Hillbilly Elegy as Rorschach Test

I have already made clear in a prior post some of the reasons I am not a big fan of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance’s best selling 2016 memoir:  I think Vance is using his personal narrative to advance a neo-con agenda (and I will freely admit I don’t trust anyone who would work with Peter Thiel).  Further, I don’t think the book lives up the hype.

But lots of folks I know and respect do like the book, and they have been willing to defend it.  Following are my recollections of some of the conversations I have had about Hillbilly Elegy, most of them initiated by my friends and acquaintances rather than by me–for whatever that’s worth.  In any event, recalling these has me pondering the book as “Rorschach test,” that in which we can see what we choose to see.

Family, Luck and the Luck of Family.  When I opine that I see Vance takes too much credit for his success (which is not to say he deserves no credit) and focuses too much on the staple of conservative politics, “personal responsibility,” several friends have disagreed.  One said “No, he doesn’t take credit.  He says he got lucky by virtue of his stalwart grandparents who loved him” and kept him between the ditches (the latter part being my hillbilly paraphrase of what my friend actually said, which I don’t recall verbatim).  Ok.  Fair enough.  Yes, he appropriately gives his grandparents lots of well-deserved credit, and I relate to that.  I would never have made it to college or beyond without my mom and other key folks in my community who encouraged me and expected great things.  But family and friends as cheerleaders will not, alone, get you through college or graduate school–especially when they have never been there themselves and can rarely help you set appropriate goals.

It’s Really Complicated.  When I told another friend that I think Vance takes too much credit for his success, she (a Harvard educated lawyer) said, “Oh no. What he is saying is that it’s all very complicated.”  Well, I can hardly argue with that.  Of course it’s complicated!  But this is sorta’ like Donal Trump saying health care reform is complicated or the North Korea situation is complicated.  Are you kidding me?  The fact that the world didn’t know it was “complicated” before J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy is, frankly, embarrassing.  (In this vein, read Alec MacGillis’s excellent piece in The Atlantic).  People living below, at, or hovering above the poverty line have very difficult lives–even if they are white (and I hope to return to the matter of whiteness in a dedicated way in a subsequent post).  Reports of what are now being called “Deaths of Despair” among low-education whites came out as early as 2013, such as here; among these is Case and Deaton’s high profile study in the fall of 2015.  We should know that these folks exist and that when they are able to escape the bonds of the low-income, low-education world, it pretty much requires a harmonic convergence–a small, multi-faceted miracle–every time.  It takes some combination of family support, mentoring, lucky breaks (which can include stable grandparents, like J.D.’s), sheer native ability, perseverance, grit and–yes–hard work.

Oh, I would argue that it takes “the state”!  Vance talks only vaguely of Pell Grants, government-backed student loans, or work study–or any other way that his family received any benefit from government policies, be they the EITC or food stamps or  … How about his public university degree from Ohio State?  the GI Bill?  In the last chapter, which is his policy recommendations chapter, he does refer opaquely to his grandparents’ Social Security, so there’s that.  Maybe I overlooked the structural stuff.  But for the most part, as Sarah Jones highlighted in her New Republic review, Vance writes as if the state is not an actor, either by omission or commission.  Really?  Can it be that the state was irrelevant to Vance’s class migration?  that all the state did for him is permit him to become a Marine and thereby bootcamp some discipline into him?  Is this absence of government what so many across the political spectrum find so appealing about Hillbilly Elegy?  Further, is it possible that the state can or should play little or no role in the plight of those left behind?

Memoir vs. Policy Manual.  When I told another acquaintance–a childhood  immigrant from Poland, a relatively recent University of Michigan law graduate–that I found Vance’s dalliance in policy matters annoying and regressive, she said she hadn’t really noticed, had skimmed over those parts.   She then allowed that the book probably worked better as a memoir than as a policy document.  I agreed.  But I was also somewhat puzzled that this white class migrant (her father was a truck driver, just like mine, and she, like Vance, had served in the military) had  been so taken with Vance’s narrative, his version of events.  Her own journey didn’t sound terribly different to his (though I assume the absence of extreme parental dysfunction and addiction)   That journey had, however, taken place in a major American city rather than a corner of Appalachia, which may have sufficiently differentiated it from her own to make Hillbilly Elegy interesting in her eyes.

