The legacy of racism means that far too often black Americans are unfairly defined by the worst cultural stereotypes. But just as it is preposterous to treat every black kid like they’re a dangerous gangbanger, the legacy of liberal identity politics has defined what it means to be white according to standards that are alien to the experience of most white people in America. Early on in J.D. Vance’s buzzed-about Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, he lays down a marker making it clear that his tale is not one of white privilege.
“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast,” Vance writes. “Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
Vance writes of his experience growing up with an alcoholic, suicidal mother and being abandoned by his father. He bounced between a holler in Kentucky and a dying industrial town in Ohio. Despite the problems in his immediate family, he has the support of a fiercely protective gradmother, or “Mamaw,” who is notorious for shooting a man, when she was 12, who tried to steal the family cow. Mamaw is just one of Vance’s many incredibly colorful and violent relatives. Improbably, Vance transcended his disadvantaged circumstances and went on join the Marine Corps and eventually graduate from Yale Law School.
Vance says he felt like “hillbilly royalty,” if that’s not a contradiction in terms. He’s descended from the Hatfields, of Hatfields and McCoys fame, and his Mamaw’s great-grandfather was made a county judge in Kentucky around the turn of the twentieth century after the judge’s son (Mamaw’s grandfather) killed a member of a rival clan, an act that helped swing the election. The incident was notable enough that a New York Times story was written about it. “When I first read this gruesome story in one of the country’s most circulated newspapers,” Vance writes, “I felt one emotion above all the rest: pride.”
More Than A Memoir
The story of Vance’s bootstrapping and the cast of characters in Hillbilly Elegy would make for a worthy memoir in and of itself. But in recent decades, memoirs have deservedly earned a reputation for self-indulgence. What makes Vance’s book vastly superior than most memoirs is that it’s not just about him—it’s actually a sneaky work of journalism.
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, but in the past few years a slew of problems, ranging from exploding disability rolls to opioid addiction, have forced people to finally start paying attention to the cultural and economic disintegration of the white working class in America. Politically, the rise of Trump has all but etched these concerns onto the foreheads of America’s political commentators. Early on in the book Vance acknowledges the influence of right-leaning social scientist Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State White America, 1960-1910, and others who’ve done important work explaining the unraveling of blue-collar whites.
The result is that Vance has synthesized this data, and in Hillbilly Elegy he is able to project it back out through the lens of his own life experience. The story of Vance’s life is compelling enough, but he’s also able to make effortless digressions into, say, the growing problem of residential segregation and how federal housing policy creates disincentives for people to leave his economically dying hometown in Ohio in search of better job prospects.
The book presents an affecting personal narrative, but it’s often a springboard to offer insight into big-picture political and cultural problems that undoubtedly affect all Americans. The result is more than a memoir; it also offers empirical, as well as emotional, illumination for the reader.
Violence And Loyalty
As befits a cultural examination of hillbillies, Vance’s book is haunted by the specter of violence. At times, Vance recounts stories of his Kentucky relatives that make Justified seem like a documentary:
Once, when a truck driver delivered supplies to one of Uncle Pet’s businesses, he told my old hillbilly uncle, ‘Off-load this now, you son of a bitch.’ Uncle Pet took the comment literally: ‘When you say that, you’re calling my dear old mother a bitch, so I’d kindly ask you speak more carefully.’ When the driver—nicknamed Big Red because of his size and hair color—repeated the insult, Uncle Pet did what any rational business owner would do: He pulled the man from his truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Big Red nearly bled to death but was rushed to the hospital and survived. Uncle Pet never went to jail, though. Apparently, Big Red was also an Appalachian man, and he refused to speak to the police about the incident or press charges. He knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.
Throughout his childhood, Vance was taught that violence was an ordinary fact of life. He explains the problem in his grandparents’ marriage this way: “I couldn’t believe that mild-mannered Papaw, whom I adored as a child, was such a violent drunk. His behavior was due at least partly to Mamaw’s disposition. She was a violent nondrunk.” Of course, it’s not as simple as saying violence was always condoned either. While Vance’s grandmother taught him to take on bullies in school with his fists, at other times she also urged restraint.
Vance doesn’t escape being victimized by violence himself. During one episode when he’s 12, Vance’s abusive mother threatens to kill him by crashing the car—no idle threat since she’d made a previous suicide attempt by crashing into a telephone pole. When Vance dives into the back seat, his mother pulls over to “beat the s–t out of me” before Vance sprints out of the car to a nearby house, whose owner calls 911. As a result, Vance’s mother ends up being charged with domestic abuse. Vance ends up lying about the episode in court, because the state won’t give his grandparents custody, as they aren’t licensed foster care providers.
But if violence created this predicament, it also saved Vance. “I lied, with the express understanding that even though Mom would have her liberty, I could live with my grandparents whenever I wished,” Vance writes. “Mom would officially retain custody, but from that day forward I lived in her house only when I chose to—and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun. This was hillbilly justice, and it didn’t fail me.”
At no point does Vance glorify violence, but insofar as violence is an outgrowth of the dogged family loyalty that marks hillbilly clans, Vance doesn’t pretend that simple-minded condemnations are necessary, either.
Politics On The Margins
Throughout the book, Vance refuses moralize or pretend there are pat solutions to the problems he and so many other people in his circumstances have faced. But one of the more dangerous ideas that has taken root in American culture in recent years is that all solutions to racial and class problems are political. Indeed, often it appears in the context of these discussions that there are only politics. Vance, to his credit, stares right into the abyss of the ugly and complicated aspects of human nature:
People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to ‘solve’ the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, ‘The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.’
As far as offering political solutions to working-class whites goes, that’s about as far removed from promising people to Make America Great Again as you can get. Then again, it’s also a lot closer to the truth that politics has its limits. But Vance, who calls himself a conservative and is a contributor at National Review, also acknowledges that government at the margins made a real difference for him, even if it wasn’t a decisive one.
“I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me,” he writes. “These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”
Just when you think it’s discouraging to arrive at the conclusion that there are no easy answers to the economic and cultural afflictions ravaging white America, Vance’s personal example reminds these circumstances can be overcome. It may require a lot of work and introspection, but it’s a reason to hope.
Vance declares near the beginning of the book, “To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.” By the end, you realize that to understand America, you must also understand hillbillies.