Hillbilly Elegy: everything he left, can’t explain, but can deplore.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Harper, 257 pp.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has been often cited to explain the white rage that surfaced and was grotesquely showcased during and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign. Vance’s bestseller is an intermittently interesting if not ultimately cohesive hybrid: part memoir, part summation of sociological reports. Vance’s own bootstrap exodus from poverty is inspiring and even moving. But he doesn’t explain so much as morally indict “hillbillies”—and the “welfare state” that, in his view, has abetted their desultory-unto-criminal ways.
An asset of Vance’s origin is that he can blast his people, as it were, for being shiftless without risking the accusation of elitism. His bluntness can be refreshing. But his lack of deep historical perspective and good solutions troubled me. Beyond the moral of his own story—get lucky with one or two parental figures and work like hell—Vance offers cursory insight into his former culture. This may stem from his getting his own answer early on, in high school, reading studies of America’s black underclass. He saw a direct parallel. In short, the poor will always be with us, so don’t coddle them.
Yet he shows himself, late in the book, having graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School, volunteering to do try to help stray kids from Appalachia and its broad diaspora. It’s what worked for him, a few random, happenstance interventions, plus his own herky-jerky yet upwardly moving efforts. He writes,
Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enough—I worry about those things too. But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.
To be clear, the culture encouraging social decay here isn’t the wider culture, the amoral, striving, shiny corporate one that exited with its jobs. It’s the oddly idealistic, flag-waving, blue-collar one stranded in place that’s at fault. Vance derives support for his view from his pathetic mother. As a sensitive child, she was scarred by growing up with raging parents, who’d moved from their beloved eastern Kentucky to dreary Middletown, Ohio, for employment. Maybe that’s why they were so angry—they actually did try to better themselves but had to leave paradise, or at least home, for Ohio. As a current resident, I understand. They got here just before good factory jobs started drying up and Ohio became part of America’s “rust belt.”
At any rate, Vance’s mother makes of herself a nurse, but falls into hopeless addiction. She bounces from one sorry man to another. Eventually Vance is saved from this chaos by being taken in permanently by his crusty, foul-mouthed grandmother, Mamaw. The same woman who, with her husband, by-then estranged, had failed his mother. Mamaw’s the most vivid character in the book, though it’s hard to picture her, or anyone else in Hillbilly Elegy, because there’s scant description and dramatization. Vance’s reliance on exposition harms the work as a memoir, which is to say as literature, but seems to have helped it get viewed as serious nonfiction.
And some of the book’s asides are riveting. For instance, despite its Bible-thumping image, Vance cites research claiming that actual church attendance in Appalachia is very low. And both Cincinnati and Dayton, home to countless Appalachian refugees, also “have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco.” Vance’s discussion of this is interesting in part because of how the phenomenon affected him. His father, whom he never knew growing up, straightens himself out through church, which supports his outreach to his son. Their tenuous relationship helps the boy endure his mother’s shenanigans.
So does school, after his grandmother finally takes him in permanently, in tenth grade, and he begins to apply himself. Which is why his implied support for school vouchers that allow schoolchildren to “escape failing public schools,” rankled me. His hard-knocks conservative and ex-Marine outlook is an asset for the book when he gets to law school at Yale. (Vance served a four-year hitch in the Marines, including in Iraq, before he entered Ohio State as a freshman.) Seeing that bastion of liberal orthodoxy from his perspective is interesting and useful, even if I want to equally credit Yale for acting upon its progressive ideal of diversity in admitting him.
But Vance seems most influenced by what he learned early—from his kick-ass Mamaw, from welfare cheats and lazy workers he encountered in jobs, from studies of inner city black folks. In short, he writes: “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” Nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to carry freeloaders. But where’s the balance between that sense of justified outrage and the resentment that led to the utter horror of England’s old debtors’ prisons? (Which largely stocked the Appalachians initially with the British Isles’ downtrodden.) By seeing modest safety nets as superhighways to socialism and even communism, conservatives like Vance can support corrosively anti-democratic measures like school vouchers.
If Vance’s book is, as it claims, an “elegy”— a funeral song or poem for the dead—how can it also be, as its subtitle says, a memoir of a culture in “crisis”? Is the hillbilly dead or is he/she/it living? Obviously it’s alive, and for some time has dwelled in distress. Vance got out, which seems to be his solution. Get lucky, work hard, and get out. He offers scant broader wisdom to his fellow hillbillies, or to the wider culture they might look to for help.