EDITOR’S NOTE: Author J.D. Vance told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last month that he intends to set up a nonprofit organization in Ohio to address “the issues I talk about in the book,” Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Spencer Wells in Nonprofit Quarterly said the plan for the nonprofit is vague. Vance’s book about his upbringing, on the other hand, is not.
Hillbilly Elegy has prompted a lot of discussion, especially within the context of the presidential election. This is our third review. Our previous reviews were written by Jim Branscome and Bill Turner. Today, we hear from Charles L. Baker of Buckhorn, Kentucky.
Appalachian scholar Loyal Jones has often told the story of two mountaineer cousins who, after some discussion established that their one particular uncle was a disgrace to the family. But in closing they also agreed, “True, but he’s ours.”
J.D. Vance, in his book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is a bit confused in regard to what’s “ours,” especially the values he inherited from his Appalachian culture. What he believes are new insights into the society and culture of displaced, poverty stricken mountaineers are merely the rehashing of the debate in the 1990’s.
Vance spent his summers in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where the rural life is free and fascinating, surrounded by his large extended family, but during the school year, in Middletown, Ohio, he is miserable. Surrounded by Appalachian transplants, he observes the patterns of isolation, the guilt-stricken grief at the death of family members, the “self-medication” by alcohol and drugs, and the seemingly irrational behavior of workers who desperately need a job but can’t get themselves to work on time.
In this autobiography, written at age 31, his generalizations regarding the culture of his neighbors shows he still has much to learn. From Vance’s view the values of mountain people are fatalistic, overly family-centered and inflexible, similar to the way Jack Weller described them in his 1965 book, Yesterday’s People. But alternatively those same values can be interpreted as stoic, loyal and self-reliant – as described by Loyal Jones (1994) in Appalachian Values.
As an exceptionally bright and observant young man, Vance’s ultimate success springs from a combination of persistence and the good fortune of a loving grandmother. Unknowingly, he doesn’t realize how great are the benefits he derived from his mountain culture. For example, his self-effacing story of his ongoing growth and struggle against a background of childhood trauma is a reflection of the humility that is one of the most endearing mountain values.
Vance also owes much of his success to his pride and self-reliance, traits from his mountain culture. Of course these naturally make him a self-proclaimed conservative, who tend to see success and failure as primarily related to individual characteristics and effort. However, while we can be sure Vance realizes that every son of a drug-addicted mother doesn’t have a strong and loving grandmother to step in as needed, he is unable to see that while the reasons for success are not all to the credit of the individual, the basis of the failures of Appalachian people is not always under their control.
From a broader perspective, the two most obvious reasons for the social problems experienced by mountain people are our American economic structure and our nation’s long history of discrimination.
The values and social norms of Appalachian people, once vital to their survival in the hostile conditions of isolated pioneer life, have long been the target of ridicule by the mainstream culture – we all know the barefoot, tobacco chewing, moonshine drinking stereotype. Similarly, America’s economic structure has been especially difficult for the people of Appalachia. The subsistence-living mountain pioneers were subjected to economic pressures to become dust-covered coal miners – and as the numbers of miners declined, they were tempted up the Hillbilly Highway to chase manufacturing jobs. As those jobs have also disappeared, mountain people remain stranded, like fish out of water, with only their tattered customs and mores remaining.
Mr. Vance is somehow blind to the power of industries that manipulate working people with no thought to the pain and the disrupted lives left behind. One obvious example is his support of pay-day lending. He doesn’t seem to understand that reformers don’t want to eliminate short-term emergency lending, but rather to limit the financial exploitation of the poor by yet one more unscrupulous industry.
The traditional mountain values of pride, self-reliance and independence make Vance skeptical of traditional governmental attempts to alleviate suffering. While largely unconscious of the impact these cultural norms have on his thinking, nevertheless the traditional mountain value of patriotism led him, like so many others, to join the military after high school.
It is somewhat ironic that he credits the military, the largest of all “governmental programs,” as his salvation. In reflection he also notes other individuals who have been successful because they had such an “outside” experience, away from family and beyond the boundaries of prevailing social norms. A broader policy thinker might consider that a program of required national service, military or other, might give thousands of mountain boys and girls their own valuable “outside” experience.
Like the disgraceful uncle in Loyal’s story, for those of us with roots in Appalachia these values are “ours.” We can’t ignore them, they are a part of our psyche and our view of the world. The modern world could benefit from many of these mountain values, including family closeness, humility and love of place. Mountain people could likewise benefit from thoughtful government policies that don’t create dependence, but rather build on our independence.
Charles L. Baker, MSSW, was born in Harlan, raised in Hazard and is the retired Mayor of Buckhorn, KY. He was the long-time CEO of the Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org