Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a recent memoir from J.D. Vance, a man who grew up in Jackson, Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He escaped these towns where manufacturing was declining, schools were failing, and families were falling apart—first as a Marine, then as a summa cum laude graduate of The Ohio State University, before landing at Yale Law School. Hillbilly Elegy paints itself as Vance’s look back at how the Rust Belt and Appalachia got to where they are now, as told through his personal life examples. What is not quite so clear up front is that Hillbilly Elegy is also, at least partly, a political screed.
In hindsight, Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books I probably should have abandoned early on, as not for me.
Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
While I don’t have enough of a catalog on here yet for this to be clear, memoir is one of my favorite genres. I love a well-done memoir that introduces me to a world completely outside of my own so I approached Hillbilly Elegy with anticipation. I had heard Hillbilly Elegy touted on NPR in an interview with Vance shortly after the shock of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, and seen it in a variety of magazines as a book to read to explain how such a large group of people can have seemingly voted against their interests (#healthcare). I had read The Glass Castle several years ago and was expecting something at least somewhat similar but on a larger scale than a single family. This is not what I got.
My biggest problem with Hillbilly Elegy is that I have never, to my best recollection, read a memoir so politically biased. This is not to say that it is directly political—I have read memoirs of politicians. Rather, from the selection of stories to the conclusions Vance then draws from them, I had the distinct impression through many of the chapters that I was, quite literally, listening to Repubican propaganda rather than a memoir. Two of the starkest examples for me were Vance’s attempts to convince his reader of the evils of public benefits, like food stamps, and that much of Appalachia’s rejection of President Obama has nothing to do with race.
Don’t Look Behind the Curtain
Ironically, in his structure of these arguments, Vance falls victim to his own logical fallacies. He argues that it is short-sighted and too simple to say that the rejection of Obama can be boiled down to race while simultaneously telling his reader two stories about food stamps—that he saw people at the grocery store he worked in as a teenager selling them to buy some beer and that his drug-addicted, unemployed neighbor used them to buy steaks—to convince us that public benefits like food stamps are a problem and should be done away with. We should not draw wholesale conclusions about all of Appalachia when a handful of people are calling the President the N-word but we should conclude the welfare state with its “Welfare Queens” (a phrase used earnestly by Vance when discussing a woman who “shockingly” had all her children by the same man) should be done away with based on two recollections of a teenage grocery bagger.
I found myself gobsmacked listening to his description of Obama as having, essentially, moved past any hardship in his life.
Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [Obama]. But the president feels like an alien to many [people in the town he grew up in] for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor, which of course he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up. His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign. His credentials are so impressive that they are frightening. He made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.
Interestingly, George W. Bush meets most of these descriptors, yet was not rejected by Appalachia by any stretch.* Our 43rd president attended Yale for undergraduate and Harvard business school. He is also rich, having had family money and worked in the Texas oil industry—he was once co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. While Bush’s early years were spent in Midland (I’ve been there—NOT a large town)—he then attended private school in Houston for two years before attending boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts for high school. The only significant difference in the description Vance paints of Obama and the reality of W. is how they speak.
My point in this is not that Appalachia is a bed of racists (though, certainly, there are some there as there are anywhere—it’s naïve to suggest race had nothing to do with the perceptions of Obama). Rather, Vance is the master of selection—picking and choosing facts that fit his narrative and constructing fairly convincing arguments to match his points based on the selective narrative he provided as the set-up. Vance is so earnest, so seemingly trustworthy, it’s easy to see why this book is being considered authoritative.
The tone in several places is also concerning. In telling stories about someone who was perceived to be homosexual, Vance described the person was a “pervert.” The context is Vance quoting another person but the word is said repeatedly and with such vehemence in the audiobook, it left me fairly convinced that, despite hiding behind another person’s alleged quote, this may be spot-on for how Vance feels. If he doesn’t, he should perhaps re-word that section in future editions.
Defining the Elite
He talks about “they” and “them” when he refers to people that his hometown would consider “elites” though the book conveniently leaves out that, after graduating from Yale, Vance went to work for Sidley Austin LLP and now works for a venture capital and private equity firm in San Francisco associated with Peter Thiel (founder of a small company called PayPal). As an attorney, I can assert with confidence that he was making six figures at Sidley Austin and is certainly not making less working for Mithril Capital Management LLC now. For all of his “them”-ing, Vance looks a lot like the thems now.
It’s Not ALL Bad
The book is not entirely without redeeming points. The only parts I would ever listen to again were close together in Chapters 13 and 14. In Chapter 13 he makes several points about social capital—how doors are already opened to some, cracked for others, and almost altogether locked for a third group, unless someone like a mentor or caring professor will open the door for you. Similarly Chapter 14’s discussion of trauma in kids is worth reading, particularly in light of the abuse Vance survived. Neither of these sections is perfect and there are certainly better sources for the material; however, it felt unfair to rip the book so harshly without at least acknowledging that a few points here and there landed. I’m sure many of the points he makes about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the opiod crisis are also also accurate; I was just having a hard time not getting distracted by all the bias to appreciate them.
Vance’s life is his life—I have no reason to doubt that the stories in Hillbilly Elegy happened to him in the way he said. And this book almost certainly reflects the way a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt feel about the economy and the government that has seemingly (and in many cases, actually) abandoned them. My problem is the agenda. If Vance wants to write a book of political essays, he should. If he wants to write a memoir, he should. Blending these genres in Hillbilly Elegy in such a way that it felt like he was directly trying to hide his agenda ultimately felt so dishonest that I would never recommend this book to anyone.
*In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, George W. Bush took Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, in addition to the rest of the states typically considered to be the South.
Published: June 28, 2016 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: J.D. Vance (Twitter: @JDVance1)
Date Read: July 18, 2017
Rating: 1 star
Excellent sources of more nuanced and educated criticism than mine can be found here:
Hillbilly Ethnography by John Thomason
J.D. Vance, The False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones
For the Good of the Poor and Common People: What Hillbilly Elegy Gets Wrong About Appalachia and the Working Class by Elizabeth Catte