A Letter to J.D. Vance

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Photo: Nick Mullins – Matewan, West Virignia

Dear Mr. Vance,

I read your book Hillbilly Elegy last year. Actually, my family and I listened to it as a free trial on Audible while traveling back and forth to visit my grandfather in the hospital. He was a career coal miner by the way.

Several friends and colleagues had advised me not to waste my time and money, but after being queried by multiple journalists (and a few audience members at lectures), I could no longer avoid it.

Everything I had read or heard about your book from fellow Appalachians was correct. Ivy Brashear’s article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia” hit the nail on the head, as did R. Mike Burr’s “The Self-Serving Hustle of ‘Hillbilly Elegy'”. In light of their articles, I did not feel it necessary to restate what these true Appalachian’s have already stated: you sir, had no authority whatsoever to speak on behalf of Appalachian people as if you are one of our own.

Still, the subject comes up and people continue to ask my opinion of your infernal book. So I’ve chosen this method of addressing it.

I’ll start by saying that Hillbilly Elegy is the first audiobook I’ve listened to. Though many people see the format as the lazy person’s method of reading, I’m glad I chose it for your book. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known that you pronounce Appalachia as “Appalashia.” Strike one Mr. Vance. No honest-to-God self-respecting Appalachian “Hillbilly” pronounces their ancestral home “Appalashia.” That is the term for northern Appalachia or the term people use who do not come from the coalfields you profess to have such close ties to. The only other people who prounounce it as such are those who have gotten so far above their raising they have disconnected themselves from what it is to be true mountain people.

Your lack of Appalachian credentials also became painfully obvious as you spent time embellishing the caricatures of your extended family in eastern Kentucky (and a few others you encountered on various trips to Jackson). A true Appalachian has felt the ridicule from these stereotypes. We notice when people talk to us more slowly because of our accent. We know that they are hearing Dueling Banjos in the back of their minds and recalling images from the movie Deliverance. A true Appalachian struggles with speaking about our own in ways that reinforces such stereotypes. Instead, many Appalachians work to contextualize our situation.

What you have done is exactly what so many other journalists from outside the region have done. You make meager attempts to lift up a few positive cultural traits with words such as “loyal” and “family oriented” in order to counter the stereotypes you then reinforce as a way to generate readership. You generated more “grist for the media mill” as Ron Eller so succinctly put it 30 years ago. Did you read his book, Miner’s, Millhands, and Mountaineers?

Yes, it is true that Appalachia has many of the people you described. There are people who lack work ethic, people who have strained morals and values. There are people who do drugs, who lie, cheat and steal. But these are issues not specific to our region. These are issues of poverty that occur within similar systemic power structures that abuse and exploit entire communities. When people are given little opportunity in the way of meaningful employment or educational attainment, what are we to expect? Why did you fail to include this perspective in your book?

Had you any actual merit as an Appalachian Hillbilly, your book would have been chocked full of the external issues creating our intense poverty. Why didn’t you mention the inequality in land and mineral ownership? In other words, that the majority of land in Appalachia is held by absentee landowners (many of whom are corporate) who pay very little in property taxes. Why didn’t you then explain how this lack of revenue impacts the public education system, thereby creating a lack of social mobility going back four generations?

No, you believe that since you could succeed, anyone can. Let’s not forget, you didn’t have to attend a school in the coalfields. As one Air Force recruiter told my brother, “If the Air Force was looking to recruit a potential pilot, and it’s up between a valedictorian from Clintwood High School and a valedictorian from Dobyns-Bennet [Kingsport, TN], the kid from Dobyns-Bennet would get it hands down. They had more and better classes and teachers. That’s just the way it is.”

Your book was purely topical and only served to enhance your wealth, provide you false acclaim as an Appalachian spokesperson (to a nation of people who already think they know what’s wrong with Appalachia), and let’s not forget—work to advance a budding political career.

For the rest of us, your book has just been another roadblock in bringing justice to the people of our region.

Sincerely,

Nick Mullins

7 thoughts on “A Letter to J.D. Vance

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  1. Vance, like many conservatives, succeeds, and instead of realizing his good fortune looks down on those who failed. Instead of trying to help those he left behind he decides that they are unworthy of support. He fails to see how the structure of poverty in the coalfields keeps all but the fortunate few down.

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  2. Thank you, Nick Mullins, for laying out the architecture of my own unease at Hillbilly Elegy. Appalashia, indeed! (I read the book, so only now do I harrumph.) Thanks as well for the terrific rejoinder to President Trump in today’s New York Times. Before seeing it, I had just watched his performance in West Virginia, and was exasperated One More Time at his ignorant “bringing coal back” and “clean coal” remarks. I grew up in Wise County, VA in the 60s, and vividly remember the flatbed trucks of weary, coal-and-sweat-streaked miners coming into town at the ends of long days underground; the coke ovens which at night seemed a pure vision of Hell; my friends’ grandfathers, fathers, and – later – their brothers, suffering from black lung and dying in their 40s and 50s; and my mother’s nightly ritual of wiping out our nostrils, producing perfect black rings on her white washrags. I’m so glad to have discovered your terrific work — better late than never! btw, it’s “Dobyns-Bennett.”

