention. Not long again he shared scanned photos from the 1970s or ’80s showing him and his father during hunting season. Wearing camouflage, father and son wrangle the bloody antlers of a freshly killed deer to hold the beast upright for the photo op. The grainy Kodak film and washed-out reds and yellows cast a nostalgic hue. Often he posts selfies, some variation on himself sporting reflective sunglasses, a Civil War–era beard, draped in Confederate flag merch: rebel sweatshirt, rebel pins, rebel hat. Second Amendment and Stand Your Ground memes abound. A particular memorable one was a close-up photo of the barrel of a gun with the inscription “WRONG HOUSE.”
Mixed in with this standard fare, however, is something rather surprising: painting after painting of backwoodsmen, all done in misty watercolors or pastel oils. The raccoon-hatted Davy Crockett types populating these images—uniformly gun-toting, outfitted in fur coats and boots, long-haired and grizzled—all embody a kind of funhouse nineteenth-century masculinity reimagined for our Trumpian moment by would-be Thomas Kinkades. They stand in craggy mountain passes or squat next to campfires, squinting fiercely into maudlin orange and lavender sunsets. They are emblems of bloody white-man survivalism crosscut with stills from a Hallmark Channel movie.
Nostalgia can be sweet, and it can be violent. The same reverence for a mythical proud, patriotic, freedom-loving, and implicitly white heritage that motivates Vance’s hill folk in (to hear him tell it) so benign a fashion has also fueled, for well over a century and a half, what historian Amy B. Cooter calls U.S. “nostalgic groups,” by which she means everything from the KKK to the militia that planned to abduct Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. It is the sweetness of this pastoral origin myth—the dream of a simpler, whiter time—that has allowed the hillbilly to function as such a seductive cultural icon in U.S. political life. More than ever, it is important to ask: What does it mean to be a hillbilly? And why does Vance’s memoir strike such a sensitive national nerve?
The same reverence for a mythical proud, patriotic, and implicitly white heritage that motivates Vance’s hill folk in (to hear him tell it) so benign a fashion has also fueled everything from the KKK to the militia that planned to abduct Michigan’s governor.
In historian Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (1993), she explores how the southern “mountain white” as a pseudo-demographic category first arose in the 1880s as the U.S. Industrial Revolution surged. In the aftermath of the Civil War, railroads opened southern mountainous regions to northern capital for the first time. In symbolic and literal opposition to Reconstruction’s efforts to establish Blacks as equals, this pocket of mythical whiteness took on outsize cultural significance. William Goodell Frost, president of Berea College in Kentucky, remarked that the Appalachian mountaineers constituted “the unspoiled and vigorous reserve forces” of the nation, key to offsetting the “undesirable foreign element” flooding in from southern and eastern Europe. “The mountaineer is to be regarded as a survival,” Frost noted. “In his speech you will soon detect the flavor of Chaucer . . . [and] his very homicides are an honest survival of Saxon temper.”
Carnal, cantankerous, freedom-loving, and proud, it was above all the hillbilly’s status as a white “other” that constituted his hypnotic appeal at the turn of the twentieth century. Appalachian people were largely the descendants of the Scots-Irish who, as historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has documented, shored up their claim to whiteness by serving as the shock troops of the young United States’ genocidal wars against Native Americans. Having done the work of empire during a previous generation, they would yet again be conscripted to the project of white power—this time, in Frost’s articulation, as the bridge on which northern Yankee and southern Rebel might finally meet. The fiction of southern white manhood as genteel, premodern, and gracious-yet-proud in defeat could be fused with Frost’s romantic gun-toting Chaucer to bring the country together in pursuit of a renewed—and now global—military destiny. By the time Theodore Roosevelt rode up Puerto Rico’s San Juan Hill in 1898 in the name of the white man’s burden, the grounding image of a common white American (Southern-Western-Appalachian) heritage as the beating heart of the nation had become a pop culture commonplace, as well as fodder for many a stump speech.
In spite of now more than a century of use as a potent symbol in U.S. political culture—or perhaps precisely because of that—the symbolic significance of the hillbilly remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the hillbilly is loyal, proud, plain-spoken, patriotic, dogged, and family-centered—the panacea to all that ails modernity and cosmopolitanism. On the other hand, he is also feuding, cussing, trigger-happy, lazy, and self-indulgent. What gives him picturesque “local color” and charm always risks tipping over into degeneracy: a stubborn, primitive refusal to embrace the onward march of civilization. The hillbilly can veer in a heartbeat from the yokel hijinks of The Beverly Hillbillies to the savage imbecility of Deliverance.
This same symbolic lability helps to explain, as well, the hillbilly’s perennial political appeal. In discussions of social policy and in journalism, hillbillies can stand as both self-destructive problem people and lovable, salt-of-the-Earth Americans whom the country has failed. By invoking the idea of the hillbilly, the tension between these two conditions never has to be resolved, but simply observed. As Elizabeth Catte notes in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (2018), northern paternalist interest in documenting the existence of poor whites is longstanding. Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson made Appalachia a priority in their “poverty tours” across the country, drawing national media attention to white poverty at the height of the civil rights movement, and thus, in Catte’s words, “unburden[ed] the white viewer from the fatigue of thinking critically about race.” During Trump’s vertiginous rise in Obama’s ostensibly post-racial America, Vance’s memoir arguably served a similar role: tacitly excusing Trump’s most egregious racist dog whistles, Vance reassured readers that his hillbillies’ animus had nothing to do with race.
