Book review: J.D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ helps us understand fractious political climate
Special to the Daily
Probably one of the only points of agreement from the right and left sides of the political landscape these days is the understanding that America is in a period of great uncertainty. There is no question, too, that both sides venture to claim a higher level of moral certitude for their positions. Thus, what is increasingly apparent amidst the ongoing battle for America’s heart, is the need for frank and open-minded discussions among all.
One of the most compelling voices from the modern political debate is that of J.D. Vance, who, in his bestselling book “Hillbilly Elegy,” manages to examine the cultural impasse of his own childhood community without resorting to derision or excuses. Now a successful Yale-educated lawyer, Vance, by his own reckoning, rose to that success from an unlikely place, the ‘hollers’ of deep Appalachian Kentucky and subsequently the Rust Belt of Ohio, where Vance says he could have very easily ended up like many of his neighbors and family members — stuck in the treacle-thick morass of poverty or a victim of the rampant opioid crisis.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is part memoir and part cultural commentary, and the book’s strengths lie in the overlap of those two aspects. Vance uses his own personal truths and experiences to frame his bigger-picture examination of a segment of the American working class that is steeped in pessimism and bound by the reality of “poverty as a family tradition,” and where often zealous expressions of faith have evolved to be “heavy on emotional rhetoric,” but lacking in a real support system that catches those who are falling through the cracks.
Right from the start he confronts the inevitable criticisms of the inherent privilege of being white in America, saying it is important to look beyond that whiteness if one hopes to gain any understanding of a group of Americans who usually garner the descriptor of voting against their own interests. He argues that only by really examining their story can America’s rift be truly understood. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family,” says Vance, simultaneously defending and examining the culture from which he emerged as an anomaly of his surroundings and upbringing.
Vance also points to the pervasive “crisis of masculinity” within his community, and says that it is not uncommon for men to be unable to admit a fault, resulting in any festering blame being turned outward — on their loved ones, their local communities or on society at large. His people, he says, have roots that run deep in the hills and hollows around Jackson, Kentucky (a distant relative of his grandfather was connected by marriage to the infamous Hatfields), and they, like many other men who hail from Appalachia, blend a “robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix.”
Like his distant kin, the Hatfields, Vance’s grandmother’s side also had a penchant for feuding. Violence was always right beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any offense. His family members were “enforcers of hillbilly justice.” Yet despite plenty of meanness and rough ways, he loved them just the same. Surprisingly for him it was his beloved yet dysfunctional grandparents who countered the norm of latent low expectations. Their presence in his life, and their removal of the family to Middletown, Ohio, was the key to his escape from the downward spiral that pushes others like him back into the cycle of poverty and dependence.
Stability had come late to his grandparents, but luckily for him it was enough, as his mother was not fit to be a parent and his father was a virtual stranger. The worst part of his disjointed upbringing, Vance says, was “the revolving door of father figures,” and a mother who fell prey to easy access to drugs.
He describes two types of poor white people — “old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking,” like his grandparents, and those more akin to his mother — “consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.” His own struggle came from reconciling those two influences in his life, and he is confident that without the constancy his grandparents provided he would not have escaped the pull of his mother’s bad choices.
As he finally found and grasped the escape valve from the stifling quagmire of his upbringing, he began to wonder about “his people,” and pondered why they were the way they were. “Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”
He calls his world one of “truly irrational behavior.” Pervasive in blue-collar America is a “cognitive dissonance — the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”
Vance believes that a lot of what ails those like him needs to be fixed from within; it requires a shift of perspective and a letting go of inherited cynicisms and fear. “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government. The message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
“There’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself — that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability.”
Having moved on with his life and found success, Vance admits that he fights against his demons every day, aware that the hillbilly within him is lurking just beneath the surface. Challenging himself, going after the best education he was able to achieve and shining a bright spotlight on his own family’s dark and uncomfortable truths has made all the difference.
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