J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper Collins, 2016.
When I left for vacation, I brought three different books as part of an effort to better understand and contextualize the events of 2016 in a historical perspective. The first of those books was J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I had seen articles on internet about it. I’d seen people reading it on airplanes and Amazon’s algorithms continually recommended it. While hailed by the New York Times as one of the “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win”, Hillbilly Elegy was nothing of the sort. Instead of offering insight into the minds of poor, white, working-class voters, Vance’s book recapitulates conservative talking points about hard work, determination, and the availability of upward social mobility. Those who fail to rise, he argues, have only themselves to blame. Hillbilly Elegy is Horatio Alger in 21st century drag.
Vance begins Hillbilly Elegy with a simplistic understanding of the culture of Appalachia through the lenses of ethnicity and geography. He claims descent from the Scots-Irish and “poverty,” he laments, “is the family tradition” (3). This ethnic heritage has also made him and his family loyal to one another, devoted their country, but also distrustful of outsiders or those who look, act, or speak differently from them. Vance contends that geography played the other starring role in the development of “hillbilly culture.” Since the 1700s, the Scots-Irish “were deeply attracted to the Appalachian Mountains” (3-4). Vance borrows his definition of Greater Appalachia from Colin Woodard without acknowledging Woodard’s work. He then describes how thanks to “low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery” (4).
Yet in attempting to understand the culture of poor whites in Appalachia, Vance has decided that race has no role to play in their story. Instead he hopes that his readers will have an “appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism ” (8). Vance’s hand-waving away the racial attitudes of poor whites in Appalachia undermines what little analysis he offers. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, just over an hour north from Vance’s ancestral home in Jackson, Kentucky is an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC has identified at least 16 different organizations in Kentucky expressing some form of white nationalist, Neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, or KKK affiliation. His adopted state of Ohio has 6 KKK groups, 4 Neo-Nazi, 3 Racist Skinhead, and 3 white nationalist organizations. Race, as history often reminds us, is inseparable from class.
In the absence of any rigorous examination of the cultural, political, social, and racial attitudes of Appalachia, Vance instead offers a paean to hard-work, determination, and grit. These values, he believes, are the key to rescuing hillbillies from themselves. Yet his people, Vance laments, seem determined to remain poor and lazy forever. Take the worker in a tile factory who refused to show up for work on time even though he had a pregnant girlfriend. Or another man who hated getting up early, so he quit his job and then complained on Facebook about the “Obama economy.” When Vance worked as a cashier at a grocery store, he described his growing resentment at the hillbillies who gamed the welfare system. After telling these stories to his grandmother, Vance wrote that “We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust… a large minority was content to live off the dole” (139). Vance and his grandmother lamented the similarities between the working poor, like himself and his family, and the welfare queens “whom we thought gave our people a bad name” (140).
In order to distinguish himself from these unworthy poor, Vance devoted to his efforts to overcoming his family’s hillbilly roots. His mother struggled with drug addiction and introduced a never-ending parade of mostly abusive father figures. His grandfather was a violent drunkard, while his grandmother was just plain violent. Vance’s experience working at the grocery store had awakened his class consciousness and a desire to escape from rural Ohio. He “hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac.” The experience also gave him his life’s purpose: “One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab” (139). Vance managed to graduate high school, enlist in the Marine Corps, attend Ohio State and Yale Law School, and work for venture capitalist and noted Trump supporter Peter Thiel.
Vance extrapolates from his own experiences that the American dream (another term he never defines) is alive and well. From his perspective, his fellow hillbillies, however, have succumbed to the failures endemic to their culture. Vance expresses some discomfort over having left Appalachia behind, but it mostly manifests itself in banal observations. Which one is the salad fork? There’s a difference between still and sparkling water? Why do poor children want so many useless toys at Christmas?
Vance’s belief in his own story limits his ability to identify and diagnose the historical forces that shaped him and his fellow hillbillies. Instead he wholeheartedly endorses a simplistic worldview. Those with merit rise to the top. Those who don’t only have themselves to blame. And if people in an entire region of the country are unable to advance, then culture is to blame. This argument conveniently absolves the government or other larger societal institutions of the blame or the responsibility for addressing these problems. It also casts aside any question about the concentration of wealth and power amongst a small ruling class. It’s argument that would make Peter Thiel proud.