Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisisby Published 28 Jun 2016
|Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.pdf|
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.
"Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" Reviews
Have you ever wondered what became of the Scotch-Irish, who dug America’s coal, forged America’s steel and built America’s automobiles, who worked for the American Dream Monday through Friday. prayed to The Good Lord on Sunday, and revered F.D.R. and J.F.K. every day of the week? The last thing I heard, they elected Donald Trump. And I am still looking for explanations.
If you want somebody who knows Appalachian culture from inside to explain it all to you, I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Vance has his roots in Eastern Kentucky, a troubled childhood in the rustbelt city of Middletown, Ohio, and yet has succeeded in graduating from Ohio State and matriculating from The Yale Law School. He tells us about his family of “crazy hillbillies,” and, in the process of telling us the story of his family, he tells us the story of America too.
The hillbilly seeking the American Dream in industrial Ohio was always “a stranger in a strange land”, for he cleaved to his Appalachian identity—the church in the wildwood, the old folks in the hollers—and returned to the welcoming hills every chance he could get. But economic decline left its mark on both mountain culture and urban manufacturing. Opportunities shrunk, hard liquor was supplemented by painkillers and heroin, church attendance fell and so did belief in the American Dream.
J.D.’s were most powerful influences were his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw: fierce, hard-drinking battlers with a proud belief in individual honor and family solidarity. They might beat their kids, sure, only when they deserved it...but no outsider better say one harsh word to them, much less lay a finger on them. They probably did their own children little good—especially J.D.’s mother, addicted to heroin and a bewildering succession of men—but by the time J.D. needed them they had mellowed a little, and gave him the love and determination he needed to succeed.
The early chapters about family are compelling, but the last few chapters, touching on the cultural hurdles a hillbilly in a high class East Coast law school must overcome, are fascinating too. J.D. shows us how many things the upper middle class takes for granted—how to dress for an interview, how to schmooze a prospective employer, how to strive for what you really want not what you’re supposed to want—are difficult for a young man from a poor background.
J.D. Vance’s insights are noteworthy not only because of his family background but also because of his political philosophy. He is a conservative, one of those cautious, reflective conservatives who are growing increasingly rare these days. (Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is one of his heroes, David Frum is a former employer and mentor). He is critical of specific government practices (the high barriers grandparent’s face if they wish to be foster parents, for example), but he also realizes that government has a role—although limited—in raising the Appalachian people from poverty. The major responsibility, however, he puts squarely on the shoulders on the hillbilly himself:
There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers...What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
Hell hath no fury like a strong Protestant Work Ethic without work.
Okay – that was my original, but it should have been Vance’s! Instead, he mostly blamed the poor for being poor, lazy, and generally culpable for all (and few) choices. No wonder anger and angst filled their days and nights, and they needed drugs, alcohol, and violence to trigger some brief if dysfunctional relief. Vance was born right after the decades of American prosperity post WWII when if you wanted a job you simply got one. Vance sneering that people do not realize how lazy they are and presenting that human failure as a social problem indicates a lack of understanding both who the poor are and what they do in the US, as well as what has happened to the industrial Midwest. President Elect Trump negotiated last week with Carrier to keep 1000 jobs in the Rustbelt or “rustexit” (as Michael Moore correctly called it as a vote bloc) area of Indiana. Paul Krugman calculated that even “if Trump did a Carrier-style deal every week for the next 4 years, he could bring back 4% of the manufacturing jobs lost since 2000.” For the greater Middletown, Ohio area that Vance is from it’s not about shoring up an ailing, regional economy but rather to face the demise of an economy that has drastically changed what Max Weber called generational “life chances”, including the perception and reality of those.
