J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy was the surprise bestseller of 2016, largely because it offered a window into a segment of the American population that can justly claim to have been overlooked, even ignored, for the better part of the last two decades: poor white families living and working in Appalachia, the region stretching from the southernmost parts of New York to the northern sections of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Once the backbone of American industry, the Appalachian region bore a disproportionate share of globalization’s costs, and has never recovered from the loss of its manufacturing jobs. But this is not a tale of economic disenfranchisement. Rather, it is the story of a broken culture, and the generational misery produced by that culture’s dysfunction – and how one man escaped from it.

Vance’s family history would shock outsiders to his “hillbilly” culture: his mother’s early pregnancy, the absence of his father, the string of strange men – 15, at his last count – who passed in and out of his childhood as “father figures.” Add to that drug addiction and a propensity for violent conflict resolution, and you have a combination utterly unfathomable to the average reader of the New York Times, whose bestseller list Hillbilly Elegy so easily vaulted. Vance’s immediate family were demonstrably incapable of taking care of him, let alone preparing him to succeed in a modern economy, where education and discipline are preconditions for success. Luckily for him, his Mamaw and his Papaw (his grandmother and grandfather) were able to provide so much of what he lacked, from a healthy meal to the structure, discipline and encouragement he needed to get ahead in school. The painful circumstances of his early childhood are not unique, but the path he walked is: from rural Ohio to the United States Marines Corps, and from there to Ohio State University (courtesy of a GI Bill) and Yale Law School. “I didn’t write this book,” he tells us, “because I’ve accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.” The ordinary, for Vance, includes graduating from college, holding down a steady job, and creating a stable marriage – all basic aspects of adult life that elude so many of his compatriots from Appalachia. “In Middletown,” he tells us, “20 percent of the public high school’s entering freshmen won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state.” The question, for Vance, is why.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and Vance certainly had the opportunity – in his lifetime and in this book – to point fingers. He could, for example, have indicted the global economy, whose beneficiaries disproportionately reside in cities and on America’s coasts, where salaries and property values have risen as a direct result of the disappearance of American industry overseas, and the urbanization that inevitably followed. He could point to the collapse in property prices in his areas, leaving many families trapped with expensive mortgages and reduced equity. But he also knows, from his own personal experience, that this picture is incomplete at best, misleading at worst. What truly ails the Americans of Scotch-Irish descent who settled in Appalachia is a dysfunctional culture, one that leaves its children utterly unprepared for the demands of adulthood. Here is Vance describing the spending habits of his people:

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity – there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.

Needless to say, such attitudes towards money don’t help a community grow wealthier over time, ensuring that children and grandchildren live more comfortable, prosperous lives; instead, they trap their members in endless cycles of debt refinancing. Education, that age-old path to self-improvement, fares no better in hillbilly culture:

[…] there was no sense that failing to achieve higher education would bring shame or any other consequences. The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or too poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college, older friends and siblings were perfectly content to stay in Middletown, regardless of their career prospects; we knew no one at a prestigious out-of-state school; and everyone knew at least one young adult who was underemployed or didn’t have a job at all.

Expectations in Appalachia are low, even counter-productive: Vance recalls being warned that he is “getting too big for his britches” when his work ethic or talent made him stand out. Compounding these troubles is a reluctance to face up to them, stemming, at least partially, from pride. Vance recounts how, when a national news network finally deigned to cover the troubles in Appalachia, focusing on what became known as “Mountain Dew mouth” – the tendency for even very young children to develop rotten teeth, owing to their high sugar consumption – the reaction was not contrition or a collective effort to improve, but anger.

Behind his social commentary is a compelling, personal story, which renders all of his culture’s troubles horrendously real for his readers. Take, for example, his strong-willed grandmother, known for frightening neighbours and local businessmen with her sharp tongue and short fuse. When her husband, Vance’s grandfather, comes home drunk one night, Mamaw Vance issues him a dire warning: do this one more time, and I will kill you. The next time Papaw passed out drunk on her couch, she doused him in lighter fluid and lit a match – only the timely intervention of a nearby niece saved her from making good on her promise. Just as larger social forces conspired against Vance, however, others helped buoy him up, strengthening him when he was weak or nurturing him when he was lost. In no specific order, these include his extended family (particularly his strong-willed but loving grandparents), who supported him when no one else would; the church, which offered him a sense of belonging and moral guidance; and the military, which helped mold a lazy, overweight hillbilly into a disciplined marine, capable of waking up early and taking command of his own life. It’s no small thing to change an entire culture, but if it will happen, it must begin with honest reflection. And if the reception of this book is any indication, Vance has done his people an immense service.