Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus (2007) drew a global readership’s attention to underprivileged Appalachian communities. J.D. Vance replicates this with his memori Hillbilly Elegy. Published, like Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, in 2016, Vance and Isenberg agree that despite constitutionally enshrined freedom, social mobility remains unattainable for many disenfranchised white working-class US citizens. Vance’s memoir leans less towards the sociological analysis pursued by Isenberg and more towards the popular genre of the ‘survivor story. His memoir describes lives blighted by manufacturing decline, joblessness, dysfunctional lifestyles and substance abuse in his community descended from Scots-Irish settlers.
From Hillbilly Elegy’s introduction onwards, the reader is conscious of the enormous odds Vance has defied through sheer hard work and resilience: he completed high school and undergone the tough but character-building Marine training; he has studied law, progressing from his local state university to an Ivy League institution. Vance recognises that social mobility ‘implies a sort of movement – to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something’ (148). Despite his now-cemented financial wealth and the social influence he has gained as newspaper commentator and political pundit, Vance admits that this ‘something’ is constituted by ‘demons of the life […] left behind’ (2). Thus Vance’s valiant attempt, over 257 pages, to make sense of his dysfunctional childhood and its many mixed messages.
|In the Ohio Rust Belt town where he grew up, Vance explains, ‘two separate sets of mores and social pressures’ were at work: some people embodied ‘old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking’ attitudes, while others were ‘consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful’ (148). Such factions exist even within Vance’s family: he experienced parental substance abuse, promiscuity and neglect but also the tough, unyielding love meted out by his grandparents ‘Mamaw’ and ‘Papaw’. These grandparents may be foulmouthed and uncompromising, but they provide the stability the growing Vance craves. Aged sixteen, Vance makes sense of ‘a world of truly irrational behaviour’ (146): W.J.J. Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, he decides, connects disenfranchised inner-city populations with his fellow Appalachians who are equally ‘trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work’ (144). ‘Those who could […], left’, Vance confirms, ‘leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”’ (144).
Yet some Appalachians refuse to conform to this gloomy statistic: Vance’s sister Lindsey and his cousin Lori, for example, have shaken off their previous deprivations to found happy families in Appalachia. That Hillbilly Elegy pays only scant attention to their successes is a regrettable omission: their testimonies would have enriched Vance’s narrative and provided a valuable balance to Vance’s insistent impressions. Similarly, some socio-historic background information would have enhanced the reader’s understanding of a geographical area that stretches from the Southern tiers of New York to Alabama. It would also have done the second part of the book’s subtitle justice which promises a memoir ‘of a culture in crisis’.
|The final five chapters form the most compelling part of Vance’s book. Here, Vance candidly describes his journey from nondescript high schooler to aspirational university student. Formal dining etiquette, academic language, even the existence of sparkling water, are new to Vance who has arrived at Yale without the support most students take for granted: ‘At every turn, people were tapping into friendship circles and alumni groups’, he notices (216). Fortunately, Vance has the support of two strong females: his Yale law professor and ‘tiger mother’ Amy Chua; and his future wife Usha, a Californian fellow Yale student.
The final five chapters reiterate Vance’s central argument: Not sociological or economic factors are to blame for deprivation, Vance argues, but his fellow Appalachians’ inertia and dysfunctional habits. He emphasizes ‘the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach’ (147).
Having juggled two part-time jobs during his his university years, Vance is dismissive of governmental welfare systems. As a frugal student he toiled as a cashier, processing ‘T-bone steaks which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else’ (139). This ‘someone else’ was Vance’s drug-addicted former neighbour who was ‘living of government largesse’ (139).
Unsurprisingly, such incendiary statements attract criticism from fellow Appalachians who take issue with Vance’s characterisations of their communities as lazy, impoverished and undeserving folks for whom ‘thrift is inimical to […] being’ (146). There is also resentment at the use of Vance’s book as a blueprint for explaining the political choices of white working-class citizens who feel ignored by federal government. Among Vance’s fiercest critic is historian Elizabeth Catte. Her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (2018) presents an interesting juxtaposition to Vance’s subjective memoir. Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (2017) provides the historical context that Hillbilly Elegy lacks: events that have shaped Appalachia since its pivotal role in the Civil War and its initial industrialisation by timber and coal merchants.
Despite its omissions and a writing style that can veer towards the sermonizing, Hillbilly Elegy is a powerful depiction of entrenched social hierarchies. Vance’s regular contributions to the US national press, and frequent re-readings of his book in the light of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, sustain attention in his memoir, and in the vast Eastern US-American area it so poignantly describes.
Christina Westwood is a PhD candidate at Keele University. Her research is in the field of spatial theories and literary geographies. Her areas of expertise and interest include the postmodern novel, American literature and literary geographies.
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