[I thought about skipping my annual year in review series—who really wants to have any more 2020 vision?!—but as I wrote this past weekend’s post, I realized that the year featured significant developments on a handful of central world issues. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, on these and any other 2020 hindsights (and 2021 foresights)!]
On more and less frustrating cultural depictions of deep poverty, and what 2020 can remind us of.
As I draft this post in late November, one of the most prominent and controversial current cultural works is Hillbilly Elegy (2020), the Ron Howard-directed film adaptation (which like so many 2020 films went straight to streaming on Netflix) of J.D. Vance’s equally prominent and controversial 2016 memoir (subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis). That hyperlinked Entertainment Weekly review is just one of many (if not, indeed, all) that have slammed the film, and some of those flaws sound specific to bad filmmaking; but I would also argue that they are not unrelated to the overhyped memoir’s own flaws, specifically in its stereotypical and ultimately profoundly prejudiced depictions of Appalachian culture and deep poverty in America. Although Vance was himself an insider to that culture, having grown up in Middletown, Ohio, it seemed to me—and, more importantly, to other Appalachian scholars and authors who have pushed back on his book’s representations—that his ultimate goal was to depict Appalachian Americans as the cause of their own late 20th and early 21st century struggles, and in the process to distinguish his rugged individualism as the cause of his escape from that culture and subsequent life success.
Not long before Hillbilly Elegy returned to the public eye, I finished teaching a very different cultural work: Stephen Crane’s short story “An Experiment in Misery” (1894). I said much of what I want to say about that unique and compelling story, and its complement “An Experiment in Luxury,” in this post on that America in the Gilded Age Honors Seminar course that I had the chance to teach again this semester. Here I’ll just say that Crane uses an outsider character—the unnamed young protagonist (of both stories) who opts to live for a time as a homeless person in an effort to better understand that world—in a way that, counterintuitively but to my mind unquestionably, allows for more empathy with his text’s disadvantaged characters (both inside the story and for its readers) than the insider Vance is ever able to muster. Perhaps because Crane’s is a work of fiction, he doesn’t try to diagnose the causes of those characters’ situations in the same way that Vance seeks to, but I would argue that’s part of the story’s strengths: Crane seems to see his characters not as social symptoms or part of a political debate but as human beings, and I would argue that’s a vital first step to any cultural depiction of deep poverty (and just about everything else).
Despite those differences (which, to be clear, make Crane’s story far more worth your time than Vance’s book), however, both texts do depict their disadvantaged characters as “others”—other to both the young man (despite his experiment) and the reader in Crane’s story, other to both Vance (despite his childhood) and the reader in Hillbilly. Whereas one of the most central lessons of 2020 would have to be to remind us of an easily forgotten and never more salient idea: “there but for the grace of God [or, for those of us who don’t believe, but for blind luck] go I.” It’s long been a frustrating reality of American life that far too many Americans are just one significant crisis—whether a medical issue, the loss of a job, or otherwise—away from reaching desperate straits, including such effects as eviction/foreclosure and homelessness. And this year has seen a veritable epidemic (and I use that term as purposefully as possible) of such crises, reminding us that homelessness, deep poverty, and other systemic issues of economic inequality do not threaten some Americans—they threaten a significant percentage, if not indeed most, of us.
Next 2020 vision tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2020 reflections you’d share?