Review: Lamenting ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

The "memoir" of a 30-something purports to explain Donald Trump's popularity with poor whites. But it's really the autobiography of a young man who concludes that what the Scots-Irish need is a sharp kick in the ass.

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We’re now approaching the Everest level in our march to the total narcissistic society:  Thirty-somethings are writing their memoirs.

I’m not kidding.  J.D. Vance has done a Sir Edmund Hillary in his newly released “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” This lad with ancestral roots in “Bloody Breathitt” County, deep in the Cumberland Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, is a mere 31 years old.  Actually, he discloses in the book that his birthday is August 2, 1984, so he’ll be 32 when you read this.

The book, a best seller on Amazon, is being especially celebrated by conservatives and libertarians because they believe it explains the phenomenon of the decline of the poor white working class in the US.  New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, who fears that disaffected white Americans are going to elect a tyrant named Donald Trump, calls it “essential reading for this moment in history.”  The executive editor of The National Review is even more effusive:  “To understand the rage and disaffection of America’s working class whites, look to Greater Appalachia.  (Vance) gives voice to this forgotten corner of our country, and to the millions of white Americans who feel powerless as their way of life is devastated.  Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary.”

No book about Appalachia has gotten this much attention since Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” was published in 1963 and led President Kennedy to lay the groundwork for LBJ’s eventual War on Poverty.  Caudill eloquently described the rape of a region and a people by colonialist coal barons allied with governments and called on the conscience of the nation for remedies.  Vance begs to differ:  “These problems were not created by government or corporations or anyone else.  We created them, and only we can fix them….we hillbillies must wake the hell up.”

A bit of background on Vance is in order.  He was raised in Middletown, Ohio, a city between Cincinnati and Dayton, by a family that had escaped eastern Kentucky as part of the “Hillbilly Diaspora” following WW II when mine mechanization and diesel-powered trains led to a coalfield depression.  His grandfather, who drank too much but eventually just quit, found work at Armco Steel, one of many firms that staffed themselves by recruiting whole extended families of mountaineers because they were hard and loyal workers.  These mountain families tended to congregate in the same areas of urban Ohio, such as the eventually famous Over the Rhine area of Cincinnati.

While these economic refugees in many cases became economically qualified members of the American middle class, earning very respectable wages with good health and retirement benefits, they never lost their attachment to “back home,” meaning in Vance’s case the families and “hollers” of Breathitt County, with the county seat at Jackson on the Mountain Parkway.  When Interstate 75 was completed across the Ohio River about twenty years before J.D. was born, newspapers wrote about the bridge being congested for hourson Friday nights by mountaineers headed home for the weekend.  Dutiful reporters did specials on this reverse migration on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and during squirrel and deer season.

Vance goes into excruciating detail on his extended dysfunctional family.  Grandma is a pistol-packing lover of Jesus who curses a lot and never attends church.  Grandpa, once recovered, is a bit stoic but he and grandma have to live in separate houses to keep the peace.  Mother is a nurse, serial marrier of men that even Tammy Wynette would not stick with (there were five or six of these “fathers,” I lost count), and a drug addict who abandoned Vance and his sister to be raised by the grandparents.

Vance spends more time describing Middletown that he does Jackson.  Middletown is Rust Belt USA both in the psychological and economic sense.  Armco Steel will soon be owned by the Japanese and close down, decimating the city and destroying what remains of social stability in the mountaineer enclaves.  Jackson is a bit of a hellhole town with the funeral home being the busiest business, given the proclivity of hill folk like grandma and grandpa who insist on funerals “back home” with burial in the family cemetery up a holler.  Vance loves the place and still calls it home–he’s since vacated to San Francisco and a job in the investment business–because the mountains are beautiful and the closeness of family and mountain culture make it a kind of spiritual sanctuary.

Author J.D. Vance.
Author J.D. Vance.

But just when you start to hope that Vance is going to tell you about the “green, green grass of home” that is “almost heaven,” he drags you through chapter after chapter of family dysfunction on steroids.  These Scots-Irish folks–there are no Germans, Italians, French or African Americans in Vance’s Appalachia, like the ones most other authors know–are not the ones that saved civilization; they have simply lost it to anger, ignorance, and laziness.

