J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper Collins, 2016, $27.99.
This book was written before working-class Rust Belt whites handed the presidency to Donald Trump, but the widespread interest it has attracted—along with White Trash by Nancy Isenberg—may be due in part to that sudden reminder of the continuing importance of this long-despised class of Americans.
J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy actually made it to number one on the New York Times best seller list. Much of its popularity may be due to its format as a personal memoir that can be read as a modern-day Horatio Alger story: A boy from the Kentucky hills overcomes a chaotic home life to make it at Yale Law School and live the American Dream. Liberal readers are likely to come away from the book convinced of the need for a Marshall Plan for the Appalachians, but the author understands that his own success cannot be mechanically replicated for others by any government policy.
Life in Appalachia can be violent. The county where the author’s family originated was nicknamed “Bloody Breathitt,” and feuding was not uncommon. At the age of 12, the author’s grandmother caught someone stealing the family cow; she grabbed a rifle and shot him in the leg. According to family tradition, only the timely arrival of her father prevented her from finishing the man off.
While middle-class whites teach their children not to get into fights, mountain people teach theirs how to fight: “punch with your whole body, especially your hips; very few people appreciate how unimportant your fist is when it comes to hitting someone.” They do this because it is a practical necessity: Appalachia is home to a primitive honor culture, in which failure to avenge an insult is seen as proof of weakness. And life is very harsh on any hillbilly others think is weak.
Violence carries over into home life:
You never knew when the wrong word would turn a quiet dinner into a terrible fight, or when a minor childhood transgression would send a plate or a book flying across the room. It was like we were living among landmines—one wrong step, and kaboom.
Researching his people’s folkways, the author discovered a large psychological literature on ACEs, or “adverse childhood experiences.” These include:
Being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents; being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you; feeling that your family didn’t support each other; having parents who were separated or divorced; living with an alcoholic or drug user; living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide; watching a loved one be physically abused.
Such stresses cause adrenaline and other hormones to flood the body. This produces the classic fight-or-flight response, which sometimes enables ordinary people to perform extraordinary feats, such as a mother lifting heavy objects off of her trapped child.
Unfortunately, the fight-or-flight response is a destructive constant companion. As [one psychologist] points out, the response is great “if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home from the bar every night.”
Such constant stress can actually change the chemistry of a child’s brain, hardwiring it for conflict even after conflict has passed. And it predicts anxiety, depression, heart disease, obesity and certain forms of cancer, as well as replication of the same harmful behavior in adult life: “Chaos begets chaos.” All these problems are far more common in Scots-Irish mountain people than in the American population at large—though violence and shiftlessness are undoubtedly passed on genetically as well.
Hillbillies like to think of themselves as hard-working people, but many are not. The author writes about a neighbor who quit his job because he was “sick of waking up early;” he later blamed his troubles on the “Obama economy.” Another man goofed off at work until he practically forced his boss to fire him; he was indignant at losing his job. As so often with blacks, many poor mountain folk appear unable to see the connection between their circumstances and their own behavior.
In 2009, ABC News ran a segment on “Mountain Dew mouth”—painful dental problems common in young Appalachian children who drink too much sugary soda. The overwhelming reaction in Appalachia itself to this report was that their children’s dental troubles were none of the journalists’ goddamn business. The network was deluged with angry complaints, most of which ignored the reality the network had described. As sociologists report, Appalachian people “learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them or pretending that better truths exist.” This makes them resilient, but also makes it hard for them to look at themselves honestly.
Even when mired in poverty and in denial about their problems, traditional mountain people remain independent, self-reliant, and fiercely loyal to family. Neighbors know one another and enforce certain standards.
Family, friends, and neighbors would barge into your home without much warning. Mothers would tell their daughters how to raise their children. Fathers would tell sons how to do their jobs. Brothers would tell brothers-in-law how to treat their wives. Family life was something people learned on the fly with a lot of help from their neighbors.
[Hill people] say hello to everyone, willingly skip their favorite pastimes to dig a stranger’s car out of the snow, and—without exception—stop their cars, get out, and stand at attention every time a funeral motorcade drives past. Why, I’d ask my grandma, did everybody stop for a passing hearse? “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”
Hillbillies are also among the most patriotic Americans, and heavily overrepresented in the military. Politically, they have a tradition of supporting the Democrats—“the party of the working man.”
