The New Hillbilly Elegy: Barbara Kingsolver Explains it All to You


Barbara Kingsolver is out with a new book, Demon Copperhead. I’ve just begun reading it. The book and awards it has received have given Kingsolver a platform to speak out about the invisible people of rural America.

In the British paper, The Guardian, Kingsolver says that people in rural America, where she was raised and lives today, “are so mad they want to blow everything up.” As she received the Women’s Prize for Fiction in London, she was interviewed about her book, but also her people.

“I understand why rural people are so mad . . .” she says. “That contempt of urban culture for half the country. I feel like I’m an ambassador between these worlds, trying to explain that if you want to have a conversation you don’t start it with the words, ‘You idiot.’”

Within the broad culture of rural America, Kingsolver identifies with the culture and territory known as “Appalachia.” Appalachia runs from northern Georgia up into Pennsylvania. Kingsolver grew up in Kentucky and lives now in southwestern Virginia.

She explains that one of the reasons she is only now writing of Appalachia and its people is that she had “internalized the shame” cast upon the region’s people by sophisticated urban America. When she, an exception among her high school classmates, went to college in Indiana she learned something she had never known before: she was a “hillbilly.” Classmates would ask her to talk just so they could make fun of how she spoke.

Ezra Klein did a more extensive interview with Kingsolver in his podcast at the New York Times. Here are several points that Kingsolver made struck me.

She noted the long history of Americans being urged, by both governmental policy and cultural influences, to move to urban areas. There are some unacknowledged reasons for the push. People in urban areas were more likely to show up on the tax rolls than their rural cousins. Cartoons of a “hillbilly” often depict a person with a fishing pole in one hand and a bottle of moonshine in the other. What urbanites tended to see as a yokel was someone who participated in a subsistence economy, of barter and exchange, where people often didn’t pay taxes because they weren’t part of a cash economy. Ergo, push the idea that city people are the ones who matter.

As regards Appalachia itself, Kingsolver describes a region that has been an exploited colony within the larger political-economy of America. There have been a succession of extractive enterprises that took wealth from the region but left the land and people damaged. First, it was timber, then coal, then tobacco. And when nothing much was left, the region became a prime target of Purdue Pharma. The opioid epidemic is the backdrop of Demon. (Meanwhile, the Sackler family, enriched by the Purdue company, is trying hard with the help of lots of high-priced lawyers to avoid any personal responsibility or consequences for their exploitation of the region and its people.)

A third point Kingsolver made in talking with Klein is that virtually all media and culture is made in and comes from urban America. The people of rural America don’t ever see themselves in what comes over the TV or in MSM news or movies. From my spot in rural America, northeastern Oregon, I get it. When I turn on OPB, that is, Oregon Public Broadcasting, it is like hearing from another planet.

Add all this up and throw in a bunch of hillbilly stereotypes and you get people who in the title of Arlie Hochschild’s 2016 book about Louisiana are “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and not happy about it.

While Kingsolver doesn’t share the political leanings of most of her neighbors, she does understand them. A guy like Trump came along and said “I see you. I hear you, I like you,” and “Unfortunately, they went for it.”

I’d love to see Joe Biden go on a listening tour of small-town and rural America to say, “I see you, I hear you,” and “here’s what I’ve been trying to do for you.” He’d catch some abuse, but he might also win back some people who have, by now, seen through Trump.

Meanwhile, one of American greatest living authors, Barbara Kingsolver, is shedding light on those who have been ridiculed and dubbed “deplorable,” asking the rest of us for some of the respect and empathetic understanding we in urban areas so often proclaim as our values.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. I too am reading Kingsolver’s latest and appreciating that region and its people. When I was growing up, my dad was a government surveyor, charting the area for the TVA. Our family sometimes boarded with the so-called hillbilly families. My mother, an English major, marveled at their almost Shakespean English. We always found the people warm, giving and supportive.
    Much of that comes thru in Kingsolver’s book. Also I fear that
    reliance on alcohol and other drugs was also a plague at the time.

  2. Thank you! This has been much on my mind lately, when I hear people sneering at Trump voters. When did it become an American virtue to joke at deep poverty, and people who made poor choices, and lack education and resources? Point well made, that Biden should be out on a listening tour. But he should be doing more than that. Statewide free internet would be a good place to start.

    Tuition forgiveness, too — wait, Republicans fought that one off. Speaking of Republican representatives, what about Mitch McConnell? His state, Kentucky, is one of the poorest in the nation, and he is one of the richest members of Congress. Why do they keep reelecting him? What’s he doing? For starters, he could be working to ensure they have safe water to drink. A recent EPA finding shows unsafe drinking levels throughout the state, including forever chemicals, known to have adverse health effects. What about that, Mitch McConnell?

  3. When you’re looking for misunderstanding and rage dividing America, “hillbillies” are only one layer of the cake. Check out the middle-class aliens first I.d.’d by Joan Didion the year of the RFK assassination. Reading her essay “Slouching toward Bethlehem” today you realize that the mind of a well-off “hillbilly” mid-cult was putrefying 40 years before Kingfsolver’s kin sickened with the same brain-rot.

    • Feeling sorry for Reds, Trump-voters, etc etc is condescending & patronizing.
      They are big kids and if they feel like doing something (e.g. write a book) they can.

