History is often taught or used these days as if the past were simply something to liberate ourselves from, but the causes of our cultural amnesia run deep.
Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance’s raw, uncensored, personal history of his Scots-Irish family who struggled in Ohio after leaving their Kentucky home. Vance grew up amid domestic strife and a never-ending cycle of new stepfathers, his family weighed down by dwindling economic prospects and drug dependency. A Marine veteran who graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law, Vance considers his upbringing from the vantage point of a San Francisco investment firm, separated by space but not by emotion or memory—or accent. Fraught relationships continue to pull him back to his small-town Ohio roots, and convince him that the pat solutions of the Left and the Right are inadequate to the problems of America’s forgotten and left behind.
Vance’s grandparents were coalminers in the hardscrabble environment of Kentucky coal country. When the mines shut down, they left for better prospects in Ohio, where the steel company Armco transplanted entire families to work. But, he says, they brought with them their hillbilly ways—above all a fierce defense of their family’s honor through an instinct toward rage that operated at home, as well. Though his feisty grandmother could out-swear any sailor and had nearly killed her husband for coming home drunk one too many times, it was she who provided Vance a safe harbor from his mother’s serial monogamy and rolling drug addictions. The Marine Corps shaped him up, Ohio State was his proving ground, and Yale Law sent him heading for the top.
He considers his family emblematic of the difficulty hillbillies have in overcoming the defeatism that prevents their economic rise. His grandmother’s lessons of determination and grit paid off as he wended his way through boot camp and the alternate universe of Yale Law School. That rise shows, in his view, that hillbilly culture partly has itself to blame, that no easy solutions can come from Washington politics. Deep-rooted malaise can only be cured through soul-searching in the heartland and more practical attention from outsiders.
Hillbilly Elegy is more than the publishing hit of the summer of 2016; it has captured the imagination of readers during the rise of Donald Trump, and many have turned to Vance’s story to try to understand the world from which Trump’s support comes. But while the book points to important questions that Americans in coastal cities often forget, the materials needed to answer those questions aren’t here. This is simply the gripping tale of rising out of family dysfunction and financial wastefulness to join the professional class in America. The hard work that the author put in to accomplish this rise is perfectly admirable, but his elegy does not fully justify the political and sociological import with which it has been invested.
The American rags-to-riches tale is as old as the novels of Horatio Alger, whose themes Hillbilly Elegy repeats but with the intensity of a first-person recollection. Vance’s “harrowing escape from the hollers,” as the review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer) termed it, both reassures and warns. Suffering a sometimes violent upbringing, he was nonetheless able to translate his grandmother’s lessons of determination into the success of a law degree and steady work in investing. A “learned helplessness,” in Vance’s words, afflicts the white working class, prevents their reform, and discourages the best from pursuing their ambitions.
From there, however, mapping his family history onto generalizations about the “white working class” or Scots-Irish culture or postindustrial blight is a more vexing task. Vance himself frequently generalizes. He conveys, for example, a story from his uncle, who recalls the time he was told to leave a pharmacy for playing with an expensive toy; Vance’s grandparents responded by trashing the store. Writes Vance: “Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid.”
Such generalizations are impossible to evaluate and are, thankfully, no longer made about other ethnic subgroups in America. No one views the mafia as an inevitable part of Italian American subculture, yet the Scots-Irish stereotype persists. Few readers of Hillbilly Elegy would have guessed that, according to a 2001 report on crime in Appalachia, the violent crime rates and property crime rates in this region were about half the national average. The report also warned that crime was starting to rise at a rate higher than the national average. Vance, however, is certain that Scots-Irish honor culture going back generations is a major factor in his family’s problems.
We have been down this road before. A while back, Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter in Outliers gave a prominent account of the honor culture of Harlan, Kentucky. Some sociologists at the University of Michigan had tested their students’ response to being verbally provoked while walking down a narrow hallway after completing a questionnaire (half the students were left at peace). The students from Southern backgrounds, they concluded, were much likelier to respond to provocation with a similar display of anger. But the Michigan study, rather than proving anything about the tendency toward violence in Southern culture, showed at most that different groups operate by different rules. Everyone in the “honor culture” knows not to call someone an asshole unless they want a fight.
The truth is that hillbillies have been lost, recovered, and reconstructed by the American reading public before—and with mixed results. In 1962, Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area sought to put the problem of Appalachian poverty on the map. As the Lexington Herald-Leader explained in a long series appreciating Caudill’s work on its 50th anniversary, his book succeeded in making Appalachia the focus of welfare efforts during the Great Society, as well as corporate reform of the coal industry’s tactics. But the results of those efforts were mixed.
More directly comparable to Vance is Jack E. Weller’s Yesterday’s People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia (1965). Weller’s goal was to get the people of Appalachia to modernize. He first described their characteristics in terms strikingly similar to Vance’s, pointing to their individualism, traditionalism and fatalism, describing them as “seekers of action” but plagued by “the psychology of fear.” The geographical isolation of mountaineers may have bred some of these sentiments initially, but their development as a culture reinforced them further. Remarkably, Weller suggested that the still-agrarian mountaineers might better adapt to the coming “cybernetic” age, with its diminished emphasis on work, than would industrial laborers.