The 20th century saw two great waves of emigration from Appalachia to the industrial cities of the Midwest. The first happened after World War I and ended with the depression; the second followed World War II. Those who took part in the exodus say that the three Rs they learned in school were “Readin’ Ritin’ and Route 23”—the “hillbilly highway” that led to better paying jobs in Ohio and beyond.
The author’s grandparents, Jim and Bonnie Vance, were respectively 16 and 13 when they conceived their first child. The couple quickly married and joined the post-World War II exodus, lying on the birth certificate to keep Jim out of jail and prevent Bonnie from being shipped back to her parents. In the lingo of sociobiology, Scots-Irish mountain folk are exceptionally “r-selected” whites.
Eventually they landed in Middletown, Ohio, a nondescript town where Jim got a job with a local steel company. Although it was a 20-hour drive back home to southeast Kentucky, they made the journey several times a year: family ties are strong among mountain people. Two generations later, the author affirms that while he had a series of addresses in Middletown growing up, he firmly understood that his home was in the Kentucky hills.
Those who participated in the postwar migration usually improved their circumstances, but often found it hard to fit in. One historian has written that the Appalachian migrants “shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit,” and “disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by Northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved.”
One of the Mr. Vance’s fellow hillbillies got a job as a mailman in Middletown. As he had learned to do in the hills of Kentucky, he
kept a flock of chickens in his back yard. Every morning he collected the eggs, and when his chicken population grew too large, he’d take a few of the old ones, wring their necks, and carve them up for meat right in his backyard. You can just imagine a well-bred housewife watching out the window in horror as her Kentucky-born neighbor slaughtered squawking chickens just a few feet away.
The author’s grandmother sympathized, in her native vernacular, with her fellow Kentuckian: “Fucking zoning laws can kiss my asshole.”
The transition from Kentucky to Ohio was not easy for the author’s grandparents. Hillbillies live in large groups of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins; in Ohio, people stay in the nuclear family. The Vance’s new neighbors were strangers to them, and generally stayed that way.
Along with several miscarriages and infant deaths, the couple managed to produce three surviving children, one of whom was the author’s mother.
always maintained a measured optimism about their children’s futures. They were unquestionably wealthier than the family members who had stayed in Kentucky. They reasoned that if they could go from a one-room schoolhouse in Jackson to a two-story suburban home with the comforts of the middle class, then their children and grandchildren should have no problem attending college and acquiring a share of the American Dream. They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that didn’t excuse failure. “Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.”
Indeed, they assumed that what had been good enough for them should not be good enough for their children. When the author’s mother took up with a boyfriend who bore too close a resemblance to the folks back home, Bonnie Vance’s condemnation was fierce: “He’s a toothless fucking retard!”
The same principle applied to jobs. The next generation was to work with their minds, not their hands. Jim Vance refused to arrange employment for his eldest son at the steel company where he himself worked; the only acceptable employment there for the rising generation was as an engineer, not as a welder: “To my grandparents, the goal was to get out of Kentucky and give their kids a head start. The kids, in turn, were expected to do something with that head start.”
But the first generation born outside Appalachia also had troubles. Apart from frequent family trips back to the Kentucky hills, they grew up without the social support their parents had taken for granted. They went to modern schools with thousands of other students, and felt isolated.
Then the industrial companies on which their parents’ modest prosperity had depended began leaving or going out of business, to be replaced by cash-for-gold shops and payday lenders. Employment at the local steel company quickly went from not good enough to unattainable. The better-off left town; poorer families were trapped by declining property values, unable to sell their homes.
I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hard working. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.
By the time the author’s mother was nineteen, she was already divorced with a baby girl to support—no job, no credentials, and no college credits. The author was the product of marriage number two, which did not last much longer than the first. A third marriage followed. The family lived just a few blocks from the elder Vances, now known to the author as Papaw and Mamaw. For a while, it was barely tolerable.
When the author was about nine, “things began to unravel.” His family moved to another town, far from the grandparents. Fights started to became common. The author describes the lessons he drew from this experience as a child:
Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if a fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your anger in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you—if he or she knows where the children are, he or she won’t worry as much, and your departure won’t be as effective.
