My acquaintance Rory has a Ph.D. in American literature and is an administrator and a poet of sorts himself. At lunch yesterday, talking around a mouthful of Chicken Tikka in a restaurant he tried to tell me was Thai, he began to dissert on those he called “hillbillies,” whom he admires very much. Despite his predilection for tasteful shirts, fad diets, Wallace Stevens, and Miles Davis, he called himself one too.
He stopped masticating to reconsider. “I think they put too much cardamom in the Masala,” he said.
An indeterminate number of years ago Rory slid out of the American Bottom (I know!), an alluvial-rich floodplain on the left bank of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis. Separated from his boyhood by time, education, and ease, he’s still trying to define himself back into an imagined-remembered culture he feels for some reason has inherent authenticity, whether it be “hillbilly,” working-class, or Southern Illinoisan, that others do not.
“You’re not from Southern Illinois,” I said. “The northwest margin is the Kaskaskia River valley.”
“I know,” he said glumly. “But I won’t admit that to anybody but you.”
Still, it’s an interesting pursuit. Rory said he’d always thought his dad was a hillbilly—pater hillbillus, if you will—making him one too, but it turned out his dad’s people, a phrase of no small import, were from southeast Missouri. His dad lived in a small industrial town famous for two things: Lewis and Clark started their expedition there, and refineries had saturated the dirt over the years with four million gallons of gasoline. His mom wasn’t hillbilly either, she was country, Rory said. I asked him to clarify, and he said that in his lexicon, country people owned land; they were farmers. As a kid his mom got grief for riding a bus to school from somewhere past the outskirts of town, but looked at another way, that equated to wealth.
He told me how he plays with an old friend over this hillbilly distinction, and I said, “She’s right. You always say you’re a hillbilly, and that I’m one, and that all the writers you like are hillbillies. What is it you think you’re claiming title to?”
He talked about the way people dressed and about their not believing in government but got frustrated and challenged me to come up with a definition. I said maybe it was meant to put down descendants of the Appalachian mid-south with a certain independence of spirit. He said I’d made the mistake of romanticizing a culture but admitted he was guilty of it too. He’d often thought he could fit in in a real hillbilly bar but knew he’d last only five minutes.
All this is a more ancient foundation to his new interest in defining the working class. It’s a hard task; what if you're a poet and an electrician? Or someone who gives up a high-paying job to do something more rewarding for poverty wages? What if you got a street education in Indonesia and are now President?
I’m afraid Rory’s earring will tarnish if his head overheats thinking about it. Forget hillbillies. Anyone care to help him by having a go at a definition of working class in America?