christmas-tree-lot-columbus-ohx

[Merry Christmas, ya’ll: Christmas trees, Columbus, Ohio, Nov. 30, 2016.]

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.

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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.

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[J.D. Vance explains those he left behind from his home in San Francisco.]

14 Comments

  • Very interesting, Richard. Vance has been a media darling in the last few months, and I had a few suspicions about his luck and/or opportunism in becoming a media-made expert on a culture so alien to the elite that few can question him. Thanks for not giving him a complete pass while recognizing that the culture from which he springs deserves more attention.

  • Hi, Richard. Each political movement has its books, I guess. I’m hoping we’ll see another one soon for the Democratic new force that’s around now. Thanks for your post.

  • I’ve been looking forward to reading this, as he’s certainly gotten a lot of attention. I would love to hear more of your perspective on struggling Appalachian whites and the Trump election. I was hoping this memoir would be an honest and informative account – at least as much as possible, given that it is a memoir with a subjective author – but his remark about government encouraging social decay through welfare makes me leery because it seems he might be starting from a bias already.

    • Richard says:

      Well, that was my feeling, Valorie. It’s been lauded and used as the go-to text for understanding Appalachia, I know, though lately I have seen some push-back. I don’t like running negative reviews, if that’s what this is rather than a mixed one, and seldom write them, preferring to read what I think I will like and let the rest go. But I paid good money for this book and was led to expect more. My own answer(s)? That’s a tough one, since there seems no magic bullet. I’m a Democrat so I believe in the welter of answers my kind usually work at, a combination of safety nets so that the deserving who hit rock bottom can get out, strong public schools, progressive taxation, clean environment, and reasonable business incentives. Some of these might catch a kid like Vance but who lacked his one island of stability. And maybe not. The Bible does say the poor will always be with us, and apparently it’s true, but I think it’s a very very small minority who want to be poor and who are permanent leeches. Repugnance at them seems to fuel conservative “ideas,” such as they are, and therefore their social policies.

  • I don’t like to put negative reviews on my blog either, for the same reasons, but I’m glad you wrote about this one, especially in light of the election. I think the reasons people turn out the way they do, or adopt ways of coping, are incredibly complex. Lately I’ve become interested in the research on genetic memory and the inheritance of trauma – not directly genetic, but that genes become “tagged” in some way and this is passed down. I’m not sure if I buy it, but for those who read and write memoir, wondering and speculating about why people act the way they do seems to go with the territory.

    • Richard says:

      Very interesting. How that concept resonates with me is in terms of the “pain-body,” which can be personal, racial, gendered, societal, that people carry, an idea originated and developed by Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth. Well worth reading! A remarkable historical-spiritual synthesis. In fact, it explains this election as well as anything. When someone’s, or a group’s, pain-body is active, they can take harmful and self-destructive actions. As when two such sufferers encounter each other on the highway and road rage explodes, or when the Germans go along with the Nazis over grievances stemming from World War I.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Bravo once again RIchard for this hard-hitting review of a book that has become the darling of many academic literati. Compare his “I got the hell out” perspective with Steinbeck’s in the “Grapes of Wrath.”.

  • dclaud says:

    Once again, I appreciate your reviewing a book I’ve heard a lot about but wondered whether I wanted to read — and to have treated it as a memoir rather than solely for its political point of view. And you confirmed what I suspected — that it was more politics than lasting literature. I’m frankly tired of politics and am hungry for a little of Keats’ Truth and Beauty. It might not be all I need to know, but I so know it’s what I need right now.

  • owen1936 says:

    Richard, in the light of Vance lifting up the personal factors that work alongside societal ones to keep people in poverty, it is interesting that our president-elect is telling poor whites that it is greedy corporations, immigrants, and bad trade deals alone that are responsible for their plight. That together with him saying “I alone can fix it,” would seem to encourage folks to think that all the negative forces in their life are external.and that their salvation, if there be one, must also come from afar. Unfortunately, Trump alone can’t fix it.

    • Richard says:

      I know. What a confusing welter we have right now. I think things will clear, and we’ll be back to the same old conundrums about human nature and how to help others and ourselves and how to encode that in our society and government. And I hope that this destructive blow to our system and way of life, Trump’s election, as I see it, will be revealed as such—an education for his supporters in governance. One that’s expensive, and, one would think by now, unnecessary. But I hear so many people being interviewed saying they just wanted change, to shake up the system. I have to wonder if they’re mad at Republication intransigence and, if so, why didn’t they see that they’d be giving power to those anti-American forces with Trump’s election? It’s really hard to understand—Obama has huge popularity ratings. Did they think Hillary, too, wouldn’t be able to overcome Republicans in Congress and so they gave it to them? To get something done? When that’s going to be take-backs and incoherence? It really does not seem sensible, let alone smart or logical.

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