Sam Burnham, Curator
James Calemine’s latest dispatch at Snake Nation Press has me thinking about the ways the world, specifically The South, has changed just during my lifetime. Change is inevitable, no doubt, and it is even beneficial at least some of the time. Some change really is progress. Some progress really is improvement.
But the amazing photo of the Goat Man, a man out of time in his own era is an even more bizarre vision today. The man who is still a subject of stories and legends some 20 years after his death would likely have no place in our modern time.
He was a native of Iowa who was once married to a Spanish knife thrower 10 years his senior. He left her and their sideshow act after the Depression broke them. An injury back in Iowa led to a religious conversion that, understandably, led him to Georgia.
He’d leave out in that ramshackle wagon, pulled by his trusty team of goats and travel all over. He didn’t just wander Georgia. His stories are told in other states and he himself claimed he had visited all of the lower 48 states. He rarely bathed, he lived off goat milk and whatever else he came across. He wore goat skins and preached fiery messages of repentance in the makeshift revival services in every town he stopped in. He left his wooden plank signs, painted with repentance messages, nailed to trees and fence posts in his wake as he wandered. He was somewhere between a picture and a caricature of John the Baptist.
In the long run, he was a character in a large story that is Southern Culture. He was one of many unique and odd folks who inspired a thousand characters in books and stories by people like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and others. People like the Goat Man made the Southern Gothic literary genre possible.
But today our roads are far too busy for a smelly old man on a goat wagon. Our towns are far too refined for his unkempt campsite. Our discourse is far too tolerant to tolerate his fiery sermons. We don’t have the time, the patience, or the curiosity to be bothered by him or his kind.
But he’s not alone. Burwell Stark summed it up well on Twitter: “The South is no longer home to characters like those one would find in an O'Connor short story or Faulkner novel. This is not to our credit.”
While there admittedly are still some wild characters to be found here and there, we’ve lost both the volume of them and the fascination we have for them. A man traveling the road in a goat wagon it a traffic hazard, a nuisance, he’s holding up progress, he’s not living in 2019.
Do we ever ask ourselves if we’re making 2019 the kind of place we wish to inhabit?
This is why we lack modern folk heroes. The Legendary Georgia Goat Man is one of thousands of characters we no longer have. He’s one of thousands we don’t currently deserve.
Sam Burnham, Curator
This is the second part of a two part segment on J.D. Vance's bestseller "Hillbilly Elegy." The first part was a review of the book. This part will explore the subject of the book - the plight of rural people and the white working class.
I mentioned in the book review that I both loved and hated this book. My feelings about the book are coequal partners. They support each other, rely on each other. It is a really weird feeling. I think it is because there are stories in his narrative that I could edit a few names and places and easily see the exact same stories in family members, neighbors, friends, and locations that I grew up around. My personal story was far more happy and "normal" than his and I don't want to appear to be riding his coattails here. My parents have been married since 1973, didn't abuse drugs or us, nothing like that, so my story is personally different. But I've seen enough in this world that I understand exactly what he’s saying.
Vance's story is attached to the Appalachian people of Kentucky who were lured to rust belt towns by promising careers in metal factories in Ohio. Mine is much more attached to the Crackers of (mostly) Georgia and (also) Florida where the major industry was textiles or other agriculture dependent industries. This is an excellent opportunity to mention that rural culture is not monolithic and while many similarities exist in the different regions, there are also regional differences. It is also true that people are individuals and a member of a culture may not reflect the traits common to that culture.
One of the most important similarities, that I think got somewhat lost in Vance's story, or at least his critics’ perception of it, is that the rural cultures exist today because people set out to be self-sufficient.
People in West Virginia and Kentucky had pushed west from the coastal states in search of land, opportunity, and anonymity. Theirs are the stories of the moonshiners, the bootleggers, the rough cut highlanders who gave us the Hatfields and McCoys.
