Hillbilly Elegy is a “New York Times #1 Bestseller,” and, according to all accounts, an Important Book, meaning, we should probably read it. Written before the 2016 election, it explains a lot about the perceived disestablishment of older white men throughout much of the country, the formerly powerful feeling powerless, and even the rise of Donald Trump. Hillbillies never had much clout, but Vance argues that, previously, they could at least make a living for their family.
Vance subtitled his volume, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. His roots are the mountains and hollers of Kentucky and sections of Ohio to which the economically depressed people of Appalachia transplanted themselves.
My dad’s family came from the Horse Creek Valley in the sand hills of South Carolina, in many ways similar to Vance’s Appalachia. My granddaddy and daddy were mill workers. My dad’s nickname was Rube, which means country bumpkin. The great difference in Vance and me appears to be that he blames his culture for the slights he’s endured in his thirty-one years of life, while I credit my family, as deprived economically as his, for providing a solid foundation of core values.
He writes, “Yes, my parents fought intensely, but so did everyone else’s.” I don’t believe that. It’s not even true of the other members of his extended family. Vance falls victim to universalizing his own experience. It makes a good story, but it ain’t necessarily so.
He bemoans his mother’s alcoholism and drug addiction, and I can feel his pain. He doesn’t burn with the anger of Pat Conroy who wrote creatively and passionately about his father’s abusiveness. But Vance writes well and interestingly about his family and culture. Yet, all the while, I kept thinking his issues were as much family as culture. After all, there are alcoholics and drug addicts in the wealthiest neighborhoods of every community. Maybe the numbers are disproportionately high in so-called hillbilly communities, but he didn’t convince me.
Obviously, culture affects us, whether we grow up with a military family that moves every few years, or in a Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco, or in an urban setting in Chicago, or on a small island in the Pacific.
Vance introduced me to a term with which I was not familiar, Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), apparently a kissing cousin to PTSD, to explain symptoms in adults who suffered various types of emotional or physical violence in their childhood homes, e.g., a parent who attempted suicide. Such experiences are in no way limited to the people of Appalachia. Adversity also happens in Hollywood and Hawaii.
Vance’s anecdotes from his childhood are entertaining, but a few more statistics would have been helpful to make his case.
Vance comes close to being the definition of a “self-made man.” He quotes his sister Lindsay, “You have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.” After a rocky childhood, Vance joined the Marines, graduated from Ohio State University, and then finished Yale Law School. He has impressive credentials and is now, something of a media darling, a member of the Ivy League Elite. Upward mobility appears to be his mantra. He credits individuals within his culture and family system with being helpful but is openly disdainful of government involvement. Yet, public schools, the Marines, and the Ohio State University are all government entities.
I think both/and/and/and/and/and is more honest than either/or.
Family, local hillbilly culture, American culture, teachers, the Marines, personal decisions, intelligence, white maleness, dumb luck, grace, providence, and hard work are each a part of Vance’s success story.
I like this book. It’s easy to read and provocative. It’s one of the narratives of some working class white people, but not the whole story.