Window into Another World.  A well educated, thoughtful and sage (yoga instructor, no less!) friend from an “old money” family back East asked me what I thought about Hillbilly Elegy.  Her book group was about to discuss it, and she said she felt the book was providing her insights into the value of relationships and people whom she would previously have dismissed as uncouth at best.  Specifically, she said that if she had met Vance’s cursing, gun-toting grandmother, she would have been entirely  disdainful–until she read the book, that is.  Hillbilly Elegy had helped her to see the value in Vance’s Mamaw.  I said, “fair enough, but read what I have written about the book,” and I passed along a partially written review.  It is self-serving to report, but my friend came back with, “yes, I can see your reflections on your upbringing are more mature and thoughtful than Vance’s. Nevertheless, I did benefit from Hillbilly Elegy as a window into another world.”  And this brings to the last of the exchanges that I will share …

Is Vance Seasoned Enough to be Publishing a “Memoir”?  As I have previously mentioned, not many written reviews of Hillbilly Elegy have been anything other than glowing.  In addition to the Sarah Jones review I have already cited and quoted, I have read very little negative commentary about the book.  Some of the few “bad” reviews I have seen were in the Daily Yonder, an online publication/blog of the Center for Rural Affairs (I know you are chuckling, but this is a serious outlet for rural perspectives and rural news).  They published three reviews, none of which was very flattering, and  two of which called out the inappropriateness (and perhaps even absurdity) of someone publishing a “memoir” at the age of 31.  One, Jim Branscome, a former managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former staff member of the Appalachian Regional Commission, quotes Vance’s own book introduction.

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.

Branscome then summarily agrees with the statement.  In another review, Charles L. Baker, a native of Eastern Kentucky and retired CEO of Presbyterian Child Welfare Agency, expands on that notion:

J.D. Vance lacks the maturity to see the blind spots that trouble his book… The culture he blames for spreading failure gave him some of the values that helped him succeed.  And the government he says institutionalized poverty in Appalachia helped him find a way into the middle class.

Baker’s review–like that of Sarah Jones–reminds us that Hillbilly Elegy is not just the story of Vance’s escape from Appalachia, it is the story of the multitudes left behind.  (This, of course, is why CNN regularly brings Vance on to educate the viewing public about the supposedly quintessential Trump voters).  The book’s importance is as much or more in what it says about the failures of Vance’s people as it is about Vance’s “phoenix from the ashes” success.  Don’t doubt, though, that both aspects of the book have made it especially popular among conservatives and libertarians.  Vance gets to be the poster child for Reagan’s vision of the potency of personal responsibility.  Yet many of us who have trod that path are less likely to “lean into our own understanding,” much less take so much credit for our own success without also acknowledging the many structural handicaps that hold back our communities and families of origin.

As for Vance’s maturity, I acknowledge that a childhood and youth like J.D. Vance’s will prematurely age a person.  It’s an exhausting way to live, and that which doesn’t kill you will not only make you stronger, it will often result in what I shall call premature maturity.  Nevertheless, Vance, a few years out of Yale Law, is surely nowhere close to maxing out on wisdom.  I wonder how the decades to come might lead him to reflect differently not only on his own journey, but also on what his people need, on the array of factors that are holding them back, keeping them down. (You may have heard that, in recent months, Vance has moved back to Ohio where he will be using some of the fruits of his labor to start a foundation; I anticipate a run for public office in his near future.)

I am thinking it is no coincidence that the few naysayers about Hillbilly Elegy that I have managed to identify are mostly from the region, and some of us are class migrants.  (Other important reviews of Hillbilly Elegy from those in the region are here and here; Jedediah Purdy, who grew up in Appalachia and teaches at Duke Law reviews the book here, though he is more descriptive than critical). We see a greater role for the state in places like Appalachia and the Ozarks and, like Vance, we have first-hand knowledge of the milieu.  We see the structural barriers to not only getting to Yale Law School (and few from any place or milieu even aspire to that), but the ones that keep kids from getting through high school or enrolled in community college or securing a decent blue-collar living.

In the 2016 election cycle, Democrats seem to have neglected these people and what government can (and should?) do for them.  Indeed, Hillary Clinton hardly showed up in rural America.  If liberals think Hillbilly Elegy represents some “gospel truth” about low-income, low-education whites, they may well continue down the current path of self-destruction, failing to prioritize races in rural places with large white working class populations (read more here and here).

In closing this post, let me return to Sarah Jones of the New Republic, because I can’t sum up my feelings about the election of 2016 and what working class whites need and deserve any better than she did (emphasis added):

By electing Trump, my community has condemned itself to further suffering. … Our schools will get poorer and our children hungrier. It will be one catastrophic tragedy out of the many a Trump presidency will generate. So yes, be angry with the white working class’s political choices. I certainly am; home will never feel like home again.

But don’t emulate Vance in your rage. Give the white working class the progressive populism it needs to survive, and invest in the areas the Democratic Party has neglected. Remember that bootstraps are for people with boots. And elegies are no use to the living.

I’ll be returning soon with more thoughts on other important issues that Hillbilly Elegy brings to the fore.

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