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  3. So many things are wrong in Vance’s book. I wondered about the narration and how he pronounced Appalachia. I’ve spent most of my adult life in California, northern, the one with trees, although less lately with our awful fires and so I’ve shared the correct way to say it and told of the many good people, places and things of my West Virginia home.One thing that I really resented was his getting a great law school education and becoming a financial person immediately. Didn’t he think that he should have put that degree to good use helping or defending some less lucky people he passed on his way to the top. Yes, I found it a superficial soap opera of poverty instead of anything close to describing the complex and often tragic treatment of mountain people.

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  4. Vance is a Republican. He could not be one if he had any insight into the problems of his family or the people he attempts to characterize. That pretty much says it all. He supports the oppressive policies that are largely responsible for the failure to thrive in Appalachia.

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  5. I read Hillbilly Elegy & did not agree with some of Mr. Vance’s characterizing of people from Appalachia. You can find poverty & drug problems everywhere and people who do not want to work or take advantage of opportunities. But, I have also seen first hand that you can change your life through hard work.
    I grew up in East Tennessee & met my husband at ETSU. He grew up in Welch,WV. He was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather worked in the coal mines to support them. My husband also worked summers in the mines to pay for college. After college, he joined the Air Force & graduated from pilot training. He flew fighters for 11 years before going to Medical School through the military. He became one of a few Pilot-Physicians in the Air Force, but is now retired from the military.
    I also want to address Mr. Mullin’s statement about the Air Force recruiter. My husband would have told your brother to go talk to another recruiter. A recruiter should have never made such a broad statement about who is chosen for flight school. Your brother should have applied to pilot training. It would not matter where he went to high school if he was qualified. My husband said he had some excellent teachers at Welch High School who encouraged him & others to change their lives.
    So, I do agree with Mr. Vance that you can change your life & situation, but it takes a lot of support & hard work.

    Sincerely,
    Bonnie Dillon

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    1. Hello Bonnie,
      I agree that there are times people rise through the ranks of poverty and abusive childhoods to succeed. This is a rarity however. As with your husband, he was guided by teachers who encouraged him. For every one student who is encouraged by a teacher, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of students who are discouraged either directly or passively through teachers who have no business teaching. When I was 26, I had a former elementary school teacher come up to me in tears. She began apologizing profusely, telling me, “We didn’t encourage you Nick. You could have gone to college. You had the potential and we didn’t help you.” I found out later that many of the retired teachers in the area had begun feeling guilty for having separated out the “kid’s who could” from the “future coal miners.”

      Even still, when I went to high school, I had every aspiration of going to college. Those dreams were battered by the derision I received from the more affluent students who made up the majority of advanced diploma courses. Unfortunately, they were being backed by faculty. When I took Pre-Algebra, the teacher went at the pace of the fastest learning students and I fell behind for the first time in my school career. I went from honor roll to Cs and Ds. I took an applied form of Algebra over two years and then geometry which I barely got through. In my senior year the Algebra II teacher had never taught the course and didn’t work the problems out on the board for the class, instead just opting to assign reading and book assignments. To keep from damaging the GPAs of the entire class (some of which were the brightest students in their respective year) she gave an intense bell curve. But by that point, the damage had been done. I had given up. I honestly felt that I was too stupid to “do math” and therefore go to college–even if my family did win the lottery.

      When I went to college fifteen years later, I had to ask the professors more than once if we were really doing Algebra and not some dumbed down version of it. They were amazing teachers and worked with the students. They loved their jobs. I blazed through two semesters, testing out of the courses early before getting an A+ in College Algebra the first semester of my sophomore year. I could have been a math major but chose a different calling.

      My experiences are shared with many other students. Unfortunately, this is the norm. If it weren’t, then we wouldn’t have the issues of social mobility that we do in Appalachia and Appalachia would not fall so far behind the national average in college completion rates. https://www.arc.gov/research/MapsofAppalachia.asp?MAP_ID=140

      The problem with “rising star” stories such as your husband’s and Mr. Vances, or the “rags to riches” stories such as that portrayed in movies like “The Pursuit of Happiness” is that they imply that success is only being denied to people are not trying hard enough. In other words, it places blame for the issues of poverty and lack of social mobility on individuals rather than systems within our democracy that perpetuate classism and racism. It is Social Darwinism at its best.

      Nick

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  6. I’ve read many of your blog posts over the last year or so and often find myself both learning something new and saying “Yeah, you right” (Louisiana lingo) to the common sense and goodness you so eloquently impart. You write well; make strong arguments; have a storyteller’s voice; and bring a deep and intimate understanding of your subject. Why don’t you write your own book?

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