Middletown, OH is only about 50 miles from where I was born in Muncie, IN and where I still have a large, extended family, so I relate quite strongly to his story, although my "hillbilly" family, also a mix of working- and middle-class, was quite the opposite of his often violent and abusive one. Indeed, while I’m fully aware of domestic violence and drug abuse statistics, I’m not sure we should take his family as generalizable although it’s a familiar rendition of the typical, “poor White trash” family (an ethos that stretches from the lowest rungs of socio-economic status through some parts of the middle-class, as with Vance’s family). Does his story warrants the blanket acceptance that this is what people in this area are like? The real story is the downward mobility of the US middle class back to the working class, not the lack of hard work or enough hard work by the poor who were and aspired to stay McWASPs, as is said (Middle-class, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and a smattering of upwardly-mobile Catholics. Vance’s family and mine share a geographically similar notch along the Bible Belt, a Kryptonite mix of mostly German, English, Irish, Scots, and French stock.
I wish Vance would have described our cultural geography more directly for what is it – the US South. The ethos of the South geographically sits like a triangle encompassing all “deep South” states then narrows while shooting up hari-kari-style right through to the Northern border with Canada, encompassing the ethos and ideology of Nixon’s racist “southern strategy” that includes part the Rustbelt states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and those environs. Urban centers are different (but Indianapolis the “the South”, believe me…) but let no one forget that Indiana was the birthplace of the KKK, after all. Vance joins a large bloc of other lower- through middle-class Whites in the Rustbelt area of the "South" that deny the impact of race and nativism on their ideology, behavior, and vote.
Patriotism, military, and militarized police states seem normal and something to respect in my extended family, too, although my own set of parents were less so. Bitter resentment and multi-levels of “trigger happy” reactions (with actual guns and also their anger) physicality was similar – I was the size and strength of my linebacker dad so relished all the wrestling we regularly did with both children and adults involved. We played hard and rough, stopping only when somebody got hurt. Even then, men would tell crying children with a hurt arm, for example, to “wipe it off”, as if the pain would then stop. Even though many in my family were hunters, I didn’t know anybody who carried guns on their person, nor the similar ‘trigger happy” personalities, ready to grab their guns or spit the f-word with threats if somebody looked at them or their kin “wrong”.
My family also shared Vance’s fierce loyalty, but embraced the opposite of his family’s fear and suspicion of “outsiders” and strangers. There were some fights, but generally issues were talked out, sometimes loudly, then the modeled behavior was to laugh and move on. The laughing part was key, and I hope Vance got some of that. Vance’s family often had a violent or abusive element featuring how Mamaw was threatening to virtually all others outside her family. Several weeks after reading, Mamaw seems a bit less funny or lovable. Yes, she was clearly the main entertainment in the book, and she was Vance’s “rock”. While we can be grateful for that, but I don’t think that Appalachian women generally use the f-word in every sentence like she did, and I didn’t know anybody then who carried guns on their person, even though most all were hunters and my uncle owned a large gun shop. Some of Mamaw and his mom seems more like mental illness the further out I go from this reading, and I’m not sure we can take it as “hillbilly” common.
As girls of 7 and 9, and right before my own nuclear family of six schismed away from the “clan” out to Wyoming, we took a summer-long class at a local university called White Gloves and Party Manners. Here, aspirational working-to-middle class Whites in the late 60s learned etiquette, genteel politeness. My grandparents and parents were taught to be social, to engage people directly and fearlessly, but with civility and a laugh, if possible. I wonder if Vance was blaming culture or genes on the possible mental illness in his family? I remember some powerful fights – more with words but sometimes physical - in and out of my family in that Indiana small town, but it wasn’t typical or common. We all worked hard and played hard. Starting at age 16, even though I should have focused on academics (and getting out of high school and into college early) I worked at K-Mart merging full-time work, full-time school, and full-time social life (with youth exquisitely wasted on youth, surely). Working hard is what everybody did, although it was a generation before Vance’s when everybody was employed (including the Blacks on the other side of the tracks in the small city down the road from our small town.
