Friday, May 06, 2022

Silas House on J.D. Vance: 'He's dangerous. So is his book.'

Former president Donald Trump hosted a rally for J.D. Vance in Ohio on April 23. (Getty Images photo by Drew Angerer)
Tuesday's plurality nomination of Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance for senator from Ohio has prompted a fresh round of media scrutiny for the Rust Belt memoirist and never-Trumper turned Trumper, a move (along with millions from his prime sponsor, billionaire Peter Thiel) that won him victory in his first political race.

After Silas House, the Appalachian Studies chair at Berea College in Kentucky, tweeted on election night, “He’s dangerous. So is his book,” he got a call from Michael Kruse of Politico, who interviewed him and got one of the more salient yet nuanced analyses of Vance yet published.

Silas House
(Photo by C. Williams)
House is "one of the premier thinkers in and about the South and a bestselling writer in his own right," Kruse writes. "From the start [he saw the book] as not a memoir but a treatise that traffics in ugly stereotypes and tropes, less a way to explain the political rise of Trump than the actual start of the political rise of Vance."

House told Kruse, “It’s my job to read any piece of literature or view any media coming out of the region. It’s my job to analyze it and think about what are the intentions of this piece? What is the historical and cultural context of this piece of media? Are some of these stereotypes just coming out of ignorance, or are they intentional?"

He said Hillbilly Elegy is dangerous “because there’s such a lack of complexity in the book in a time when the national conversation lacks more and more nuance. There’s no nuance in the book. There’s a lot that’s false and intentionally misleading, and I always think that’s really dangerous when there’s intentional misinformation being shared. And I think he’s dangerous because he embodies all of that. And it seems to me that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to rise. And I can think of nothing more dangerous in a politician than that.”

That's how the interview ended, but here's more from House: “If it had just been a memoir, it would be a powerful piece of writing and it would be his own proof. But the problem is it is woven through with dog whistles about class and race, gender. And if your ears are attuned to those dog whistles, you know exactly what he’s saying. . . . The whole reason so many people responded to that book to help them understand the rise of Trump is because in a way it gave them exactly what they were looking for: easy answers instead of really complicated historical answers. And that’s why I think it’s so disingenuous and dangerous because it’s not true. . . . He, ever since Hillbilly Elegy, has always embodied Trumper ideas, even before there was such a thing. . . . 

“I think it’s so telling that this book was pushed as an Appalachian narrative when this man is two generations removed from Appalachia. This is a Rust Belt story, but Appalachian stories, Appalachian literature, is its own genre. In early cinema, one of the most popular movie genres was 'hillbilly movies.' We still have a genre of horror that’s very popular called 'hillbilly horror.' So there’s a market there, in a different way, for the idea of the hillbilly, more than there is for the idea of the Rust Belt. So that alone is manipulative in that it’s sold as an Appalachian story or a hillbilly story, and if you read the book, you realize that hardly any of it is set in Appalachia.”

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