Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I have a lot in common with Vance.  We are roughly the same age.  We both grew up poor hillbillies.  We both had a beloved older sister.  One set of grandparents was very important to both our lives.  We would both go on to attend an elite law school and marry a good woman.

There is also a fair amount we don’t have in common.  Unlike Vance, I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains proper.  Unlike Vance, I grew up in a stable, two-parent home.

Unlike the vast majority of people who have written about Hillbilly Elegy, I visited Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio.  Vance’s grandparents left their home in Jackson to go to Middletown for work.  Vance grew up in Middletown taking frequent trips back home to Jackson to see family.  It wasn’t that onerous for me.  I drive through Ohio and Kentucky several times a year trekking between the place I live in the Rust Belt and my home in Appalachia.  Oddly enough, that drive takes me the same amount of time as the drive between Middletown and Jackson took Vance’s grandparents (roads have improved considerably in the interim).  I took an unplanned trip home without the wife and baby this summer after my mom fell and broke her hip, so I took the scenic route on the way back and very briefly visited Jackson and Middletown.  Interspersed throughout my post are pictures from that trip.

Middletown

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky, known as “Bloody Breathitt,” famously for being the only county in the entire United States to fill its World War I service quota entirely with volunteers and infamously for a long history of killings.  It’s deep in holler country “where the sun comes up about 10 in the morning.”  It’s not like my corner of the Appalachian Mountains.  The mountains are lower but closer together, creating very tight valleys bad for farming but rich in coal.  My first thought driving through Jackson was “I haven’t seen this many ratty single-wide trailers since I left my home a few hours ago.”  Unlike back home, there ain’t much else in Jackson (although there is an excellent barbecue joint that serves beer and plays Colter Wall (Not that they would lack for local options.  Sturgill Simpson lived in Jackson as a kid)).  Times have been hard there for a long time, and it shows.

These are pretty nice as Jackson single-wides go

Vance’s family had roots that ran deep in Jackson, but his grandparents joined the crowds on those hillbilly highways headed north to the Rust Belt.  Those narrow valleys limit your options as to route.  With two lane roads keeping the speed down and ample space off the road, the roadsides are popular for yard sales.  I must have passed dozens between the Kentucky state line and Lexington.  From there it’s a straight shot to Ohio.  Vance’s grandparents settled halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton in the aptly named “Middletown.”  It was a teen pregnancy that sent them out of Jackson but a good job for Vance’s grandpa at the Armco steel plant that kept them there.  Joan Williams notes in her book on the white working class that working class migration tends to be by family.  The extended kinship networks that are so important to the working class are not easily replicated.  Better to bring you with them.  Companies like Armco recognized this and facilitated it by giving preference to applicants with one or more family members already at Armco.  Those post-WWII years were one of the great periods of migration on the hillbilly highways; thirteen out of every hundred Kentuckians left, even more from the especially poor counties in the eastern, mountainous side of the state.

The old Armco plant, now AK Steel

The Armco plant (now AK Steel) is still there, but employment isn’t what it used to be.  Some parts of the Rust Belt are doing well these days; much of it isn’t.  Middletown is a little ratty, though not near so much so as Jackson.  It is showing signs of gentrification (or Bobo-ification).  The big Richie’s Pawn Central sign that Vance mentions is still there, but it joins a fine mural celebrating Middletown’s history as a port on the Miami & Erie Canal in overlooking the lovely outdoor seating for a restaurant called Gracie’s.  Gracie’s was started by a woman who grew up in Middletown but left to pursue a career in NYC and LA.  It’s one of those places that sells small portions of “comfort food” (growing up, we just called it “food”) at large prices (it’s all relative—I’ve paid more for worse in Chicago).  It’s a net benefit for Middletown, but it doesn’t mean the working class there is doing better.

Vance’s grandparents found economic opportunity in Middletown but not the good life.  Hillbillies were despised by their new neighbors.  A 1951 survey in Detroit placed hillbillies above “transients,” “Negroes,” and “drifters” on the list of groups Detroiters found undesirable.  Not that they didn’t try to keep to themselves.  They clustered in hillbilly neighborhoods and drank at hillbilly honky tonks.  The fast living was attractive.  Vance’s grandma’s brothers would come up from Jackson to drink and chase women with his grandpa.  His grandpa was a mean, surly drunk.  Vance’s grandma once lit his grandpa on fire while he was sleeping one off on the couch.  They made good money but squandered it on a procession of new cars.

Middletown

It is this period that produces my favorite story from the book.  Vance’s uncle Jimmy (the oldest of his grandparents’ children) wanted a fancy toy for Christmas.  His grandparents sent him to go find it while they shopped elsewhere in the mall.  By the time they got to the store, though, he was waiting outside in the cold; a store employee had kicked him out when he saw him playing with the toy.  This led to Vance’s grandpa walking into the store and smashing the toy on the store floor, his grandma throwing stuff off the shelves while screaming, “Kick his fucking ass!  Kick his fucking ass!” and his grandpa telling the clerk “If you say another word to my son, I will break your fucking neck.”  I’m not saying my grandparents would have done that (they wouldn’t have).  But I am saying I know a whole bunch of people who would have and that they wouldn’t have been wrong to do it.

Despite all that, Vance’s grandparents grew up, as people tend to do (remember, they were only teenagers when they moved to Middletown to start a family).  Things settled into something approaching normalcy, even if Vance’s grandpa moved into another house.  His grandpa stopped drinking.  His uncle, aunt, and mom grew up.  His grandparents were optimistic.  After all, they had already improved their own economic circumstances greatly.  His uncle would do pretty well.  His aunt dropped out of school at 16 to get married.  It was an abusive relationship, but she left and married a good man.

