Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
© 2016 J.D. Vance
Imagine a childhood in which the most stable person in your life once methodically marinated her passed-out drunken husband with lighter fluid, then set him on fire. (She did tell him if he came on drunk again, she’d kill him.) That was J.D. Vance’s story, born in an Ohio colony of Kentucky hillbillies, whose residents escaped the desperate poverty of the hills but brought its impoverished habits with them. In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance recounts his turbulent childhood, his difficult coming of age, and the people through by he was able to escape the pit — primarily his grandmother and the US Marine Corps.
Thomas Sowell’s Black Rednecks and White Liberals introduced me to the idea that a culture of poverty has gripped southern whites and blacks — that their culture is in fact the same, one brought over from Scotland. Vance’s portrayal of that culture is personal and gripping. It’s rendered through his biography; hill people are impulsive and violent, with an acute appreciation for family honor that leads to savage reprisals with that honor is offended. Vance witnessed chainsaws used to counter rude suggestions made toward the family women — although later on, the brother protecting his sister might later get into a screaming match with her over a trivial issue. The impulsiveness isn’t limited to reactions against insulting remarks; it also expresses itself in a short-sighted view towards work. A profitable job is abandoned if waking up for it becomes viewed as a hassle. When this approach to life fails to produce anything, outside factors are to blame: the boss, the economy, the government. Drugs enter the picture, both as pleasures in themselves and as relief from lives filled with screaming relatives, bad ol’ bosses, and the threat of poverty. All this creates an enormous amount of chaos in the lives of people, and children raised in it grow up as emotional basket cases, with no exposure to any other life that might make the shortcomings of theirs visible.
Vance and his sister were exposed to some of the worst of this through their mother, who — despite some vocational accomplishment as a nurse — fell prey to substance abuse. At least five boyfriends were foisted on her children as make-believe dads, and her go-to solution for dealing with arguments in a car was to drive the car into things — trees, perhaps even others. Vance frequently saw neighbors hauled away by the police, but one night his mother was taken away, too. They only narrowly escaped being dumped on a random family, since their relatives were not licensed state-approved caregivers. For all of his grandmother’s violent temper, she believed he could have a future, and she believed he could achieve whatever he wanted if he worked for it. She urged him not to believe the lie that the odds were stacked against him: the world was his for the taking. Only when he began living with her full time did Vance manage to find some emotional stability and make plans for the future. Those plans included the Marine Corps, which taught him self-control and responsibility, and still later Yale. Along the way Vance continues reflecting on what these moments in his life were teaching him; Yale, for instance, illustrated to him the power of social capital, of networking. Submitting resumes and waiting is for the underemployed; those who get ahead do so by virtue of who they know.
Hillbilly Elegy has been creating a stir lately, presumably because people want to understand why Trump is popular. They’ll probably find something here, like: “Say, Trump blames other people for our problems. That’s what those hillbillies do!”. Of course, all parties blame other people for the problems; that’s politics. Vance’s book is an eye-opening account of the social life of Appalachia and its Midwest diaspora, but certain aspects of that culture have much broader appeal. The complete breakdown of the family is present both here and in accounts of urban poverty. In Ain’t No Shame in my Game, for instance, Katherine Newman documented young couples from broken families who had received so little education in being an adult that they had no idea how to feed and change their baby. Human civilization depends on knowledge constantly being passed from the old to the new — without that inculcation, what are we? Also repeated in both cultures of poverty is the lack of agency — the idea, that people are not in command of their lives but at the mercy of forces greater than they. They are either in thrall to the government, or constantly point the finger at a political party, an ethnicity, etc. There is no taking ones fate into own’s own hand. Of course, Vance’s story also illustrates that escaping poverty is no matter of pulling one’s self by the bootstraps: he needed his grandmother teaching him to look toward the future, as he needed the Marines to show him how to work towards it.
- “Hillbilly Elegy: Self-Destructive Ideas and Behaviors Among the White Working Class“, audio interview with author. (~25 minutes.)
- Black Rednecks, White Liberals. Thomas Sowell
- Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad
- The Working Poor, David Shipler
- The Scotch-Irish: A Social History, James Leyburn