J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy chronicles crackup of poor working-class white America

Photo: Baldcypress trees dot Kentucky, where author J.D. Vance’s family would visit nearly every weekend and what served as material for his book

By Ronald Bailey

Read this remarkable book: it is by turns tender and funny, bleak and depressing, and thanks to Mamaw, always wildly, wildly profane. An elegy is a lament for the dead, and with “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” J.D. Vance mourns the demise of the mostly Scots-Irish working class from which he springs. I teared up more than once as I read this beautiful and painful memoir of his hillbilly family and their struggles to cope with the modern world.

Vance grew up poor with a semi-employed, drug-addicted mother who lived with a string of five or six husbands/boyfriends in the fading Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio. The only constants in his chaotic life were his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. Vance nearly failed out of high school but eventually graduated from Yale Law School. That personal journey is in the book, but Vance’s main story is about the ongoing collapse of hillbilly culture as seen through the lens of his own family’s disordered experiences.

Before going on, I should make a disclosure: like Vance, I grew up as a hillbilly. Neither of my grandfathers could read or write. My paternal grandparents, Mom and Daddy Bailey, left the Appalachian coal country of McDowell County, West Virginia, around 1950 and bought a dairy farm 80 miles away in Washington County, Virginia. I grew up on that farm.

For most of my childhood, all six of my grandparents’ adult children lived within 10 miles of the home place, as did my dozens of cousins. Every Sunday, a massive family midday “dinner”—somewhere around 40 to 50 people—convened at my grandparents’ house. I left the farm at age 16, when my parents got divorced. I will spare you further details, but let’s just say that the Baileys did not model their family life on the Waltons. Before I made my escape to the University of Virginia, I lived for a while with my mother and one of my sisters in a rented trailer.

Though he mostly grew up in the Rust Belt, Vance identifies as a hillbilly—his family’s roots are in the hollers of Breathitt County, Kentucky. Vance’s Papaw and Mamaw, like tens of thousands of other mountain folk, left coal country in 1947 to find work and their shot at the American Dream in the booming steelworks 200 miles north. As a kid, Vance would accompany his grandparents as they traveled back nearly every weekend to visit with family in Kentucky. Middletown was Vance’s “address,” but the town of Jackson in Breathitt County where his great-grandmother Mamaw Blanton lived is his “home.”

Today hillbilly culture is scarred by spectacular rates of joblessness, single motherhood, drug addiction, crime, and incarceration. Vance places most of the blame for this on the hillbillies’ own shoulders. Globalization and automation decimated the manufacturing jobs that many low-skilled workers leveraged into a middle-class life in the mid-20th century, he argues, but that’s no excuse for fatalistic victimhood now.

Throughout the book, Vance offers stories from family, friends, and neighbors that illustrate the growing cultural dysfunction among poor whites. For example, he takes a job at a floor tile warehouse for $13 an hour where one of his co-workers is a 19-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend. The warehouse owner gives the girlfriend a job as a receptionist. The 19-year-old and his girlfriend are warned about their increasingly frequent absences and tardiness, and eventually both are fired. The 19-year-old lashes out at the manager, saying, “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know that I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?”

At another point, Vance meets an old acquaintance in a Middletown bar who tells him he recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. Later, the same guy was complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life.

Hillbilly culture is suspicious of outsiders and enforces a violent code of honor. Vance recalls that boys who got good grades in school were considered “sissies” or “f–gots,” an attitude that keeps people ill-educated and isolated. As their hopes for achieving the American Dream have faded, his hillbilly relatives, friends, and neighbors have come to see the institutions of society, government, and the economy as rigged against them. This has engendered a deep and debilitating pessimism among poor working-class whites. Hillbillies are killing themselves so effectively with drugs and alcohol that their life expectancies are actually falling.

Does Vance offer any solutions for white working-class despondency and fatalism? “These problems were not created by government or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them,” he argues. “We hillbillies have got to wake the hell up.” He provides several examples of members of his extended family who have managed to leave poverty and family dysfunction behind. Tellingly, nearly all of them are women, got educations beyond high school, and married men who were not hillbillies.

“People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to ‘solve’ the problems of my community,” Vance writes. “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.”

Well, there is at least one “solution.” Vance observes that all of his successful friends from Middletown did one other thing: they got the hell out of Middletown. They moved to where the jobs are. Just as Vance’s hillbilly grandparents left the impoverished hollers of Kentucky to build middle-class lives in Middletown, today’s urban hillbillies could get on the highway to opportunities elsewhere. In the meantime, the government should stop paying poor people to languish in Appalachian and Rust Belt poverty traps.

Vance calls himself a “cultural emigrant.” By leaving his hillbilly culture behind, he has been able to create and enjoy a better life. I made much the same journey from Appalachian poverty to what has been a fascinating and fulfilling life. Vance clearly has some regrets about his cultural emigration; I have none.

Despite all their failings, Vance fiercely identifies with and loves his people. He is also a natural storyteller who makes compellingly personal the statistics and news stories about the cultural and economic coming apart of America. It hits close to home.

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