Jackson

Things wouldn’t work out so well for Vance’s mom.  She quickly married, had a kid (Vance’s sister), and got divorced.  She quickly married, had a kid (Vance), and got divorced.  She got a good job at the hospital, but she kept running through men.  Vance remembers constant fighting.  She developed a drug problem that would never really go away.  One time when Vance pissed her off in the car she floored the gas and told him she would wreck the car and kill them both.  When she pulled over to beat him, he ran for a nearby house.  His mom would beat down the woman’s door and drag him out of the house, but by then the cops had showed up.  At the hearing in court, Vance lied about what happened for the simple reason telling the truth could have gotten him taken away from his family.  They worked out a better, informal solution: Vance would mostly live with his grandma from then on.

Houses across from the steel plant

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, and Vance has plenty more to say about his life growing up.  I won’t belabor that here.  Vance’s gun-toting, foul-mouthed grandma and their close relationship tends to steal the show, but it is a rich story throughout.  He also deftly weaves in context informed both by talking to people back home and social science literature (anyone who dismisses Hillbilly Elegy as merely anecdotal is full of shit).  A “back-row student” for much of his grade school life, Vance would put more effort into school after a stint in the Marines.  He blew through undergrad at Ohio State and would go on to law school at Yale.

It was at Yale that he would realize how little social capital he had.  Entrée into today’s elite is mostly a function of cognitive ability and the right education.  But cognitive ability alone is not a guarantee of academic (and later career) success.  People who come from upper-middle class families have a big leg up.  They walk in with a grasp of the norms and schema that govern elite life.  Vance and I had to figure it out as we went.  The Marines did little for Vance on that score (I was better served by high school athletics, membership in a social fraternity in college, and a short career in consulting before law school).

Jackson

Hillbilly Elegy is a great book that we will talking about for a long time.  It would be a shame if this is the only book on hillbillies a person ever reads, but that isn’t Vance’s fault.  Hillbilly Elegy joins Albion’s Seed and Night Comes to the Cumberlands as significant work in the hillbilly studies canon.  Vance draws heavily from research on the working class.  His sources are lighter on hillbilly studies, one of my few criticisms of the book.  Not that allowing bleed between the two is wrong.  I do the same here.  Vance is right, many white working class Americans are hillbillies.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Vance doesn’t dismiss “structural” issues.  There isn’t much an individual can do about the decline in good, plentiful manufacturing jobs for non-college grads.  They can control how they react, and Vance is right that far too many reacted “to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.”  An individual can change their own circumstances, even if they cannot change the circumstances of everyone around them.  In a day where good blue collar jobs go unfilled for lack of good candidates, that is a smart play.  Waiting on the government or someone else to do it for you, not so much.

Vance doesn’t end the book with a half-baked, tacked-on policy chapter.  The book is better for it.  Vance has policy views that he has laid out in a number of articles written after Hillbilly Elegy’s publication.  But it is important to come to grips with what is really happening, and gain some appreciation for the real people involved, before diving into policy.  (Now, if Vance were to write a serious policy book as a follow-up, I would love to read it.)

Middletown

I do have one real problem with the book.  Toward the end, Vance suggests a need to marry outside of hillbilly culture to do alright.  It might be the case that if you come from a sorry family that you need to marry into a good family.  But there are plenty of good hillbilly families.  My mom came from a sorry non-hillbilly family and marrying into a good hillbilly family saved her.  Vance’s family isn’t weird at all among hillbillies.  Neither are families like that of Vance’s Aunt Wee’s husband Dan.

Stop a minute and think about why people care about this book (not why they should, why they do).  A lot of it is pure luck in timing.  These issues have been festering for a while.  But a lot of other people have been talking about them to limited attention.  Hillbilly Elegy was published in June 2016 to pretty immediate attention.  I bought my copy in September of that year and felt late to the party (funnily enough, I think it was Kevin Williamson’s review that sold me on the book).  Hillbilly Elegy would get a further boost during a brief period of sanity during which people on the Left wanted to learn more about what could possibly have led to Trump’s election.

But that isn’t really what I’m talking about.  Vance came from wretched, traumatic circumstances but found material success and more importantly some measure of peace.  But he isn’t alone.  As Vance himself points out, other members of his family came out alright.  I could point to plenty of others who came out alright from as bad or worse.  Some elites insist on a solely deterministic view.  This drives me crazy.  It’s ignorant, it robs us of agency over our own lives, and it erases the accomplishments of people who came from so little and overcame so much.  So why does Vance get attention?  He went to Yale Law.  He made connections that only came with that Yale Law degree that boosted his book.  It is only that entrée to elite society that gets him their attention.  To me, though, Yale is the least of Vance’s accomplishments.  Any person of sufficient intelligence can attend and succeed at an elite law school (maybe even after things have already gone very, very badly).  More impressive is coming from a traumatic childhood to become a good man, a good husband, and a good father.  Vance did that.  His sister equaled his accomplishment: becoming a good woman, a good wife, a good mother.  I am happy to celebrate their success.

Jackson

I want to close by saying this is a courageous work.  Not because it is risky to come out as a conservative when you work in Silicon Valley or because telling people how you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps is sure to raise the ire of Leftist elites, although those things are true.  Because it is courageous to speak honestly about his people when they fly off the handle if an outsider criticizes so much as their socks.  Vance’s grandma told him, “You never talk about family to some stranger.  Never.”  Vance just talked about his family to an entire family of strangers.  And we are the better for it.

5 of 5 Stars.

 

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10 thoughts on “Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

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    1. I have a copy of it but haven’t read it yet. I wasn’t a fan of her essay in Appalachian Reckoning, which I have read and plan to write on (again) relatively soon.

      Like

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  8. Pingback: Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words

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