My Grandma repeatedly said that there were two kind of people, the "here I am!" and the "there you are!" type, and reminded us grandkids that WE are the latter! Her ethics and manners were, as females are still socialized, of a selfless focus on the other. She also told my mother than a kindly Black woman they passed and chatted with on the street “couldn’t help that she was Black”, and was a nice woman. She told me we must be nice to Black people, but “we’d NEVER marry a Black, as that would be unfair to the children!” She had trained to teach elementary school, and I was in awe when she was “installed” as some Grand Queen of the Masonic Temple. This was back when social capital was strong and created and accumulated as most adults in the US were involved with some kind of community or social groups, whether Lion’s Club, Masons, or just a bowling league, as Robert Putnam uses as a metaphor in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. My Grandpa repeatedly said, "you're entitled to my opinion, even if it's wrong!" With his high school education before the Army, he'd figured out the need for a tolerant relativism in a pluralistic, civil society, yet also realized without studying moral development theory that judgment or some kind of stance always should come back into play, too.
Much of the strength of Vance’s descriptions lie in how vulnerable are our children in one of the wealthiest countries of the world with only thin policies and support for the family that struggles to take care of itself, by itself. I often ask undergraduates if they believe that we've set up our country to "do" family well - to support them staying intact. Virtually all of them disagree. Vance is right to ask what role culture played in his family’s plight, but it’s really the abuse, violence, and drug addiction for which I hold the culture accountable well over individual choice. An important study to me was one on the variable of resiliency for children – what creates it, enforces it, and erodes it. Resiliency here included perceptions of safety, well-being, and the potential for self-advocacy. I was taken that a “resiliency index” was strongest for children that believed that there exist two adults that would do anything for them - that essentially "had their backs". These adults did not have to be heterosexual parents, or even relatives, or even nearby, but the child was secure in the knowledge that one of "their" people, even if halfway around the world, would do whatever they could to get to the child if needed.
Ultimately, this is all that Vance describes – a memoir (as he correctly titles), an auto-biography, not social science (it’s a problem this is categorized as “sociology”) as the story is based on the perceptual arc of a single individual spinning through his own life. Even though Vance discusses and sometimes argues about recollections he discussed (especially with his sister, as I recall) this is basically a “sample size of one” (as social theorist Peggy McIntosh said she wished to rehabilitate). It is a biography. Why is this important? Because I suspect his family was not the typical “Appalachian Scot Irish” as he insisted they, and he, were throughout the work. There were just as many Germans and English as Scot-Irish, or even just Irish, in the tri-state area where Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana join and from where both our families hailed. Certainly, there was much mixing of White ethics during the approximately six-to-ten generations from the 17th- and 18th-century Scot-Irish migration until Vance’s birth in the late 20th century. To understand the ethnic enclaves that did survive into the 20th century and the mix of White Ethnics are make up our Midwest roots, I’d suggest (rise of the…) I am interested to get the Ancestry DNA test at some point, to see what percentages I am of German-English-Scot-Irish and French, and perhaps Vance should take the test, too, to see how strong or “pure” his Scot-Irish roots really are.
I was annoyed at how Vance inserted data to back up his view of his family and the community, and seemed to over-generalize with them. Still, the problem is more with what “sociology” has become, where anyone can quickly rake the coals of their particular foci through the research e-bases, and wrap theory around their anecdotes. I could not get a sense of the research tidbits he scattered through this, but do hope some younger sociologists are following up with better statistical data. I sensed he had considerable loathing for his family and other like types in his community, and, by extension, himself? I believe he was trying to be honest, and I appreciated his sardonic and deprecating humor. Surely he, like me, were taught to try to do good acts while trying not to take much of life too seriously. My parents constantly say, “don’t sweat the small stuff”, so perhaps that life stance may be a Midwestern defense mechanism, too.
