“Hillbilly Elegy”: A Memoir of a Family and Culture
Reading author J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is like a Sunday afternoon drive from my home in Huntington, West Virginia, to my hometown of Harts – 70 miles and a world away. Vance paints portraits of men and women who populate my memories. How could it not be so? After all, the author is a distant cousin, as both of us are related to the Hatfield clan of feud fame.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is an eloquent epitaph for a dying culture – one that at one time formed a vital core of American society. It is also a warning to the broader American culture.
“The number of working-class whites in high-poverty neighborhoods is growing. In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent. It’s almost certainly even higher today. n other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs.”
Vance’s book came out shortly before the November 2016 election and many people have looked to it for answers as to why Americans voted for Donald Trump.
At its most basic level, however, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a story of hope – of transcendence. Vance was born poor in the rapidly decaying rust-belt Ohio town of Middletown to a family of economic migrants from eastern Kentucky. He describes a childhood devoid of hope – one in which his father disappeared and his drug-addled mother abandoned him after subjecting him to her spiral of self-destruction. His salvation came in the form of his grandparents. Despite their own dysfunction, they loved J.D. and helped him rise above the limits they imposed on themselves.
Vance’s family was among those who settled the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries. They lived in isolation for 200 years, but during the Depression many came out of the mountains looking for jobs in northern factories. The Vances were part of a second postwar wave of Appalachian migrants. That brought them to Middletown, Ohio, a place that had grown up around a giant steel mill. Vance’s “Papaw” built a good life as a worker there, but then the business – and the town that depended on it – began dying as heavy industry moved to East Asia.
Vance describes “learned helplessness” – the abiding sense that nothing you do matters and that you can’t change your fate, which is decided by other people in some nameless, faceless building somewhere, or by a Calvinistic God who determines your fate before you are even born.
As descendants of the Scots-Irish, the move from the mountains of Appalachia to the industrial towns of the Northeast and Midwest was actually the third great dispossession for this culture. The first was when the British decided to remove the Scots from their glens (valleys), or “hollers” in Appalachian-speak, to the enclave of Northern Ireland. he second was to the Appalachian Mountains. A few generations forward and economics pushed a wave of these families from those small farms into the cities in a desperate search for jobs. And just as it has so many times, the cultures of the cities and the “hillbillies” clashed, with hillbillies being labeled as lazy, violent and clannish.
“If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”
Yes, they were often lazy, because they consistently had everything they had worked to achieve ripped away. And, yes, they were violent and distrustful of others. How could they not be, given their history of being forcibly dispossessed? And they were clannish because they saw the need to be there for each other as all they could depend on. These traits provided a level of protection but they also created self-imposed limits to their ability to better themselves.
With his grandparents’ help, Vance broke those bonds. “Elegy” describes how he moved beyond his “station” in life to attend Yale law school and go on to a lucrative career as an investment manager in Silicon Valley. He also explains how his success showed him that much of the poverty felt in his community was self-imposed by this learned helplessness. Vance says it is a toxic mixture, and it is. It creates fertile ground for the collapse of society into a drug- and alcohol-fueled abyss. I have seen it in my own hometown, where people I went to church with as a child are now either dead – the casualties of a drug epidemic, or the walking dead – victims of the epidemic who are no longer recognizable as the people I knew.
“We do know that working-class Americans aren’t just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they’re also more likely to fall off even after they’ve reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem.”
The prior administration’s war on coal stoked the already burning fires of this cultural and social decay in Appalachia. As jobs and homes were lost, hope died many times over. More people took refuge in the bottle, be it an alcohol or pill bottle. Younger people have fallen victim to a host of problems – teenage pregnancies, low-birthweight babies, suicides, self-destructive behaviors. The poverty rate during the Obama years expanded by some 30 percent. At its height, the reported unemployment rates for some counties were about 20 percent, but real rates were 50 percent or more.
In the wake of President Trump’s victory, Vance’s book has become popular with moderate Democrats who say their party concentrated too much on identity politics and radical environmental and economic programs. They point to places like the Appalachians, Michigan, Wisconsin and other states, where it seemed Democrats had lost sight of their traditional base. The result was the election of President Trump, who shared their concerns and promised to address them.