There are enough stereotypes in this book to sink an aircraft carrier.  To wit, from Uncle Jimmy opining on the Scots-Irish, “But yeah, like everyone else in our family, they could go from zero to murderous in a f***ing heartbeat.”  To top off Vance’s lack of knowledge on his topic, he says “Bloody Breathitt” got its title from all the men volunteering to fight in WW I without a draft call.  Actually, it was from all the feuding that followed the Civil War because many mountaineer families in the South fought for the Union side.

Vance does a good job of describing the impact of all this dysfunction on himself.  It goes on for chapter after chapter to the point that it’s only common courtesy that keeps one from shouting, “Okay, J.D., I get it, life can be tough, just buck up and get your sh*t together.”  Eventually he does, thanks to the US Marines.  Readers get an in-depth description of the Marine process of turning lost youngsters into real men.  Even before the Marines, Vance was noticing the cheating on food stamps and the incredible laziness of some of his neighborhood friends who forsaked good jobs to goof off or live on welfare.  Not J.D.

Vance comes out of the Marines and a tour in Iraq with a new vision for himself and a prescription for fixing the woes of the white working class.  “This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.  The Marine Corps excised that feeling like a surgeon does a tumor.'”  It just warms the libertarian heart to think that a good drill sergeant at Parris Island could kick hillbilly asses hard enough to finally win a real War on Poverty.   A well-shined boot in the ass is the moonshot Appalachia has been needing for so long.

Vance insists that this book is a memoir of a family and a whole culture that he variously describes as Appalachia, the Scots-Irish wherever they may be, and the dismayed white working class pretty much from the top of Ohio down to the Mississippi Delta.  That’s a bit of hyperbole on my part, but it gets me to one point that any reader of this book needs to know:  Vance is very skilled at generalizing from very small pieces of evidence.  This book is not a memoir of a family or a class of people.  It’s a very young man’s autobiography.

Vance leaves Horatio Alger in the dust from this point forward.  He sails through Ohio State University taking so many classes and working so many jobs that he gets only four hours of sleep a night and counselors warn him to lower the burn a bit.   He pays no attention, graduates summa cum laude in a mere 23 months with a double major, and gets admitted to Yale Law School.  There he learns the secret they never whisper in Middletown or Jackson: It’s all about “social capital” and  social connections!  He runs into Tony Blair and George Pataki in the hallowed hallways.  He becomes an editor of the law journal, aces interviews with prestigious law firms, and falls in love with a remarkable law school classmate who seems to know how to fix the misaligned psyche of hillbillies.

For the young ones aspiring to break out of this vicious cycle of poverty and Hobbesian despair, Vance has lots of tips from the practical–what not to wear to job interviews and which butter knife to use on the bread at Yale–to the profound that usually come only with age and wisdom.  Harken to this:  “Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability.  Welcome to the family life of the American Hillbilly.  For me, understanding my past and knowing that I wasn’t doomed gave me the hope and fortitude to deal with the demons of my youth.  And though it’s cliche, the best medicine was talking about it with people who understood.”

The solution Vance suggests is for people to just get the hell out of the region and the mountaineer ghettos of the North.  They are loath to do that because “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world….It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it….Too many young men (are) immune to hard work.”

Vance and those who love his book are asking an important question of why the white working class is angry and voting for Trump.  To those of us who are concerned with the Appalachian region, it is something of a mystery of how in a few generations folks went from venerating FDR and JFK to voting for the likes of Trump.  Maybe they aren’t voting for him; maybe they are just voting against all the failed programs that Harry Caudill said were not a fix to the problems he described.  In many ways it’s still night in the Cumberlands.  But all over the region that Vance doesn’t know very well, there are people shining lights brighter than his on good solutions.

In an awkward stab at humility in the introduction, noting he’s very young and has accomplished little besides getting through Yale Law School, Vance says, “I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.”  I agree.

Jim Branscome is retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s. He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center.  He is from Snake Creek, Virginia, which is near Hillsville, and is a graduate of Berea (Kentucky) College.



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