The crime, truly, is that so many women in his family were pregnant much too early. Instead of casting that as part of a problem with either the “culture” or the “family”, he tends to shade his view of his mother as an object of pure disdain for low or missing morals, essentially a prostitute, with a rotating door of boyfriends and husbands and the threat of domestic violence almost often present. We know that, for example, teen mothers have greater risk, statistically, of lack of education, under- and unemployment, and domestic violence. In the US, close to a third of US teenagers are pregnant by age 19, and with just a third of those ending in abortions at this point – a number down considerably. The US teen pregnancy rate is 5-6 times higher than that in comparable European countries, with no less sexually active teens but with comprehensive sex education and access to birth control. As the AAUW noted several decades ago, sex education is “Civil Rights” for women, but in many Conservative, more rural areas of the US it is a joke. I did appreciate how Vance learned “never say never” and while enforcing strict boundaries against his mother for his own psychological well-being, he also decided he should help his mom. I fear Vance didn’t see that Mamaw viciously hating each of the men that came in and out of her daughter’s life was likely the projected pain of limited opportunity in Mamaw’s own life.
Remember that Late Capitalism started with its Golden Era post-WWII, when people like his Pawpaw got jobs just by going out and getting one. By the time Vance was born, it was almost a decade after the “falling rate of profit” for capitalism, and the “land of plenty” was in terms of good jobs. “Choice” enjoys a consistent reign as a central metaphor for hyper-individualism in capitalism. Vance is right that individual accountability matters, but “it’s the economy, stupid”, and he errs on the side of blaming the community and the individuals within it for their plight. As others have noted, and how advertising by FOX News confirms, the worst part of this book is how racism and race resentment among lower- to middle-class Whites, largely un- or under-educated in the Midwest, is hidden and denied. I assume this was Vance’s conscious decision, and he even said something to the effect of not focusing on race (can we say asserting White Privilege with impunity?)
I slowly went numb with the awareness that Trump would likely pull it off when I realized summer before last that every single member of my extended family in the Indiana was voting for him. This included a large number of Liberal- to Conservative-Methodists (the latter more devout), a good number of evangelist-fundamentalists, and even the younger, non-religious, and even apolitical ones. The hypocrisy of the White evangelicals voting for Trump was made possible by nativist-racist fear, the thing that Vance said makes little difference. Rust-belt, moderate Christianity has been on a trajectory to the right over the last couple generations, and that movement certainly quickened with this election. My cousins generally found the American Dream and are doing as well economically as our parents, but it looks considerably bleaker for the next generation, made more scared (and thus Conservative) as those that went to college face overwhelming student loans and few prospects for jobs that will keep them in the middle-class. I’m skeptical of how typical is Vance’s family of violence, abuse, and suspicion (and I share details of mine from the same ‘hood) and am taken on how other reviewers just assume Vance’s family is typical and generalizable. While I tried to parse out both similarities and differences between our families, I would add to the former the assumption that Vance’s family voted for Trump as did mine. One of the best summaries about what has happened to “our” people in the Midwest and how there are no easy answers was right after the election in The Atlantic here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/a....
For my money, there are many better reads to understand Midwest poverty, including Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City that I briefly reviewed. In the US, blaming the poor for being poor is an art form. We're socialized to blame it on individual "choices" and lack of "responsibility" rather than the social structural causes of poverty. Most in the US don't know who the poor are, so they accept Vance’s characterization of masses of lazy people not working at all. Census data from 2010 shows us that 80% of US homes are of are "working poor" (in which at least one adult works at least part-time – often seasonal or piecemeal) and not the benefit-collecting "welfare poor". Many don’t realize that a family of four does not meet the technical definition of poor if it makes over about $25K/year in income. Michael Higgins' Somos Tocayos on views of poverty argues that we tend to have two answers to the question of "why poverty?": either the social-structural or individual causes. Both views, however, rest of the notion of fate: the mistaken notion and validation of middle-class ideology that poverty is a hopeless, insurmountable social condition.