Further south, the Crackers settled the former lands ot the Cherokee, the Creek, and the Seminole. They corralled the wild cattle - offspring of the bovines left behind by Spaniards in previous centuries. They catfaced the pines to turn tar into turpentine. They grew gardens and raised livestock.
Both groups lived by their own hands. They ate because they farmed, fished, and hunted. The lived in vernacular homes they built from materials they harvested and hewn. They clothed themselves in homespun garments. Anything they may have purchased from a store were typically luxuries purchased with money gained by selling their own handiwork or harvest. The ideas of success and The ‘American Dream’ were to have their own land, their freedom from the watchful eye of government and society, to have enough to support themselves and their families, and to pass that down to the next generation.
Then came the modern age.
One of the main reasons I argue that the Civil War was about far more than slavery is that it pitted one distinct industrial economy against one distinct agricultural economy. The outcome of the war was not a hybrid of these two economies fused into one. It was the supremacy of the industrial and the conquering of the agricultural. As society shifted in this new reality, the way of life that had been built by the rural people, especially those who lived small existences without slaves, changed forever. Progress brought new expenses, new taxes, new strains on finances. People who had lived for generations on little, if any, money found themselves now dependent on it. Money meant jobs, and jobs meant factories, quarries, or mines. True self-sufficiency became obsolete, even impossible. So in every region of the country, cultures who had prided themselves on independence now found themselves at the mercy of the captains of industry - rich people they'd never meet who lived in cities they'd never visit.
And so the rural towns, the center of business and culture in these rural areas, began to shrink. Vance gave the example of Jackson, Kentucky bleeding off residents to places like Middletown, Ohio. On this blog I've showed examples of places like Parrott, DeSoto, Rebecca, and so many others that have bled off their residents to Columbus, Atlanta, Savannah, or perhaps even further away. This has left the remaining residents running low on opportunity and even lower on hope. Such despair has a way of leading to the problems Vance detailed - drug use, abuse, and reliance on government support. Vance’s critics suggest he is unfairly labeling hillbillies as “lazy.” But that seems an oversimplification of what he is saying. It is often easier on the egos of people to deride a nameless, faceless villain for sitting on the dole while collecting from the government themselves. So "the blacks" or "Mexicans" become the obvious targets. They, at least in their own minds, create a level or two of social status beneath their own. "I might not have the best life but at least I'm better than those people." Minimal research reveals that whites make up the majority of welfare recipients. But these are proud people, the descendants of independent people. They have a despondency that comes from grasping at that independent life of old, but there’s nothing left to hold onto.
Industrialization was an economic boon for many hillbillies who migrated to new homes. Mills built villages for their workers. Employees had well built homes, medical care, churches, schools, community centers, stores, entire communities popped up around industrial sites. Companies even sponsored baseball teams that traveled and competed against other mills. But there are many examples where a large company, the only major employer in town, gained too much political and social power in the town and workers were left at the mercy of the "company store" or the "company man." As companies became more focused on profits, the benefits began to dwindle and the people had less and less to show for the economic progress of industrialization.
Then it became more profitable to manufacture in other countries. Mills began to close. Slowly these towns slipped away from the prosperity of the past. Villages began to deteriorate. Slowly but steadily, the conditions that Vance cites from Middletown spread through mill towns all over the country. Without the plant, workers had no more opportunity than they had back in their hillbilly or cracker homeland. People were no better off than they were back home.
That's where we find ourselves today.
It is worth pointing out that at the end of the book, Vance is meeting with teachers trying to refocus on getting students ready for blue collar jobs. While I see why some people think he is critical of blue collar workers, if you finish the book you see he isn't. And I'm not. I've been amazed at the industriousness of working class people I know. I know men and women who can be welders, carpenters, mechanics, and farmers - all in the same afternoon. Sometimes one of those tasks overlaps another. And they aren't barbarians. I know many that are talented musicians or use their industrial skills to create works of art. There is more to the white working class than hydrocodone, methamphetamine, and squalor.It is also true that people are individuals and are not always held to the generalizations pertinent to their culture.
