Appalachia, “heartbreaking and beautiful”, in Anthony Bourdain’s words, is the subject of Meredith McCarroll’s CNN editorial, “Anthony Bourdain listened to the voices ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ ignored.” She leaves the phrase, absent allusion to social decay, untouched by criticism. About Bourdain, she writes, “When he said, “But this is not a poverty porn show. Do not pity the people here,” I listened up.” Yet McCarroll’s attitudes, encoded in the habits of narrative writing, are hard to parse. Implicit to her living-it point of view is a scale grading to counterpoint, with the mid-scale note of Bourdain, the sympathetic the-outsider. Her counterpoint is J.D. Vance.
Her vulnerability comes “with that strange feeling of pride turned to instant shame”, when the burden of failure is pinned squarely on the shoulders of the fallen. Unfocused on failure, with native experience of this society as a whole, McCarroll’s Appalachians are mostly survivors, in full possession of their humanity; proud soldiers of life, with the fallen still deserving our respect.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, of attitude as old as Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is sternly focused on the stereotypical images of shame, and there are plenty of fallen. The paradoxical images of these skillful writers almost forces choosing sides in the argument of whether-free-will-exists. Appalachia, like most other places, manifests the full spectrum of achievement, depravity, and everything in between, so the only coherent question is the collective one: Is the place—can a place– be responsible for its statistics?
Both McCarroll and Vance weave spells that paralyze the search for explanations outside the realm of morals, ethics, and feelings. These things are part of the essence of what makes us human. Yet when we look for explanations of why things are as they are, we might forget how abjectly vulnerable all of us are to things of inhuman scale. Suppose that in some spaceship, the oxygen supply goes bad, and everybody asphyxiates. It might be food for a confessional drama with the intensity of the best modern works, yet utterly unable to touch the inhuman cause of their demise. There might be human drama in the reason the oxygen supply came to fail, as might eventually be dredged from the 737-Max disasters. But there might not; the cause might remain inscrutable and unreproducible. What is inexplicable becomes an act of God, exempt from human culpability, a statistic, a shoulder shrug.
A dilemma is framed, which can only exist as a dialog internal to the bodies of thought called the liberal arts. Resolution comes from the borderlands of that compendium. It is not a particularly bitter pill, unless one isolates one’s self with ivory tower ferocity. It comes from the study of cities, which with a bit of irony, are the theaters, physical and otherwise, for the performative arts of Bourdain, and the narrative arts of McCarroll and Vance. Cities exist for social interaction as well as commerce.
The form and viability of a city depend upon the physical circumstances and imagination of the builders. Lewis Mumford’s The City in History (Harcourt, 1961) may be first to systematize, going beyond title to trilogize the city as the work of man, yet organic, more or less, in relation to the environment. Upon this relationship, success is predicated. Mumford may in the end succumb to the lure of perfect harmony, but you don’t have to “take your Mumford straight”, as successor Sibyl Moholy-Nagy puts it, to imbibe the gem of the book. Long after Socrates drank the hemlock, Mumford chooses to pick a bone, and it is well worth picking.
Quoting Mumford, “In the ‘Phaedrus’, Socrates declares that the stars, the stones, the trees could teach him nothing: he could learn what he sought only from the behavior of ‘men in the city’. That was a Cockney illusion: a forgetfulness of the city’s visible dependence upon the country, not only for food, but for a thousand other manifestations of organic life, equally nourishing to the mind; and not less, we know now, of man’s further dependence upon a wide network of ecological relations that connect his life…”
Mumford continues with “Regression to Utopia”. Contrary to romantic depiction, Hellenic cities were dowdy, dysfunctional, unsanitary habitats. Rather than confront, revise, and rebuild, Greeks tuned out with philosophies of increasingly mystical cant. Better cities would await the cultural hybridization of the glorious Hellenistic cities, many in exemplary harmony with the environment. Even without mythic statuary, strong analogy applies to Appalachia. It could displace arguments based on morals, blame, and destiny.
As a leftover from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, sociology held considerable sway in public debate into the 80’s. The NY Times archive holds an article from September 27, 1981, titled “SAVING APPALACHIA: WAS $15 BILLION WELL SPENT?”, which contains all kinds of quantitative references absent from the narratives of story tellers and performers. In particular: “Because only about 3 percent of the land area of Pike County, with its booming rural population of 81,000, is level enough to support buildings,…”
Except on a very small scale, this is an unalterable fact of the entire region. One might be tempted to think there must be a technological solution – building tricks, special concrete, but there is not. And if one should, for some perverse reason, at great cost, decide to build on a steep hill, one would find that even rock-strewn hills creep downwards. All it takes is a fraction of an inch per year for a building to become unsound in decades. But suppose, as is sometimes the case with public works, as it was with New Orleans, that we decide to build a factory on as hillside, anyway.
Factories were once vertical structures, still visible in many urban areas, but no longer used for large scale industry. Before central heating and cheap energy, vertical aspect enabled recovery of waste heat from industrial processes in lower storeys to heat upper storeys. Mechanical power to drive machinery was delivered from a central steam engine by belts and shafts. Vertical aspect became a hindrance with the development of the electric motor, which enabled the flow-through factory. The preferred factory became a single storey structure, frequently of immense acreage. Flat acreage.
This may have been recognized. The article states, “One theory was that corporations would not bring in the small manufacturing plants needed to diversify the coal-based economy without ‘urban amenities’ for plant managers and their families.” But in analogy with Mumford’s study of habitats, there was no organic reason to put a small manufacturing unit in an out-of-the way place unless, figuratively, it used a lot of wood.
McCarroll’s Appalachia is the victim of predation. Vance’s is guilty as charged. Bourdain’s is people who dream and feel like the rest of Americans, with regional differences small compared to our common core. It sounds more like a trial than a description of circumstance.
Somewhere in these rich sketchbooks of humanity, it should be noted, if only as a nonliterary, unpoetic footnote, that only 3% of the land is flat.