A Midlands family living in Greater Appalachia

I come from a “set apart” sort of family.  I knew that when I was a little boy growing up in what is now a northern suburb of Dayton, Ohio. [1]  I was taught that it was a good thing to be “separate,” and I think it was a good thing for a long time, at least for my parents.  I don’t think my parents ever really came to grips with what it means for their four boys.

I’ve had trouble coming to grips with it myself.  The life that gets into you at that very early level never really gets expressed well in the words that you learn later.  There’s always something a little mysterious about the emotional tones out of which those carefully chosen words emerge.  The words are all the right words, but you keep feeling that there is more there than the words capture.

I am a “capturing in words” person, as, I suppose, most bloggers are.  So I find it just a little uncomfortable that my best accounts of that part of my life never quite squares with the mix of feelings that I remember.

That may be, at least in part, why the notion of “narrative” is so attractive to me.  You can lay out—and I am just about to—alternative narratives of an event, each of which is “true” in a sense, but none of which excludes the other narratives.  Each narrative is shaped within a particular frame of reference and tells as much of the truth as I know that is available within that frame.  Even while I am doing that, I know that there are other frames—other starting points, other sets of categories—that enable me to tell other, very different, also true, stories.

I’m going to try three such frames here.  They are: religion-oriented, class-oriented, and culture-oriented and that is the order in which I learned them.

Religion-oriented [3]

“Come out from among them and be ye separate” saith the Lord.

The phrasing is from 2 Corinthians 6:17.  Obviously, and nothing could be more appropriate, it is in the language of the King James Version of the Bible.  Or just “the Bible” where I grew up.  It is one of the easy-to-abuse instructions Paul wrote, but it is all through the Old Testament accounts of Israel in the Promised Land.  It is, in fact, fundamental to the notion of what “holy” meant to the Israelite people.

My family had a different notion of what “holy” was than our neighbors; different alsoset apart 7 than other members of our church.  It is nearly impossible to teach your children “not to be like” the other kids, without at the same time teaching them to see themselves as “better than” the other kids.  And, if not better in fact, then at least better in aspiration.

I remember, for instance, that my mother used to criticize behavior that did not come up to the family standard as “common.”  That made more sense to me when I learned that was what “vulgar” meant.  But Mother only meant, “what everybody else does,” and she didn’t understand either that in sacrificing what was “common,” we were sacrificing what was  “in common” with our classmates and our neighbors.

I had a very caring upbringing by a loving family and it seems, even to me, a little churlish to criticize it, but in fact, I was raised in a little bubble of self-conferred religious superiority and getting over that has been one of the major jobs of my life. [4]


So I grew up and moved away and took a lot of courses in the various social sciences, including sociology.  And it began to dawn on me that however much my family might have thought about “what is right for the Hesses to do” in religious terms, it is also possible to think of it in terms of social class.  In fact, if you take enough sociology, almost everything begins to seem explicable in terms of social class.

I remember how ardently my father wanted at least one of us to play the violin. [5]  I don’t think he liked violin music particularly.  When he had the choice, he listened to choral music.  But violins are so…you know…classy.  Dad had a lot of education and aspired to more than the size of his family allowed for.  My mother was the daughter of a man who was often a mayor and  was also a major business leader.  I don’t think she pushed that, but I don’t see how she could have forgotten it either.

Neither of my parents aspired on their own behalf or on ours to be “upper class.”  But the current discrepancy between the professional/managerial class and the “working class” really does capture where the rift is.  I’m actually just kidding about the castle; it’s a much older notion of class unless these are happy tourists.

set apart 3Last year, I discovered Joan Williams’ ideas on the cultural underpinnings of class in our era and she draws the line between the working class (even at fairly high levels of income) and the professional/managerial class. [6]   Williams helped me get past the social structural notions of class—there wasn’t room in the small town I grew up in for a complicated class structure—and to consider the cultural infrastructure of the class identity we grew up with.