A solution to this problem will not come easy as there is much to be done. Somehow, we have to educate boys. Vance mentions the disconnect between boys and education and he is absolutely right. The idea that reading and good grades are "girl stuff" combined with an educational system that is more beneficial to girls simply by the way it is designed make educating young boys, especially hillbillies and crackers, a difficult task.
There will have to be restored economies. Small towns will need to be revived. We've discussed that a lot on the blog. But the mindset that a job means working for a big corporation has to be broken. And that means we need to fight for economic reforms that make small businesses and self-employment gradually more realistic. Gradual, this can't be done overnight. The harder task will be convincing the people of these dead communities that they have a reason to hope, that they can get ahead in life, that success is a possibility, that families do matter. I really believe that the only way to fix this problem is to reintroduce independence to these people groups. It's a multifaceted solution with too many facets that are yet to be discovered.
So we're left with more questions than answers. It is important that the people who love these cultures and want them to have a future have to work to find solutions. That’s part of why ABG is here. So we’re headed to work on it now.
Sam Burnham, Curator
This will be a two part segment. Part one will be a review of the book itself. The second segment is commentary on the subject matter. J.D. Vance has gotten some criticism for this book. That topic, as well as some of the content of the book itself will be covered in an upcoming post.
This is another one where I'm a bit late to the show. 2016 saw the release of J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. I've seen both acclaim and disgust in reaction to this book. I finally picked it up myself earlier this month and have just finished it. The subtitle to the book is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That is a fitting descriptor for the book. Vance sets out to tell the story of an entire culture - Hillbillies - through the story of his family and their hometowns.
His is a rags to riches story. A young man born into a poor hillbilly family that had migrated from rural Kentucky to a small industrial town in Ohio. Growing up he lived the life of the ailing white working class, a life that exposed him to drugs, violence, hopelessness, and fear. But he also was the benefactor of some close family ties, loyalty that bordered on insanity, and a lot of other good things that you can see he occasionally feels the sting of nostalgia over. It's a love/hate relationship that he seems to have with his past.
That seems to be where he gets criticized the most. But I'll cover that in the second installment.
Vance is a gifted writer and obviously a brilliant man. He has penned a work that is criticized at times as elitist but that is written in a voice that is easily read. He uses language of the common people and goes out of his way to explain any concepts that might be foreign to those not familiar with them. He presents statistics and studies in a tone that seemed, from my vantage point, sympathetic to the subjects involved.
The "characters" in the story (real people with real problems in a real narrative) keep you engaged. There are heroes and villains, friends and foes - sometimes these lines blur. That just reality. Read this book as a human being. Bring your sympathy and your empathy and an open mind. Vance presents troubled people in a way that is often troubling. But that is the plight of the people of the hillbilly culture. He presents some very real problems - most of which have no obvious solution.
His own personal story carries him to the Marine Corps, land wars in Asia, The Ohio State University, and then Yale University Law School. This road carries him and, for much of the end of the book, the story out of Jackson and Middletown, out of hillbilly culture, away from his family, away from those places he grew up in, away to a new life. But he also talks about how his w=early experiences followed him to his new life and how he has had to struggle to find a continued escape from chaos.
I rated this one as five stars at Goodreads. I'll say here and now that I loved this book and hated it equally. One reason I want to do a second post for commentary is to buy me a bit more time to digest what I read. This is not a happy ending for everyone. In fact, it's a bit scary. It touches on the state of our present politics and the future of the white working class. It is blunt, straightforward and honest. There are some parallels between the hillbillies of Kentucky and the crackers from further to the south, into Georgia and Florida. A lot of the issues raised hit at the heart of why ABG lives to begin with. Mostly my simultaneous love and hate seem, to me, to mirror Vance's own feelings on his hillbilly upbringing. I've seen this duality before. I've seen the cohabitation of nostalgia and post-traumatic stress. I think I understand where Vance is coming from.
If you have not yet read Hillbilly Elegy, I'd highly recommend it. It is a beautifully written emotional roller coaster ride.
And please check back for the commentary.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire