elegy hillbilly

Last week, I promised a review of J. D. Vance’s new book‚ because I knew I could count on Dwight Billings—a West Virginia native, University of Kentucky sociologist, and preeminent scholar of Appalachia. I am pleased to publish this guest post by him.

J. D. Vance is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working- class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

Vance notes that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

It’s often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in this case you can. All you really need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can be learned from those who endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package, which purports to explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently proclaimed in the New York Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . .These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself.

There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger and alienation of the white working-class and its presumed support for Donald Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success.**

A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness, poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience.

It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from Tony Soprano.

The real focus of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam, among others, but their research does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline, and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in my words, a little engine that could.

I tell my students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber, which contended that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural analyst as Max Weber.

J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.

 

*Hillbilly Elegy premiered at number nine on the New York Times list of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books. It is currently ranked number 5 in the Amazon list of best-selling books and number 1 in various specific categories (Sociology of Class, Poverty, and Ethnic Demographic Studies).

** For why Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see the interview with him by Rod Dreher, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People.”

Comments
  1. Mari-Lynn says:

    Thank you, Dr. Billings.

  2. A lens is not distorted if from one’s own experience. That you do not agree with Vance’s alleged politics (or that of his reviewers — note that Tan was his professor in law school) should not be reason to condemn the book. Vance visited eastern Kentucky frequently as a child and was raised by his Kentucky grandparents who transplanted to Ohio, where they had his mother in 1961. I think it adds greatly to the sociology of Appalachian generations, transplanted families, and the crises in the culture. Are all Appalachians disadvantaged? Certainly not but Vance’s voice is clear and objective and he doesn’t condemn his heritage, despite his successes. He almost seems to revel in and admire the occasional fist-to-cuffs behavior and what it taught him. This could have easily been one of those poor-me memoirs about a disadvantaged childhood. Vance weaves his experiences with statistics, research, and his own sociological perspectives. If some are stereotypes, so be it. We have stereotypes in all cultures for a reason and often there is great truth, and strength, in them.

  3. Cynthia Fitch says:

    I had Dr. Billings for a class at UK in 1996 and I still remember his brilliant lectures. If you want to read real literature “about” Appalachia go read Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven and the Unquiet Earth. These books manage to encapsulate the diversity of Appalachia along with a realistic struggle of people versus circumstances. Vance’s work is the same as the Local Color movement, of writers who traveled through Kentucky and wrote quaint stories of a foreign people. In other words, sensational drive by literature designed to sell to people who live elsewhere.

    There is a wide body of scholarship relating to Appalachia. That might be more satisfying than this modern local color effort.

    • JONATHAN DISKIN says:

      Great review and context of the Hillbilly Elegy phenomenon Dwight! I’m teaching a course to first year college students this fall that will focus on some ‘local’ issues, including deindustrialization of the very region of Ohio/midwest that Vance describes. If you happen to have any references for a good essay or text about Appalachian migration and the mix of social and economic dislocations so prevalent in this area (other than Putnam’s “Our Kids” which I have at hand) I’d be grateful!! Thanks again.

  4. Joe Childers says:

    Nicely put Dwight. It’s great to get a real academic’s view of this book.

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