What does “cultural infrastructure” mean?  In part, it means “social capital.”  Here is Williams.

Cultural capital is class specific: the kinds of cultural capital required to survive and thrive in non-elite circles differ from the kinds required in professional-managerial contexts…

For example:

Professional-managerial jobs require people skills, which are essential for building and exploiting networks and for enhancing opportunities to advance as a lawyer, doctor, or “organization man.”

The cultural capital required of workers is quite different. While questioning authority and thinking for yourself might get you a promotion in an upper-middle-class job, in a lower-status job it is more likely to get you fired. 

It is “class” in that sense of the term, both the “social capital” sense and the aspirational sense, that I substituted for religion and I began to understand my upbringing as “different.”


But recently, I came across a way of thinking about the whole matter that is not principally religious and not “classist” either, in the fine-grained sociological sense.  This is more like comparative anthropology and I found this in Colin Woodard’s  American Nations.  Woodard makes a good case that a lot of the enduring regional differences can be traced back to the the various eastern settlements and the changes they took on as they extended themselves westward.   And there may be no clearer example of these cultures than Ohio,  where there are three.

set apart 1

On the map, you can see that Cleveland is part of the western extension of Yankeedom.

Here is Woodard’s characterization of the Yankee culture.

Yankeedom: Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.

But the more interesting distinction for me happens as you move south out of Yankeedom.  The whole middle section of Ohio is called “the Midlands,” and the people the Midlanders.  Culturally, it was formed in eastern Pennsylvania, where my father was raised.  It is, in fact, my family’s home culture.  

But you can see on the map that all of southern Ohio, including the part where Orville and Wilber Wright and I grew up, is a part of Greater Appalachia.  So by this way of looking at it, we were a Midlander family living in a Greater Appalachian culture and that explains a lot to me.  

For one thing, it gives the “Come out from among them…” passage a contemporary cultural setting.  It translates the fine-grained sociological analysis into a much broader regional interpretation. 

Look, for instance, at the way Woodard distinguishes the culture of my family background from the culture where I was raised.  The midlands serve as “the old country” for the Hesses.

The Midlands: Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.

But our family was trying to do all this in Greater Appalachia.  Greater Appalachia is a good part of what Mother meant when she said “common.”

Greater Appalachia: Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”

It is clear to me that the discrepancies I experienced as a young boy growing up can be understood in a variety of ways.  I have surveyed three here.  As is to be expected, I find the third to be most persuasive because I just came across it and am still infatuated by it.

Every explanatory device has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course.  It is true that I was raised in “the holiness tradition,” where “holy” mean separate.  I did that. 

I was also raised with class mobility in mind and the habits of mind and go with professional and managerial jobs [7].  I did that too, although my path wasn’t quite as straightforward as my brothers’ paths. 

And I grew up, we all did, with the presuppositions Woodard describes as typically Midlander—including the part about ideological purity.  Woodard is talking about political ideology. We got all the purity we needed from religious doctrine, either from embracing it or from rejecting it.

So I did that, too.

[1]  That’s just a little north of Middletown, the site of Hillbilly Elegy, where J. D. Vance grew up.  Middletown is different in a lot of ways from Englewood, but we come from the same part of Ohio.

[3]  I know that’s awkward, but there is no hope for the title that deals with social class, so I am casting them all in the same form, just to keep the parallelism.  I’m open to other solutions.

[4]  There is, in fact, one sense in which I don’t want to get over it.  I need a way to detect and to critique my own lapses.  I know when I could have done better and just didn’t bother.

[5]  We all wound up playing brass instruments.  Sigh.

[6]  See especially Chapter 5 of her marvelous Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter

[7]  I was a professor for most of my “working life.”  Of my three brothers, one was also a professor, and two were physicians.  We all got where were supposed to go, by one path or another.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to A Midlands family living in Greater Appalachia

  1. john hess says:

    I didn’t get around to responding, but I love it.



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