Some have objected to negative generalizations about this group. In an essay on early accounts of migrants from Appalachia (such as Vance’s family were), the historian Bruce Tucker has drawn attention to Thomas Ford’s The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey (1962). Ford rejected the identification of fatalism as a trait of Kentucky mountaineers, instead suggesting that it arose as a way to avoid the feeling of failure among Appalachian folk as their region went through modernization. They were “progressive minded” and “achievement oriented” all the same, he argued, but had difficulty adapting to change. As Vance describes his grandparents’ transition to Ohio, “yes, even in their best times, Mamaw and Papaw struggled to adapt.”
But describing the characteristics of poor Appalachian people and their descendants elsewhere in the Midwest is a fraught task. “Not all of the white working class struggles,” Vance writes. “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
Where did the second type come from?
As Harry Caudill wrote in his foreword to Yesterday’s People, “The Appalachian mountaineers have been discovered and forgotten many times.” Indeed, the popularity of Caudill’s own book and that of Weller was driven in part by the migration of Appalachian mountaineers to cities throughout the Midwest. The established residents of Midwestern cities were concerned about the influx of hillbillies, and responded favorably to compelling stereotypes that allowed them to address the hillbillies’ perceived problems.
In 2004, it was former Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America that outlined this character type. Webb painted in even brighter colors than Vance does, but attended more deeply (and controversially) to its roots in earlier American history. Appalachian whites, he argued, suffered under the punitive economic policies of Reconstruction, and suffered again when Northern industrialists strip-mined Appalachian coal at a very low wage for the workers used to bring it out from the deep. A Depression-era report Webb cited on the Southern economy noted that almost all major enterprises operating in the South were owned by industrialists elsewhere.
“In a nutshell,” Webb argued, “over the decades the national policies of the Republicans had raped the region while the actions of many state and local Democrats too often were designed to preserve the assets of a select few at the expense of just about everyone else . . . white and black alike.”
Vance’s story amounts to an assertion that these actions, and any others meant to reform the hillbillies, failed. And like authors before him, he recurs to the character type of the rugged Scots-Irishman to explain but not excuse contemporary social pathologies. “In the southwest Ohio of my youth,” Vance writes, “we learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness.” His clan operated by the principles of “hillbilly justice”: don’t start a fight, don’t lose one, never tolerate an insult to your family. (As the pharmacy incident illustrates, defending the family’s honor sometimes meant taking a mild criticism as the start of a fight.) The insularity of hillbilly culture and its distrust of outsiders grew even more intense as these people made their way to the cities, and has grown worse through the economic decline of the working-class whites Vance characterizes.
The problems he depicts so forcefully have become well known. Many towns that were once prosperous now host families left behind, despondent, dysfunctional and angry. “Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars,” he laments, “and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream—a steady wage.”
Vance’s effort to avoid blaming outside parties is, in one respect, an admirable rejection of the culture of victimhood. “These problems,” he states plainly, “were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.”
But this message plays right into the hands of both the mainstream parties and reaffirms their basic orientations. The inability of government programs to “fix” the problems of hillbilly culture is music to the ears of libertarians skeptical of the benefits of state intervention. And since governments didn’t “create” those problems, governments are also off the hook. The people of Appalachia—or at least the segment that Vance grew up with—must primarily take responsibility for themselves. That is the conclusion toward which Vance leads his readers.
As widely as the book has been reviewed, few reviews have come from those who live in the parts of the country that the author left behind. That, we might surmise, is part of the problem he describes: the intellectual life of the country takes place elsewhere, certainly not in the backwaters of Kentucky or rural Ohio. But some who know Appalachian culture firsthand have resisted Vance’s account. That their voices are barely heeded further indicates that the warm reception for Hillbilly Elegy will not cause the literary elite to expand its circle of attention. Perhaps what is needed is not a lament for the lost, but more interviews with the living.
One reviewer who married out of poverty but remained in Appalachia penned this telling critique: “I had hoped,” she wrote, “this book would address this [Appalachian] culture, including the love of the land, the rich musical heritage, the pride in Cherokee heritage most of us have, and the extraordinary generosity of people in this region.” Yet the story “took place among exiled mountain people in the Midwest, not in Appalachia itself.”
Another declares that “Vance’s story is one about how his grandparents’ sacrifices made it possible for him to be where he is today. That makes his critique of the hillbilly culture in crisis ring empty.”
