Hillbilly Elegy: good memoir, crap political science

At the prompting of a couple of friends, I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

It was a major mistake. Don’t believe Vance’s hype and don’t believe for a second that you need to read this book to gain some deeper understanding of “real Americans.” It’s a simultaneous exercise in (a) shaming the working class as shiftless and lazy; (b) ignoring why their plight today is what it is; while (c) ignoring why, exactly, they resent so-called “cultural elites.” 

For those unfamiliar, Vance was born and raised in the rust belt town of Middletown, Ohio and comes from a family with deep roots in rural Kentucky, which he considers his true home, even if it’s not his native home. Despite all of the economic and demographic cards stacked against him, and despite a profoundly tumultuous family life characterized by poverty, addiction and abuse, Vance eventually made his way to Yale Law school and a successful life in San Francisco.

Vance’s book serves as both personal memoir and a purported diagnosis of what ails the white, rural working class. In it he tries to tell the story of why his people have seemingly lost hope in the American Dream and why they have turned to a fraud like Donald Trump. Given its subject matter it comes out at a great time for Vance to be sure. It’s selling like hotcakes and has quickly become the literary touchstone of this most strange election year. Pundits on the left and the right are pointing to it as an explanatory tome, heaping praise upon it. 

And to be sure, there’s a lot to like in “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance himself seems a likable person. His prose is clean and clear and, though I think he’s sometimes startlingly flip when describing some truly terrible events from his youth, they’re his stories and he can process them and tell them how he’d like to. As memoir it’s interesting and at times compelling. Having myself been born in a rust belt town (Flint, Michigan) and consider an Appalachian town (Beckley, WV) to be my hometown, and having been the first person in my family to get an advanced degree and go on and live the sort of professional life I’ve lived, there are at least some elements of his story that were pretty familiar to me and which ring true, even if I didn’t share Vance’s often unfortunate circumstances. People who have less in common with Vance than I do will likely enjoy the memoir aspects of this book even more – what’s the point of a memoir if not to learn about someone and something new? – and will find a lot of it quite eye-opening.

I also suspect, however, that the people heaping praise on “Hillbilly Elegy” are doing so largely because they do not have things in common with Vance’s experience and don’t feel like they can second guess him and the assertions he makes about where we are right now, politically and culturally speaking. Given where I’ve lived, who my family is and what I’ve seen, however, I don’t feel quite as limited and I have no trouble noting that Vance stumbles pretty badly when he turns from his own personal experiences to the lessons he’d like his readers to take from them. Indeed, at times the book reads like conservative denial of some pretty basic facts and rank apologia for some truly ugly crap.

​The first lesson: that the white underclass which is struggling so mightily is not taking responsibility for its own decay. That moral failures, as opposed to economic challenges, are to blame. That’s a popular talking point on the right these days. Likewise, the left is always secretly happy to hear that the problems of the downtrodden, especially if the downtrodden speak with a southern accent and vote differently than they do, are of their own making and can be blamed on them somehow. Thus the universal praise, I suspect. It gets everyone off the hook. The only problem is that this explanation is largely negated by Vance’s very own experience. 

The single biggest reason Vance was able to rise above his circumstances was his grandparents – his Papaw and Mamaw, as he calls them – who served as his bedrock as he grew up and as his mother spun out of control. Papaw and Mamaw, who moved to Ohio as newlyweds, were no moral paragons. Papaw was an alcoholic, Mamaw was at times violent and combustible and each were prone to dishing out some heavy psychological abuse. But they were there for Vance in ways no one else was and there is no way Vance lives the life he has if not for them.

How were they different than all of the alleged moral failures which surrounded Vance? As one reads “Hillbilly Elegy” it becomes clear that the biggest difference is that Papaw had a solid, secure and well-paying steel mill job. That’s the reason they owned a home. That’s the reason they didn’t have to move around for jobs or to look to questionable alternative romantic partners to help them make ends meet. Vance tries his best to ignore this fact and, at times, gives examples of allegedly lazy people turning their backs on jobs that could’ve provided stability, but the comparisons are laughable.

Early in the book, in an anecdote he echoes with other similar examples later and which he has offered in multiple interviews, he talks about someone he knew who quit his job in a tile warehouse. Vance tries to make it seem like the guy turned his back on the American Dream because he was lazy and entitled and that something was just not present in his character that needed to be there. But then he notes that after “several years,” the job would only allow one to make just above the poverty line (Vance doesn’t include the “only”). Indeed, for Vance himself it was a summer job before law school, the type of work one does to kill the time before one goes off to secure their future, not the sort of job which makes one’s future. 

