“Hillbilly Elegy”: A Memoir of a Family and Culture

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.