Our main literary outlets have received Vance’s work much more favorably. Time drew the conclusion that Hillbilly Elegy reveals “a bottom-up crisis of individual responsibility, largely beyond the reach of public policy.” As Vance himself wrote in the New York Times, “the white working class needs neither more finger-pointing nor more fiery sermons. What it needs is the same thing I needed many years ago: a reassurance that God does indeed love us, and a church that demonstrates that love to a broken community.” Yet by writing advice to his countrymen in the New York Times, Vance confirms his readers’ worst suspicions about the habits of Trump voters while absolving his readers of political responsibility for the plight of the economically disadvantaged.
While Hillbilly Elegy has fed the national conversation on working-class and jobless Americans in recent months, it ultimately does not do so in a productive way. Its account of family dysfunction is extreme even for the context from which Vance hails, and though it emphasizes the features of “Scots-Irish” life in Appalachia, it speaks to readers from a variety of backgrounds. The social and economic malaise it describes are felt across America, not only in the backcountry and in postindustrial cities but in the inner city and on the Indian reservation as well.
A few years ago the Appalachian hill country was the subject of a small debate between Kevin Williamson of National Review, who had written a feature on Appalachian dysfunction, and Paul Krugman of the New York Times. Williamson had a simple message, one he has stuck to and hardened during the Trump campaign (including in his recent review of Vance’s book). “Nothing happened” to Appalachians, Williamson wrote. Rather they let themselves go. They failed to keep pace with a global economy that rightly left them behind. Krugman noted that Appalachians’ malaise corresponded better to the explanation William Julius Wilson once offered for the problems of the urban poor: when the jobs go, everything else goes, as well. Something did happen to them, and expecting settled families to be easily flexible in the face of economic change is unrealistic and wrong.
As a 16-year-old, Vance read and was initially convinced by William Julius Wilson’s argument, which he encountered in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). But he quickly came to reject Wilson’s explanation. “Our elegy is a sociological one, yes,” he grants, “but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” Vance thus comes to echo Williamson’s message in softer tones. The white working class suffers from self-inflicted wound. “The great tragedy,” he wrote recently of the current election cycle, “is that many of the problems Trump identifies are real, and so many of the hurts he exploits demand serious thought and measured action—from governments, yes, but also from community leaders and individuals. Yet so long as people rely on that quick high, so long as wolves point their fingers at everyone but themselves, the nation delays a necessary reckoning.”
Though Vance often speaks in moral terms, he never makes clear how moral rectification will solve the problems he outlines. The only concrete example he offers is his own—to leave—and this choice, though defensible, hardly sets an example easily imitated. The result is that readers of Hillbilly Elegy as well as Vance’s columns come away with helplessness counterbalanced by a newfound empathy. Vance tells an audience of non-hillbillies that hillbillies must face up to their problems. But Vance himself escaped his hillbilly demons only by leaving.
The problems that gave rise to the Trump and Sanders candidacies are more complicated than can be explored in a young man’s autobiography. Like many of his classmates in the Ivy League, Vance shows the quirky and likeable personality of someone who beat the odds. But such reports really are not a guide to addressing the problems that the smartest have left behind. Though Trump’s support (which is not the concern of Vance’s book) has come especially from economically disadvantaged counties, he could not have won the primaries without drawing support from a wider range of those dissatisfied with present economic and political circumstances.
It is true that the situations of Appalachian poverty and the economic struggle of the postindustrial Midwest and South do not admit of pat solutions. To begin to address them we would have to look deeper into the economic history of the regions now in decline. Books like Paul Salstrom’s Appalachia’s Path to Dependency (1994) supply more of the material necessary to reckon up the situations that now face us. Hillbilly culture, as Salstrom argues, was largely independent and economically self-sufficient prior to the banking reforms and outside-owned industrialization of the late 19th century. The hillbillies never adapted to the cash-and-wage economy imposed by coal companies—the crisis memorialized in Darrell Scott’s 1997 “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” They lost again when the coal companies left, and have never been the same.
The phenomena Vance chronicles are not unique to the “white working class.” Because they are not, the factors Vance cites to explain hillbilly malaise—its Scots-Irish culture, its honor culture, its suspicion of outsiders—aren’t enough to differentiate what has happened to his native region from what has happened to others. To be sure, the virtues and vices of every community shape its successes and its failures in certain ways. But the malaise Vance identifies is not simply an internal problem. The ill health of regional economies has for years been written off as an unfortunate but ultimately inconsequential result of globalization, which is presented as necessary and inevitable.
Vance identifies “lack of agency” as a problem in the depressed parts of his culture—lack of agency at work, in career planning, in self-control. We shouldn’t be surprised that a sense of missing or weak agency would be present in those parts of the country hit hardest by the impersonal economic forces that seem to have produced their plight.
Globalization has often been defended in terms of net benefits, and has been explained as the necessary working out of economic rationality. Everyone contributes to it, but no one is responsible for it. At the same time, the repetitive manufacturing jobs that replaced coal and farming were not always conducive to high levels of “agency,” and it would be unrealistic to expect redundant workers (and their families) to adjust with ease. J.D. Vance shows that net benefits often involve gross problems. But these are problems that empathy will not be enough to fix.