Predictably, family troubles began to affect his grades:
Many nights I’d lie in bed, unable to sleep because of the noise—heavy stomping, yelling, sometimes glass shattering. The next morning I’d wake up tired and depressed, meandering through the school day, thinking constantly about what awaited at home. I just wanted to retreat to a place where I could sit in silence. I couldn’t tell anyone what was going on, as that was far too embarrassing. And though I hated school, I hated home more. When the teacher announced that we had only a few minutes to clean our desks before the bell rang, my heart sank. I’d stare at the clock as though it were a ticking bomb.
The author’s mother got caught in an extramarital affair, ending that marriage and prompting a return to Middletown. She was soon drinking hard, and cycling through a string of boyfriends one of the author’s school friends called “flavor of the month.” Her temper got worse. There was an ugly incident, and the police were called.
A trial followed, in which much depended on the 12-year-old author’s testimony. He had a difficult balancing act: make his home life appear bad enough so that he would be allowed to escape from it, but not so bad that his mother would go to jail.
He succeeded. He was now free to move between his mother’s and his grandparents’ houses, “and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun.”
But the chaos of his mother’s life continued to wreak havoc:
I was a sophomore in high school, and I was miserable. The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget . . . . I had nearly failed out of my freshman year of high school, earning a 2.1 GPA. I didn’t do my homework, I didn’t study, and my attendance was abysmal. Some days I’d fake an illness, and others I’d just refuse to go. Along with [these other troubles] came drug experimentation—nothing hard, just what alcohol I could get my hands on and a stash of weed [a friend] and I found.
A drug-related crisis in the mother’s life led to the author moving in permanently with his grandmother (his grandfather had died by this time). This newfound stability provided the critical turning point in his life. His school performance improved almost immediately, and he lost interest in drugs: “Those three years with Mamaw saved me.”
Relieved of the worst of his personal problems, the author began to take an interest in the lives of his neighbors, which were often no better than what he had escaped from. A job as a cashier at a local grocery provided the opportunity for a bit of amateur sociology. He noticed, for instance, that many of the poorer customers, as judged by clothing and food stamp use, were animated by “a frenetic stress” and were more likely than others to buy precooked or frozen food.
I learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps and beer, wine and cigarettes with cash. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largess enjoyed trinkets I could only dream about.
Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.
The author began to suspect that his grandparents’ beloved “party of the working man” was not all it was cracked up to be:
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. A big part of the explanation [is] that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did.
Now sixteen, the author began reading up on the social problems that affected his community. One book he discovered was The Truly Disadvantaged, by Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose argument he summarizes as follows:
As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile. When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well-educated, wealthy, or well-connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. Those remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.
This described Middletown’s hillbilly transplants perfectly, but it was not meant to; Wilson was writing about black people in inner cities. The author experienced the same shock of recognition in another book about the problems of urban blacks: Charles Murray’s Losing Ground.
On a visit to his biological father, the author came to realize that something was also missing from the religious life of his community:
Dad’s church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me, religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track.
The author’s grandmother read the Bible regularly, but never went to church: “the folks back home . . . were deeply religious but without any attachment to a real church community. In the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” Such churches as exist there tend to be “heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well.”
For a long time, the author desperately wanted to believe that his community’s troubles were caused by outside forces—that if industry could be brought back, the pathologies would disappear. But he saw too many examples of people responding in the worst possible way to admittedly real challenges. His community was:
a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Our eating and exercise habits seem designed to send us to an early grave. In certain parts of Kentucky, life expectancy is sixty-seven, a full decade and a half below what it is in nearby Virginia.
In keeping with the higher standards to which hillbillies held their offspring, the author was expected to go to college. But he had a strong suspicion that, despite his improved school performance, he was not ready. A cousin advised him to consider the Marine Corps: “They’ll whip your ass into shape.” It was good advice:
The Marines changed the expectations that I had for myself. In boot camp, the thought of climbing the thirty-foot rope inspired terror; by the end of my first year, I could climb the rope using only one arm. Before I enlisted, I had never run a mile continuously. On my last physical fitness test, I ran three of them in nineteen minutes.
