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Campus Book Discussion (2018): Hillbilly Elegy

The Scots-Irish in America

In the introduction to Hillbilly Elegy, Vance explains who he is by describing the culture to which he belongs. He describes the town in which he grew up, the grandparents who raised him, his Scots-Irish ancestry, along with their beliefs and values.  Pointing to factors such as social isolation, ineffective churches that provide little support for the poor, lack of jobs, and low self-esteem, he gives reasons for the increasing pessimism felt among working-class whites. Ultimately, he argues that despite any of these factors, each individual is responsible for his or her own success or lack thereof. At the heart of his description lies the question about the American Dream and its accessibility to all Americans.

In the intro, he states his theme:  “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.  I want people to understand the American Dream as my family encountered it.  I want people to understand how upward mobility feels.  And I want people to understand something I learned recently:  that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us” (2).

The Scots Irish
An extensive encyclopedia entry about the historical and cultural roots of the Ulster Scotch, or Scotch Irish.

Appalachia in Sound and Image

History of the Appalachian People Part III
Part III focuses on how music and religion shaped Appalachian culture and the people’s continuous struggle to survive hard times. The advent of the radio connected mountain people to the outside world and led to the creation of the Grand Ole Opry. WWII took many young people out of the mountains, sending them to war or work in war industries. This meant work for those who stayed. After the war, trains changed from coal to diesel fuel, which led to a drastic decrease in jobs for coal miners. The result was a mass exodus of people leaving the mountains for work in nearby cities. Many would travel back and forth from their new homes back to the mountains to stay connected to their cultural roots. Some had difficulty assimilating into modern American culture. Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty brought attention to the Appalachian region. The media’s depiction of these people as those Americans should pity led to resentment by some of the mountaineers. When the National Core of Engineers saw the potential for tourist attractions in some of the land and streams, some farmers lost generations of land they had worked on. Mountains are now at risk in Appalachia because the tops are being blown off to get at the coal. The destruction of the landscape all in the name of progress is an infringement on the people’s culture, since their very identity is tied to the land. Revitalization of the land has led to tourism, which means more money and jobs. On the other hand, there is a portion of the population that is still suffering.

Food for Thought

If the American Dream is built on luck, to what extent is it available to all?

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