Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rust Belt Hilljacks

What's a hilljack? The useful Urban Dictionary offers a few colorful definitions. The first one should suffice:

From the southern region of the Midwest (see Southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania and the better part of West Virginia). Hilljacks have a penchant for sleeveless t-shirts, Blackfoot and Molly Hatchet and low-end regional beer. Family gatherings come in the form of cookouts and all of them culminate in drunken brawls and multiple arrests. Young hilljack chicks are usually very attractive but undergo a metamorphosis sometime after they have their third kid before the age of twenty.

Hilljack country is the heart of the Rust Belt. It's culturally distinct from the Midwest and not as Southern as some make it out to be. One way to see the subregions is through fiction. The latest from Richard Longworth is a good place to start:

McIlrath inherits a long tradition of Midwestern writing, some of it among the monuments of American literature, which have helped define this region and this country. Some of this is city-based -- Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, for instance. But much has come from the small towns and farms of the Midwest -- Winesburg and Gopher Prairie and Spoon River -- obscure places that have become everybody's home town. Some of this is by expats looking back in anger or despair (e.g., Sinclair Lewis), some by people who never left, either in fact or psychologically (Marilynne Robinson, Kathleen Norris).

That tradition doesn't resonate with hilljacks. Mining among contemporary writers, Bobbie Ann Mason strikes me as a good place to start looking for a definition of Rust Belt literature. It stretches the cultural influence to the west, but I'd bet other people from Western Pennsylvania would appreciate Mason's books.

There's a third cultural region in the Midwest, the Great Lakes. This area is different from Longworth's Midwest (Rust Belt Prairie?). No writer immediately jumps into my mind. Instead, I imagine painters such as Charles Burchfield and Tom Thomson. The unifying landscape theme is what musician Glenn Gould called, "The Idea of North". If you grew up near the Canadian border, you know what I mean.

All of the above is a long introduction to a brief blurb in Brew Freshed Daily that links to an article in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer:

In a wide-ranging interview Monday, the Democratic leader, who will leave office on Jan. 9, also said that he did a lot for Cleveland but never got the support he deserved from Northeast Ohio leaders and local media, who he says thought of him as a country bumpkin who never understood the big city.

"Maybe it is because I'm from Appalachia," the Scioto County-born Strickland told The Plain Dealer. "I think they always considered me a hayseed, someone who couldn't possibly understand or be sophisticated enough to understand what life is like in the city."

Soon-to-be former Governor Strickland, you see, is a hilljack. He could get along fine in Pittsburgh, but not in Great Lakes Cleveland. That's the problem with Cleveburgh (aka TechBelt). Rust Belt culture stops just shy of Cleveland city limits. Akron is a world a way, a lot closer to Pittsburgh than Cleveland. Until the hilljacks can take power in Cleveland, that city is doomed.

1 comment:

DBR96A said...

If Pittsburgh was even remotely "Southern," then I never would have experienced the degree of culture shock that I did when I moved to Athens, GA.