Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis JD Vance (2016)
JD Vance’s social analysis of “hillbilly culture,” using the lens of his own life story, has been widely credited with explaining why white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. Vance’s book also topped several bestseller lists in 2016, and it’s been praised by political commentators on both the right and the left. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I checked Hillbilly Elegy out from my local library.
Hillbilly Elegy is meant to be both a memoir and a cultural commentary. The memoir component is an “up by the bootstraps” tale of a boy overcoming incredible odds to escape from the dying Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, in the early years of the current century. Vance is raised primarily by his maternal grandparents—“Mamaw” and “Papaw” in hillbilly parlance—since his mother is a substance abuser who cycles through five husbands and innumerable short-term boyfriends. The foul-mouthed but loving Mamaw is a strong influence on the young JD; she emphasizes the importance of education and shields him from many of his mother’s violent episodes. Vance graduates from high school, joins the Marines, serves in the Iraq war, gets through college at Ohio State in record time, goes on to Yale Law School, meets a brilliant and kindly woman who becomes his wife, and ends up working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.
Despite the jerky narrative style and the many clichés in the memoir portions of this book, I was drawn to some parts of the story. Vance’s experience in the Marines, for example, is a turning point in his life: “It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family.” (175) He cites specific incidents that taught him how to control his temper and interact peaceably with others.
Periodically Vance inserts into his memoir paragraphs of polemic against hillbillies, in the form of disconnected soapbox orations about working-class white people in Appalachia, the South, and the Rust Belt, whose culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Throughout the book, Vance presents the tendency to explosive interpersonal reactions as one reason for the low economic status of people of his background. He asks plaintively, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” (231)
Vance freely admits that he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, yet he presents contradictory arguments. He rails against lazy hillbillies who are “living off of government largesse” (139), not mentioning the fact that able-bodied adults haven’t been eligible for cash welfare for more than two decades. Vance doesn’t count himself as a recipient of “government largesse” even though he’s benefited from public schools, a public university, the GI Bill, and Pell grants. He assumes that hillbillies are the only people who’ve suffered from the loss of jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle, when the millennial children of white professionals have endured similar downward mobility.
There is no discussion of the tremendous rise in income inequality in our country, and Vance ignores the plight of non-white working-class Americans. Significantly, he fails to address racism as a factor in the bitterness of the white working-class. (For a first-hand account of this racism, I can refer you to an African American friend of mine who was raised in the same Middletown, Ohio, as JD Vance.) There’s a constant underlying assumption in Hillbilly Elegy that white working-class hillbillies are the only Americans who grow up in poverty-stricken or violent families. And that these hillbillies are the only ones who might be nonplussed by the elitism of the Ivy League and Wall Street. It ain’t so, JD.
Vance treasures his hillbilly background and yet despises it. He hasn’t quite figured out where he stands, though he aligns himself politically with conservative Republicans. Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect book, with far too many contradictions and generalizations and cherry-picked citations. But you may want to read it because it’s become a highly influential book in our present-day political climate of angry polarization.