The corps also understands the need to make up for the lack of social capital in many of its recruits’ communities of origin:
The Marine Corps assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances. I took mandatory classes about balancing a checkbook, saving, and investing. When I came home from boot camp with my fifteen hundred dollar earnings deposited in a mediocre regional bank, a senior enlisted marine drove me to Navy Federal—a respected credit union—and had me open an account.
In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms. He sent an older marine to supervise as I shopped for my first car so that I’d end up with a practical car, not the BMW I wanted. When I nearly agreed to finance that purchase directly through the car dealership with a 21-percent-interest-loan, my chaperone blew a gasket and ordered me to call Navy Fed and get a second quote (it was less than half the interest). I had no idea that people did these things. Compare banks? I thought they were all the same. Shop around for a loan? I felt so lucky to even get a loan that I was ready to pull the trigger immediately. The Marine Corps demanded that I think strategically about these decisions, and then taught me how to do so.
Perhaps what places like Middletown need even more than the reopening of the factories is a few Marine sergeants.
Psychologists [speak of] “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes of my life. Middletown’s world of small expectations had taught me that I had no control . . . . Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” The Marine Corps excised that feeling like a surgeon does a tumor.
In short, the corps was the second essential step, after moving from his mother’s to his grandmother’s home, which enabled the author’s Horatio Alger rise. Ohio State presented few challenges for a Marine veteran. He had two off-campus jobs in addition to a full schedule of coursework, but still graduated summa cum laude in under two years—with a double major.
His August graduation meant he had to wait a year to begin law school. This final year in Middletown brought home to him the contrast between his optimism about his own life and the mindset of most of his contemporaries. His friends and family would constantly send him stories about Obama implementing martial law to gain a third term, government plans to implant microchips in American citizens, the Newtown massacre being staged as a prelude to gun confiscation, etc.
The extravagance of these theories was not what most concerned him. Rather, it was their constant underlying message that we are helpless. Powerful people control everything we see happening, and nothing we do makes any difference.
Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. The message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
The author also became aware of the clumsy efforts of outsiders to help the troubled life of his community. The Ohio legislature debated a bill to outlaw payday lenders, whom they saw as predatory sharks. But the politicians “had little appreciation for the role of payday lenders in the shadow economy that people like me occupied.” The author describes how such a lender could solve important financial problems for people in a place like Middletown. “The lesson? Powerful people sometimes do things to help people like me without understanding people like me.”
Something similar was true of family law:
In the eyes of the law, my grandmother was an untrained caretaker without a foster license. If things went poorly for my mother in the courts, I was as likely to find myself with a foster family as with Mamaw. The notion of being separated from everyone and everything I loved was terrifying. In other words, our country’s social services weren’t made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse.
The author’s experiences at Yale Law School are a study in culture shock. He is astounded to learn that Tony Blair is coming to campus just to address a small student group, but finds that everyone else is blasé about it: “Yeah, he speaks at Yale all the time; his son is an undergraduate.”
Every year, recruiters from prestigious law firms descend on New Haven in search of legal talent. It is called the Fall Interview Program, a marathon week of dinners, cocktail hours, hospitality suite visits, and interviews. The author experiences it like the hillbilly he is:
I finally mustered the courage to answer yes when someone asked me whether I’d like some wine and if so, what kind. “I’ll take white,” I said, which I thought would settle the matter. “Would you like sauvignon blanc or chardonnay?” I thought she was screwing with me. But I used my powers of deduction to determine that those were two separate kinds of white wine. So I ordered a chardonnay, because it was easier to pronounce.
His table setting provokes panic: “I looked down and observed an absurd number of instruments. Nine utensils? Why, I wondered, did I need three spoons? Why were there multiple butter knives?” Only a quick dash to the men’s room and emergency phone call to his non-hillbilly girlfriend gets him through the ordeal.
Later he learns that the entire process is about
passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients. Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or résumés; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door.
The farcical misunderstandings conceal a deeper lesson:
The wealthy and powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. I had always thought that when you need a job, you look online for job postings. And then you submit a dozen résumés. The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing a different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.