This was only my second “book on tape”, but I’m looking forward to my next one. With six CDs, it took about 9 hours and was a relaxing way to pass the commuting time over several weeks. If anybody would like it, I’d be happy to drop it in the mail if you’d PM me with your address.
2016 is the year of Donald Trump, and J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy should be at the top of every politico and thought leader's reading list living in the Acela corridor. Vance is both an excellent writer and a thoughtful person—and when combined with a compelling story, he's able to shed some light on the lives of those living on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains.
Let's start with what this book isn't. It's not an explanation of why Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, or at least not directly. Nor is it a guide for how to alleviate Appalachian poverty. Vance is too smart to offer simplistic explanations or solutions. Rather, it is one man's experience living in the culture of Appalachia and placing his experience in the broader context of American society. It is the fact that he doesn't try to do too much that makes this book as compelling as it is.
Vance grew up in southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, largely raised by his grandmother (Mamaw) and having a complicated relationship with his family members. Hillbilly Elegy is a story that demonstrates the full measure of the brokenness that wracks Appalachia, but it is also a story that exemplifies the depths of familial love and opportunity.
Vance's description of Yale Law School is interesting, because while he portrays it as an institution in which he feels out of place (very few people from poor backgrounds go to Yale Law School), he also was afforded the opportunity to go there. That tension—the fact that he managed to "beat the odds" while still acknowledging the deep cultural divide between elite institutions and wide swaths of middle America (the region of the United States sometimes derisively referred to as "flyover country")—pervades the book and ultimately makes it such an important book.
For that tension exists not merely in the people like Vance who have a foot in both worlds—one in southeastern Ohio with his hillbilly family and the other in downtown San Francisco working for an investment fund. It also exists in the United States writ large, as college-educated urbanites express confusion at the values of those outside of their spheres. There are, therefore, two Americas—one divided less by race or geography (though those certainly matter), but by class and values. In order to break down those barriers, we need books like Hillbilly Elegy and people like Vance to help us build bridges across those cultural barriers we have today.
I'll be honest I didn't totally finish the book before giving up. I hear Vance on NPR and the story caught my attention. Yet, what I thought would be a better analysis of American economics and poverty proved to be very different.
It's one of those conservative love stories of " I got my shit together so everyone can". While I respect the struggle Vance had, I also believe it's a very naive picture of what is going on. It explains why people FEEL a way. It does not explain the systemic issues that are also at play.
Skip it if you want anything profound.
This is an incredibly fascinating and well done book. I think that the thoughts and opinions of the author might be controversial, but he lived through it and saw the good and the bad so I will give him the benefit of the doubt on how he sees things after the way he grew up!
When I saw the name, I figured this would be reading about a real life Deliverance-esque town. However, this is more about how a boy develops into a man when dealing with being raised by a family with a “Hillbilly” background. The setting is suburban Ohio where many Hillbillies have relocated for blue collar jobs. In fact, the town is Middletown, Ohio, which is not far from where I was growing up at the same time that the events of this book were taking place (Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati). Because of this, it hit home even more for me.
When I say that his opinions might come across as controversial, it is because he gives his opinions about his upbringing and the Hillbilly culture and how he had to struggle to overcome it. Some of what he says might get people riled up if it came from an outsider. But, again, since he lived with it – I feel like his input and opinion are a very important viewpoint.
I did a little background search on this book and the author online. It sounds like there are some people who scoff at this book because it isn’t about a Deliverance-esque town, the author is well spoken, and he does not necessarily paint the Hillbilly culture in the best light. I agree that all these things are true about the book, but I think that is what makes it even more fascinating and amazing to me. When you read this, you will probably be surprised that he made it away from abuse, drug use, poverty, and crime at all. Is he supposed to feel bad about that? I think that some people think that he should; kind of like he turned his back on his roots
If a thought provoking book about growing up in lower middle class suburbia over the past 30-40 years sounds interesting to you, this is your book. I can easily recommend this book to anyone who loves a good memoir.