In discussions of social policy, hillbillies can stand as both self-destructive problem people and lovable, salt-of-the-Earth Americans whom the country has failed. By invoking the idea of the hillbilly, this tension never has to be resolved.
Vance’s memoir, and Howard’s new film adaptation of it, both continue the tradition of northern voyeuristic fascination with the lives of poor rural whites—this time updated with opioid addiction and chronic unemployment. Both revive venerable tropes of white “mountain” poverty and orneriness blended with heart-tugging dignity, bundling them into a bland story of the triumph of the human spirit without ever challenging how this nostalgic impulse sidelines meaningful reckoning with whiteness and its iconography.
From his earliest days playing Opie on the Andy Griffith Show through much of his career as a director and producer, Howard has made his coin providing a certain kind of white wistfulness to his viewers, and Hillbilly Elegy’s deep reserves of love for Americans who fail and then pick themselves up again certainly falls in line with this. The arc of the film is more or less laid out in miniature as the opening credits roll. The camera pans over stock images of “Appalachians” in their natural habitat: falling-down barns, ramshackle houses. Dirt-smudged men with dogs sit in folding chairs on lawns littered with defunct farm equipment and tires and the ruined hulks of cars. These shots are intercut with close-up images of pristine nature: a clear blue sky, a spider web shining with dew, a pulsing bullfrog resting in the shade of a green creek. The very nature that threatens to swallow civilization whole—hillbilly houses half-consumed by vines and shrubs and trees, as though all man’s handiwork might disappear in one voracious gulp—is also (we sense) what gives these primitives their power. They are closer to the Earth, to the primordial beating heart of being human. They have a gut loyalty to land and kin that no urban sophisticate will ever understand.
Hillbilly Elegy is a very bad film, and this despite some fine acting from Amy Adams as Bev, J.D.’s loving but opioid-addicted mother, and from Glenn Close as J.D.’s foul-mouthed, hard-as-nails Mamaw. Adams’s and Close’s talent is no match, though, for the morality play of a script, where characters serve as two-dimensional screens onto which Howard projects the eternal American drama of Good versus Bad Hillbilly. Bev is loving but self-destructive; Mamaw is principled in theory but weak in practice. Both women are violent: Bev physically and verbally abuses her children; Mamaw once set Papaw on fire as he lay passed out on the sofa.
J.D. (played by Gabriel Basso as an adult and Owen Asztalos as a child) is predictably posed as the Hegelian third term that will take these warring contraries and sublimate them into something higher, better, more respectably American and middle class. Howard stages three scenes in which J.D. wrestles with his inner bad hillbilly, each time inching a bit closer to victory.
The first time his temper gets the better of him, he is a confused teen. Feeling abandoned by his addict mother, J.D. falls in with the druggie crowd himself. When one friend proposes they go trash the office of an employer who recently fired him, J.D. offers up Mamaw’s burgundy Buick, and the pot-addled teens race off to wreak havoc.
In the second scene of inner spiritual warfare, J.D., now a successful Yale Law School student, is called back home to Ohio when Bev lands in the hospital after overdosing. J.D. is tasked with finding her a spot in rehab. When Bev’s boyfriend calls her a “junkie whore” (to which she predictably replies: “You’re a hillbilly loser! You ain’t even got any teeth!”), J.D.’s family honor is sullied. “Don’t you call my mom a whore you son of a bitch! I’m gonna fucking kill you!” he roars before attempting to smash down the boyfriend’s door. He is drawn back from the brink of hillbilly madness only when a mother with a toddler in her arms (cue Civilization) steps up and pleads with him to stop. To highlight both his background and his evolution, this scene is crosscut with slow-motion shots of teen-J.D. taking a tire iron to an office copy machine, face twisted in a rapture of self-destructive violence, as police sirens wail in the background.
Hillbilly Elegy is a Bildungsroman about becoming middle-class white that never asks why that gold standard is problematic.
In the final scene of this triptych, we know J.D. has finally made it out of the hillbilly woods when, back at Yale, he gets redneck-baited at a law school cocktail party, yet manages to keep his cool. J.D.’s hackles rise when a smarmy East Coast type comments how hard it must be to deal with all the rednecks back home. J.D. replies that his mother is the smartest woman he’s ever met—in fact, probably smarter than anyone in their goddamned, Ivy-coddled, Vivaldi-playing cohort. This heated reply silences his tablemates, and J.D. assumes he has lost any chance at a summer internship. In fact, the opposite is the case. A silver-tongued classmate who jokes genially about not wanting “any progeny besides billable hours” is passed over; J.D.’s plain-spoken hillbilly righteousness and loyalty to kin gets him the job. Assimilation is complete. J.D. has taken his inner Bad Hillbilly and transmogrified him into that pure yet still virile, pro-family, fighting American so lacking in the effete halls of the Ivy League.
The Pygmalion tale is, of course, among the oldest and best loved of stories. From Cinderella to My Fair Lady to Pretty Woman, Americans in particular love a story in which the hopelessly vulgar or fallen protagonist with a heart of gold finally gets their due, and all the nasty, grinch-hearted elites are taken down a notch. The problem with Hillbilly Elegy’s version of the Pygmalion story is that it never reckons with the fact that J.D.’s whiteness—bought and paid for, in part, by Scots-Irish ancestors through bloody colonial warfare—is not just incidental but integral to his triumph. Hillbilly Elegy is a Bildungsroman about becoming middle-class white that never asks why that gold standard is problematic.
White nostalgia is a hell of a drug. In order to break our national addiction, we need to learn to recognize it: not just in the tiki-torch suffused snarl of a white supremacist, but in its blander, more Netflix-savvy guises, as well.
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