Such examples – and he offers them again and again – are rotten apples compared to the sweet orange that was a well-paying mill job like his Papaw had. Or a factory job. Or a job in the mines which, however dangerous, used to be protected by a union and used to pay quite well. The jobs Vance describes his friends blowing off are gigs. The latter jobs are something upon which one can build the foundation for a successful and prosperous family. Or, in Papaw and Mamaw’s case, one which can serve as a much-needed fallback when other parts of the family fail. Above all else, these were jobs that gave someone dignity and independence in the ways a barely poverty-avoiding job in a tile warehouse do not. Those jobs have rapidly abandoned places like Middletown and Kentucky. It’s a safe bet that, had they not, Vance would not have a lot of handy anecdotes about his friends quitting on a dime and then complaining about having to work. 

​More egregious is Vance’s out-of-hand dismissal of basic racism as a huge factor contributing to the white underclass’ hatred of President Obama and embrace a of man in Donald Trump who is, more or less, a white nationalist candidate. From page 191: 

“Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Midletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barak Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He’s brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor – which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the the people I admired growing up: his accent – clean, perfect, neutral – is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re 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 is 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 … Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.” 

This is unmitigated bullshit. Apart from skin color, there is absolutely nothing Vance’s generation had in common with any president in Vance’s lifetime. Reagan was a Hollywood actor. The Bushes are inner-circle members of Patrician society – eastern bluebloods with inherited fortunes and more ivy league degrees than you can shake a stick at, George W. Bush’s affected drawl notwithstanding. Bill Clinton’s childhood may have been roughly relatable to Vance’s, but he went to an Ivy League school, Georgetown and Oxford and was a millionaire many times over before anyone in Middletown, Ohio or rural Kentucky had ever heard of Obama. This is to say nothing of other candidates Vance’s friends gladly support like Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and the various state and local officials who represent southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky. 

The people Vance describes may not have liked Bill Clinton much, but they never turned on him as personally or vehemently as they have Obama. They never questioned his legitimacy as a president or a human being. They never questioned his heritage or religion. They never circulated the vile propaganda they circulate about Obama. They likewise are not flocking to Trump because he’s somehow relatable in ways that Obama isn’t. That is, unless I missed the part of the book where Vance explains how much in common a self-proclaimed billionaire/lifelong New Yorker who, if he had wanted to, never would’ve had to work a single day in his life has with the people Vance knew growing up. 

None of which is to say that all or even a large number of the people Vance is purporting to speak for are vile racists or that racism is the sole and dominant factor in their disillusionment with Obama and/or America. That’s just as reductionist as Vance’s “moral failure” argument. Indeed, there are a lot of factors at play here. Economic factors, as I noted above. Cultural differences which are exacerbated by our entertainment and information choices and the bubbles in which they allow us to more easily live. But anyone suggesting that race and resentment of Obama as a human being has not been a significant animating force in American politics in the past eight years is deluding themselves.

The breakdown and disillusionment of the rural and working class America that Vance describes is real, but it’s really complicated and it has many fathers. The automation and export of manufacturing, mining and agricultural jobs. The drastic curtailment and stigmatization of the welfare state and social safety nets which have, historically, stepped in to help in tough economic times. A healthcare crisis in which finding and affording even the most basic level of medical services in rural areas is far more difficult than it was even a decade or two ago. A drug epidemic which has a lot of different causes and exacerbating factors, both political, legal and social.

The choices we have made as a nation and the degree to which we have been convinced that (a) those choices did nothing to cause these problems; and that (b) government has no role in solving them bear a huge portion of the responsibility in this crisis. Vance, however, would have us ignore most of that and chalk it up to millions of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt not being as lucky as he was to have his Papaw and Mamaw. 

That’s a pretty handy hook for a book and eventually, I presume, a movie deal. As political and social science goes, however, it’s a crock of shit. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.

5 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy: good memoir, crap political science

  1. Amen. I had largely the same reaction when I read it. It’s an interesting study of a very screwed up family, but if you’re looking for deep thoughts on what t all means – for society, for the economy, for the nation – you won’t find them in Hillbilly Elegy

  2. That exact paragraph about why people could not relate to President Obama took away any legitimacy that Mr. Vance had surrounding class & politics. I almost didn’t finish the book because I found that reasoning to be so absurd and intellectually dishonest.

  3. This book was touted as the reason flyover country folk were flocking to Trump, but, honestly, it never addressed that. I was very disappointed in it. Sorry to hear Vance has taken up with Bannon.

  4. great. thanks. put words to my thinking. I just read it – and kind of liked it. but thought a lot was bullshit – and he omitted or grossly spinned an awful lot – like pervasive racism, and the violence that he esteems among this hillbilly forebears.

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