      And in terms of dollars, Red areas are subsidized by the Blue. If they elect bad decision-makers in their own ZIP Codes, that’s their problem.

      • No one cares about or wants your sympathy. You need to work on your reading comprehension. That’s not what the article said, either. I’m a descendant of the Appalachian mountain inhabitants & live there now. We don’t want ANYONE’S pity. What you didn’t pick up from this article is that we have been lied about in the media (stereotypes of hillbillies to try to shame us away from our mountain homes to go live like sardines in some crap city in order for the government to get more tax dollars, in the beginning). We choose to live here now, with very good economies, where I live. In general, we’re sick of people like you too thick to even try to understand

      • Yes, re-electing the same poor candidates on the local, state and federal level…in the latter case, at least, this impacts all of us.

  4. Those of us who live in urban areas would do well, I think, to learn from the rural people in the states in which we live. Many people west of the Cascade Mountains know little about the eastern part of Washington State and the people who live and work there. They do not all think alike, but many of them do feel disregarded and misunderstood by people living west of the Cascades. A few of them are my extended family and, regrettably, it’s difficult to talk with them about political issues.

    I spent 10 of my growing-up years with my family on a small farm in northern Idaho. We were lower middle-class by income, at best. I remember feeling ‘looked down upon’ by people in families with higher incomes. My parents worked hard and were very proud of doing the best they could for me, my brother and two sisters. By the time I went to college, they’d managed to have a middle class income, at least for northern Idaho/eastern Washington. They took advantage of opportunities. So when I read ‘poor choices,’ I cringe because sometimes those are the only choices available. Privilege can give a narrow viewpoint.

    • I should have been clearer and said make poor choices to misuse alcohol or drugs; realizing of course that the opioid crisis owes a huge amount…at least in the beginning… to careless prescribing and complicit pharmaceutical companies. But that said, I really don’t see anything remotely sneering in my reply. My upbringing was a very long ways away from privilege. I worked my ass off for a scholarship and worked parttime or full time all through college, by the way. My fam also had a very small farm when I was young in western Washington. However! I’d still love an explanation about why the same terrible representatives keep getting re-elected in the poorer red states. Feeling misunderstood? That’s not a good enough reason. The south was deeply impoverished and still produced Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Bristling at Democrats and reading disdain where none is intended is also driving a wedge between the country. Talk about disdain: red states and rural voters frequently hurl verbal abuse and worse at lib-tards and snowflakes.

      • I intended my comments to be general ones and not directed at specific people. I did not suggest, at least in my opinion, that you sneered at people in Appalachia. That said, I understand working one’s way through college — I did that for undergraduate and graduate school. My opinion about why ‘the same terrible representatives keep getting reelected’ is that those candidates somehow ‘speak to’ enough people in ways those people understand to get their votes.

  5. There are good excuses for having been wrong, but not for continuing to be wrong. Like West Virginia, eastern Oregon is somewhat notorious for an element that clings to wrong-headed notions.

    That will affect how people view everyone from those areas. It’s unfair, and we should all do our best to avoid prejudice like that, but it’s going to persist as long as there’s any basis in fact for it. Like any prejudice. If prejudice is to be an excuse for persisting in the behaviors that lead to the prejudice, then we’re sunk, aren’t we?

  6. I have sympathy for these people but donnot blame the people in urban areas for your poor decisions. Stop whining and voting for grifters like Trump! You seem to have plenty of money for guns and booze. I am tired of your idiotic support for traitors there is no excuse for that!

  7. It is an interesting situation how the political leanings and outrage for different regions of our country differ. Notice please that in Appalachia when people of color vote and express outrage it is against the current GOP and how it looks down on people of color. They get looked down from their first breath. Across the south, there is outrage in how the GOP refuses to deal with the economic, political, and social dispossession they created since Nixon’s southern strategy.

    Meanwhile in Washington State there appears to be change in political party leanings and outrage in several working class dominated rural counties like Grays Harbor and Pacific County. I lived in, farmed, and worked with leaders from these two counties over a 40 year period. At one time the Democratic party was the majority and the outrage was reserved for corporations and bungled nuclear power plants. Now it has changed to support for Republicans and outrage against nearly everything if some of the current GOP elected leaders are to be believed.
    Underneath all that are communities who when hurting, help each other, find new ways to sort through the challenges, and a growing appreciation for their tribal neighbors who were the first dispossessed and now are the largest employer in the community.

  8. As a whole lot of these rural whiners say all too often about us urbanites, F your feelings.

    The Democratic party policy agenda has consistently done far more for these folks than the Republicans have ever since FDR’s administration, but despite that they vote Republican because of the dreaded “god/guns/gays” trifecta – so forgive me if I have a hard time feeling all that sorry for them having to live in the squalid mess the GOP has made and continues to make for them.

    • I’m not one who says ‘feel sorry’ for people who live in rural areas, or where there are few economic opportunities or where schools are inadequately funded, likely because of an inadequate tax base or where people think, perhaps with good reason, that their region is ignored and its people misunderstood. I consider myself a progressive in political terms, but the ‘look at what we’ve done for you’ stance of any elected official or political party doesn’t impress me as a way to speak to people’s real needs or grievances. It’s arrogant and condescending, too. The failure to listen to each other and to attempt to understand each other has not served us well. Please note I did not say ‘agree with each other’ or ‘find agreement with any political party.’


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