I read Hillbilly Elegy last year and have been meaning to write about it for a while now. Meanwhile, everyone else and his brother has written about it or mentioned it in their writing. It is the book all the East Coast liberals carry around as the field guide to the white working-class voter, and it supposedly helps them understand why Trump won. If you are unfamiliar with the book, it is the memoir of a now 40-something lawyer and San Francisco investment firm principal, J.D. Vance, who grew up in a dysfunctional family in Ohio. Of course, given its popularity, you know it has to be about more than that. The book’s full title is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
Hillbilly Values Are Rough
The author’s family comes from the hollers of Kentucky—hillbilly country. His grandfather even boasts a relative whose murder of a returning Civil War soldier started the Hatfield-McCoy feud. The whole family, grandmother’s side as well, are startlingly prone to sudden acts of violence and to self-sabotaging behaviors that trap them in lives of poverty and misery. In fact, the whole culture Vance describes is plagued with such behaviors.
In the 1940s many Kentucky and West Virginia residents fled the backwoods for jobs in Ohio—so many, the road north was called the “Hillbilly Highway.” That’s what Vance’s grandparents did, and for a while they made a good life for themselves and their three children. Then Vance’s grandfather began drinking heavily, leading to violent fights with his wife, and life became very difficult for their kids.
Vance’s mother left home and later completed a degree in nursing. She was supporting herself, but like her father, her addictions, in her case to alcohol and drugs, begin to unravel her life. She begins new relationships with men with predictable regularity. The men, some of whom seem decent to young Vance, naively think they are the new father in the family. Vance, however, knows they will not be around long and declines to become too attached as he watches the new men come and subsequently leave.
Yet, as it is with all human beings, the family members Vance describes are more complex than their dysfunctions. Vance’s grandmother once set her husband on fire while he slept off a drunk because she had promised him that next time he came home wasted, she would kill him. (He survived.) Yet, it was his grandmother who saved Vance from a repetition of his mother’s life by providing a stable refuge at key times in his youth. Even his grandfather finally sobered up (a near-death bout with fire will do that to you) and was a steadying influence.
The Dysfunction of the White Working Class
Vance’s book is filled with anecdotes about the struggles of the working-class families he encounters. Most of his anecdotes illustrate how the deep-seated self-destructive attitudes of his subjects keep them from success. One story that gets repeated in many of the reviews of the book is about a young man and his pregnant girlfriend who get jobs working for a relatively good wage at the same flooring warehouse Vance works at. The girlfriend misses about every third day of work and is soon fired. The young man repeatedly forsakes his duties, disappearing for hours at a time. He is finally fired. While their behavior is foolish, their reaction to their firing is nonsensical: the young man complains that his boss lacks compassion for him and his growing family.
Vance spends a lot of the book pondering the reasons the people he knows and grew up with have worse outcomes than other groups in the US, or for that matter, worse outcomes than his own family. Vance joins the Marines, goes to college, graduates from Yale Law School, gets a job with an investment firm, and writes a best-selling book before he is 40. Despite his tumultuous childhood, he has done pretty well. His grandparents had eventually gotten their acts together in time to help their grandchildren, Vance particularly. Vance’s aunt and uncle both overcome some initial mistakes to make pretty good lives for themselves. Vance’s sister, too, does well as do his cousins. In fact, the only real failure in his family is Vance’s mother, who to his day is living a tormented and addicted life. There are families in prosperous suburbs that have failure rates worse than that. Nevertheless, the denizens of Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and other surrounding areas seem to be afflicted with addictions, joblessness, and family dysfunction in larger numbers than the general population.
No Easy Solutions
Vance doesn’t have many answers for this state of affairs, but he does write: “..whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.'”
He learned that lesson in his time in the Marine Corps. During his time Iraq he has an epiphany about his own life and the choices he can make. While visiting a school as part of his job, he gives an eraser to young Iraqi boy, who is ecstatic with joy over this insignificant gift. Vance writes:
For my entire life, I’d harbored resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house. …as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy…I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser.
For Vance, the change in attitude set him in a direction that led to success. Maybe attitude is everything.