Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99
This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.
Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.
The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”
It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”
Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”
So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.
Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.
Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.
Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.
So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.