That doesn’t mean the strength of your résumés or interview performance is irrelevant. Those things certainly matter. But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital. It’s a professor’s term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value. They connect us to the right people, ensure that we have opportunities, and impart valuable information. Without them, we’re going it alone.
The author found that costly mistakes could be avoided and valuable opportunities discovered only by learning to ask the right people the right questions.
A different sort of culture shock awaited the author when he visited his fiancée’s family for dinner:
I was amazed at the lack of drama. [My fiancée’s] mother didn’t complain about her father behind his back. There were no suggestions that good family friends were liars or backstabbers, no angry exchanges between a man’s wife and sister. When I asked her father about a relatively estranged family member, I expected to hear a rant about character flaws. What I heard instead was sympathy and a little sadness.
The author also struggled to unlearn hillbilly honor culture. For the first 18 years of his life, standing down in the face of an insult would have gotten him a verbal lashing for being a “pussy” or “wimp.” At the prestigious law firm where he now works, obeying his impulse to respond to perceived slights with his fists would leave him looking like a lunatic rather than a tough guy. As he politely phrases it, hillbilly men “suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”
Culture shock ran both ways; the author was surprised to find himself an object of interest to his new acquaintances.
Very few people at Yale Law School are like me. They may look like me, but for all of the Ivy League’s obsession with diversity, virtually everyone—black, white, Jewish, Muslim, whatever—comes from intact families who never worry about money. Professors and classmates seemed genuinely interested in what seemed to me a boring story: I went to a mediocre public high school, my parents didn’t go to college, [etc.] At Yale, many of my friends had never spent time with a veteran of America’s newest wars.
Everyone at Yale believes theoretically in the importance of social mobility, but many are baffled when it actually occurs and results in their meeting someone like the author. He even overheard one of his professors suggesting that Yale Law should not accept applicants from non-prestigious state schools. He concludes: “One way our upper class can promote upward mobility is by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.”
Hillbilly Elegy is an extraordinary book by a man who, at a comparatively early age (31 at the time of publication) has attained real insight into the deeper social significance of his own life. But does the book hold lessons for us? The author’s approach is more sociological than biological; if anything, going to Yale has reinforced his racial orthodoxy. Certainly, the book can be read as a cautionary tale against any racially-based sense of complacency white Americans may have in the face of black dysfunction; it brings home to the reader just how vulnerable many whites are to the very same problems. As I have written elsewhere, whites are not immune to a sort of “reafricanization” under unfavorable social circumstances.
Fans of Sam Francis will also appreciate the author’s account of the fatalistic mentality of poorer whites, their loss of any sense of personal agency. Such a mindset may constitute not so much a failure as the success of the present American regime. As Francis wrote in 1992:
The inculcation of passivity by the managerial system and its elite is an essential foundation of its power, not only on the political level but also on the social, economic, and cultural levels as well. The entire structure of the system depends upon manipulating its members into believing (or not challenging the assumption) that they are not capable of performing the simple social functions that every human society in history has performed as a matter of routine. It is the constant instruction of the propagandists of the system that we are not capable of educating our own children, taking care of them without brutalizing them, providing for our own health or old age, enforcing our own laws, defending our own homes and neighborhoods, or earning our own living. We are not capable of thinking our own thoughts without ubiquitous and self-appointed pundits to explain to us what we see and hear, nor of forming our own tastes and opinions without advice from experts nor even of deciding when to laugh when we watch television.
This is a pretty good description of the kind of mentality our institutions—apart, perhaps, from the Marine Corps—are designed to foster. And the economic advancement of Rust Belt Scots-Irish is not the only positive change such mental habits can hinder. Many on the pro-white Right are vulnerable to the same style of conspiracy-mongering as the frustrated citizens of Middletown. Quite apart from the truth or falsity of any particular theory, they usually convey a subtext of helplessness: Powerful people have everything under control. While those who offer such a council of despair may think of themselves as more sophisticated than the rubes who believe what they hear on Fox News, in reality they may be the most perfect products of managerialism’s indoctrination into passivity and helplessness.
The powerful never have everything under control. Today, they panic at the thought of a racial dissident being allowed to speak on a college campus. If a hillbilly from a broken home can reclaim his natural sense of agency in order to change his own life, we can defeat the corrupt representatives of a threadbare ideology.