By Penny Smith
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Harper, 2016.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy came on the market at the best of all possible times. With the rise of Donald Trump, Trumplandia populism, and the normalization of bullying, pundits were latching onto whatever insight they could find. Books detailing post-industrialization decline began making their way up the Amazon best-seller lists, books like Amy Goldstein’s Janesville, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Brian Alexander’s Glass House.
Why were all these Tea Party loving people so angry? How could we, in 2015 and 2016, be again advocating nativism, nationalism, and racial wars. When did the Christian God become a spokesperson for white identity politics? Confused progressives wanted to know and Vance and friends wanted to tell them.
Of all the books hoping to profile a community and provide an answer, none has done as well selling copies and garnering critical reviews as Vance’s contribution. He came of age in Ohio’s Rust Belt, part of an Appalachian diaspora when the mines automated and alternative employment dried up. A product of a dysfunctional family, he was primarily raised “with a Bible and a gun” by a Ma Joad exemplar, his grandmother. She taught him to loathe idle welfare takers, even though government programs are what sometimes kept kin afloat.
Alienation emerges as a common theme in these sorts of books. The American Dream passed by in the dark of night. Another common theme is a sense of vulnerability that leads to a fear that in today’s United States not everyone is created equal. The newly dispossessed, what used to be called white working class men and women, know they somehow missed a secular glory train. They drown their sorrow in beer, speak it in anger, console it with Jesus, and act out their disappointment in violence.
Vance profiles both his family and a culture. He sees himself reflected in both, often to his detriment. His mother falls in and out of casual relationships, works sporadically, is addicted to drugs, and fails to nurture her two children. Yet Vance finds himself sometimes thrown into the same irrational rages that he witnessed in her.
Vance himself is able to transcend that world through stints in the Marines, college and then Yale Law School. However, he is nagged throughout those experiences by a sense of not belonging, a sense that he may be dragged back to the family chaos of his adolescence. He also imposes upon that world a “blame the victim” critique. His path out of self-destruction is an individual one.
To Vance learned helplessness, facilitated by government programs and poor education, perpetuates a clannish inability to adapt to changing economic and cultural conditions. His solution is to adopt an agenda of hard work, self-discipline, and education.
Although Hillbilly Elegy is good at profiling one gifted young man’s path to a better life, it is less helpful in pointing the way to more general solutions to our dysfunctional economy. It may make the anger of the recently displaced more understandable, but it fails to help us conceive an economy that provides a route to a decent and dignified living for these Americans. The factories, like the now automated mines, are not coming back with union level wages, at least any time soon. Our ideas of education and schooling, what they should be and how long one should be able to attend without accruing significant debt, are ill-suited for today’s world.
Wage slavery was less onerous when one could afford a home, raise a couple of children, go out to eat and to a movie, and be confident that one accident or major illness would not lead to financial ruin. Wage slavery today – the gig economy, temporary contract work without benefits or insurance, minimum wage service sector part-time jobs cobbled together – feels different and dangerous. It contributes to Americans’ rising fears about their futures. Confidence and hope move us forward; fear sends us searching for greatness in our past.
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We are always reinventing that past, because we forget it happened. One of my favorite explainers of class warfare was Joe Bageant, whose Deer Hunting with Jesus sought to tell Washington DC elites about the folks in his hometown, Winchester, Virginia.
Bageant writes about the people who helped George Bush win re-election in 2004. He, like Vance, is a native son of Appalachia. Vance’s father became a Pentecostal preacher; Bageant’s brother casts out demons on behalf of his church. Both came of age in poor working class homes.. Both left, became more broadly educated, and returned trying to make sense of their homes. However, Vance became a venture capitalist; Bageant became a progressive do-gooder and writer.
I didn’t like Vance’s anger and his lack of sympathy for people whose natural talent pool may be more shallow than his own, or whose despair proved more difficult to overcome. And, I’m predisposed to think Vance’s self-reliance is rather difficult to scale up, that there are institutional, rather than only personal, problems at work in our country. I also thought his portrayal of Appalachia was simplistic, whereas I have found the region much more complex and less unremittingly white. (Apparently, I’m not the only one to raise such criticisms. Public historian Elizabeth Catte has a rebuttal, What Hillbilly Elegy Gets Wrong, coming out this month.)
Conversely, Bageant’s book, seeking to supply answers about an angry electorate of southern Appalachian nativists voting apparently against their best economic interests, is sympathetic and funny. You’ll recognize some of the people, less intimately portrayed. Like Vance, he believes education is part of the solution as well as part of the problem and that’s probably where we need to focus some energy. However, the GOP realized that truth decades ago and has built a communication infrastructure that educates well our meaner natures; we have yet to master a narrative to counter it.
If you are not a reader of Ron Rash novels, he will introduce you to some North Carolina people living the lives Vance profiles. Silas House and Carter Sickels people their books with the same folks and both write from personal experience. Importantly, all three men focus on, were they real, potential Trump advocates. We can learn demography in novels sometimes even better than oral histories.