Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance, was very hard for me to read, and even more difficult to write about. I’ll open, then, by telling a story from my own experience. I was about 25-years-old and a first year graduate student. I had a rocky early childhood and two divorces already under my belt. One night while at a dinner party with other students I referred to some part of my past; I can’t remember the particular detail, but another student, someone from a highly-educated, well-to-do suburban family, insinuated that I was lying about my past, that I was making stuff up. I was deeply hurt and had no idea how to respond to such an accusation.
This person has since become a good friend, and sometimes my champion; and the beginnings of our relationship illustrates the complex nature of class in America. The person who accused me of lying is a good person—most people would say she’s “woke,” that sort of thing—but my life was so foreign to her that is was literally unbelievable.
I have been ignoring this book as well, to tell you the truth. For many years I avoided anything about Appalachia because I felt beaten down by the identity politics debate. I got tired of hearing academics at the Appalachian Studies Association argue that there’s really no such place as Appalachia, that it’s the same as any other rural, predominantly White place in the U.S. As far as Appalachian studies goes, I’m kind of old school, not cool. When I first read Loyal Jones’ essay Appalachian Values, I wept. Here was someone describing my people, why I felt so different and alienated. Jones articulated an “insider” experience, particularly the experience of White, multigenerational Appalachian people.
So when I heard that Hillbilly Elegy was written by this man who’d went to Yale, I thought, yeah, well, I can just imagine. But I was surprised. Vance paints an unflinching, if sometimes harsh, picture of his corner of the region, his Appalachian experience. Yet he is both an insider and an outsider, one foot in the mountains, the other in his new life, and that conflict is laid bare in his memoir. On traveling and people noticing his “Kentucky” accent he says, “I kind of was from Kentucky.”
Vance was not from coalfield Kentucky, but his mamaw and papaw were. His grandparents had a large share of rearing him and his rustbelt community in Ohio was filled with others from the coalfields. During his childhood he made frequent trips “home” to Jackson, Kentucky to visit with relatives.
In some ways, Vance speaks directly to insiders. In the first chapter he creates/addresses the problem of Appalachians not wanting to look at themselves honestly (those that stayed). He takes pride in Appalachian cultural values such as being a hard worker, but laments that too many of his neighbors seem fatalistic and pessimistic, thus never reaching their full potential, or worse perpetuating intergenerational poverty and violence. It is these moments in the book that make it so unpalatable to the critics. Apparently Vance, regardless of his own experience, isn’t allowed to question his own culture. And make no mistake, when talking about Appalachian people from poor communities he uses the term “we.” He very clearly aligns himself with his kin even going so far as to lie to a woman at a gas station about his Yale education.
Contrary to what many reviewers would have you believe, he doesn’t demand that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Instead he says that a different life is often, literally, unimaginable. He didn’t know why he wanted to go to law school and by all accounts I could find, he currently does not practice law. He didn’t know that finance was a field of study. For people like us, the whole middle-class world of careers was well beyond our imagination. It was for him as a young man, and he thinks it must be true for others. Vance isn’t saying that poor people shouldn’t be given help, but, in speaking to insiders, he says that you have to be strategic and accept the help that’s given. And if your mamaw insists that you go to college, you find a way to go eventually, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Although I’m very liberal (and always vote D), I didn’t, and don’t toe the party line. Back when I was first entering the Middle Class, I didn’t fit the picture of what some imagined a poor girl from coalfield West Virginia should look like. I had made multiple bad choices. Like Vance, I was too brash, too irreverent. Perhaps the critics think Vance should spend more time condemning the system that keeps so many Appalachian people down. Because, you know, poor people aren’t actual people full of complexities and contradictions like everyone else. We never exercise agency, make bad decisions, or game the system. To their thinking, poor people should always and only be fighting the system.
My takeaway from this book is that what we can do, what we need, and what we can give is unconditional love and support. Vance’s most authentic policy recommendation is in his lifelong unconditional love and acceptance of his mother. He had to learn to set boundaries, but he’s still there, helping her when she’s hit rock bottom, again. It is also the most interesting part of the book. His raw emotion when writing about his mother, the hurt, the anger, the love changes his voice from a professional writing about social issues, to a boy frustrated that even though he read all those “stupid addiction books” he could not save her.
It is an elegy that is a love song to his mother. Following that line, the one-more-chance attitude of his youth is immature, ineffective, and unrealistic. He could not completely abandon his mother. Rather Vance moves into a stage of growth where he is able to protect himself from his mother’s harm, while still helping her when he can.
Vance has a very clear sense of his own otherness. This wasn’t something he invented, it was a real experience that he observed, that he felt in the very soul of his being. He’s quite transparent about the opportunities, both public and private, that allowed him to move in the upper middle class. I don’t think he asks why people don’t take advantage of these opportunities because he is politically conservative. Any rational person could make the same observation and wonder why some people seem to stuck in cycles of poverty and violence. He has no answers. How could he? His whole life he has tried to help his mother: as a teenager he educated himself about addiction and gave her his urine; and when he had money as an adult, he gave her financial support too. It’s only natural for him to question if all his efforts to help his mother did any good at all, and to extrapolate that experience to the larger poor, White culture he knows.