It’s eluding my memory at this point. Perhaps it was while reading an online essay at The American Conservative when I first heard of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (HE). What I do recall is the high praise for HE from political conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Normally the New York Times bestseller list doesn’t pique my interest, but when a book reaches the number 1 ranking and is deemed culturally important, I guess looking into it can’t hurt. What I found is that even orthodox Christians were proclaiming HE as especially important in these turbulent times.
What sets HE above the myriad of other memoirs published in 2016? In a word: relevance. Most memoirs seeks to do a couple things: tell the author’s story and connect with a particular audience. If it’s a good one, then the author’s subculture offers up an “Amen!” Here is where Vance distances himself from the rest of the pack. Thousands, perhaps millions, of readers from all walks of life are reading HE and shouting “Yes, he gets it, and this explains what has fractured America.” Everyone who is familiar with HE immediately detects its relevance for America because it helps us as a people to understand who we are. Many Americans have forgotten the working class, and hence don’t understand what helps and hurts them. Vance’s memoir is a prescient and deeply sympathetic reminder of who we are as a country.
So who are we? What is the essence of Hillbilly Elegy? Vance recounts the tale of his Scotch-Irish ancestors who made their homes in rural Appalachia. Huge percentages of these mountain people migrated in the 20th century to the Rust Belt and adjacent states looking for work, prosperity, and a better living than a hard life in the coal mines. Vance’s grandparents and their children were among them. Although the hillbillies moved out of the hills, Vance narrates in so many ways how hillbilly values, beliefs, habits, and culture cannot be completely extracted from the hillbilly. For those who come from hillbilly subculture, it is difficult to escape the pull of poverty and social ills that plague this population in high percentages. Vance is one of the few who were privileged enough, gifted enough, and worked hard enough to rise out of poverty and the mindset that clings to it. A dominant chunk of HE tells the story of Vance’s childhood. This formative part of his young life (he is now about 30 years old) abounds with lovable and memorable characters who are larger than life. (Yeah, I know, that is cliché, but in this case it is true! I found myself thinking over and over again: “No way!” “Are you serious?” “That’s crazy!”) J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw, the star of the book, is a foul-mouthed, gun-totin’, worldly-wise, tough-yet-nurturing, principled matriarch. More than anyone else she is responsible for J.D.’s growth into the man he becomes. She really steals the show as the heroine of HE. Mom is mostly a tragic character. She begins with such promise as her high school valedictorian but eventually descends into drug addiction, run-ins with the law, and the girl-friend de jour for a string of irresponsible men who in turn take up temporary residence in J.D.’s childhood home. Sister Lindsey is the protective older sibling who also escapes the poverty and dysfunction of their family. The rest of the clan play supporting roles. Others who make significant appearances in the author’s story include wife Usha, Dad, and grandfather Papaw. The story is a good one too. From the book’s official website:
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
What can I say about the writing of HE? Vance is an engaging writer. The narrative is not overly artistic yet there is a simple elegance to his prose. Vance’s life is wrapped up in the lives of simple, earthy people. Hence some of the language he uses is profane. Most of the time the vulgarity comes out of the mouths of the characters. This lends the dialogue a rough and tumble feel. But occasionally the narrator uses bad language too. So for those who are offended by cuss words in print, you are forewarned. Some of the characters, especially Mamaw, offer insightful criticism of their social situation. The author uses these instances, along with his narrating asides, to meditate on the meaning of his hillbilly culture. What are some of the things he concludes?
- Hillbillies are, by and large, wonderful people. They are fiercely loyal, fun-loving, and family-centered. It’s not hard to love hillbillies as friends and neighbors.
- There are many many more people who descend from hillbilly culture than you probably realize.
- Hillbillies are not doing well at all as a people. Their culture is in social, relational, emotional, physical, and spiritual decay. The situation has reached crisis level.
- Political and social policy changes are not enough to fix the problems hillbillies face. Cultural change is necessary, and religion, particularly Christianity, can play an important role in changing not just individuals, but also families and thereby entire communities.*
- Hillbilly culture is deeply ingrained in people. Just like any other subculture, their strengths and weaknesses are difficult to change. For better or for worse. Thus no easy solutions are available to solve its problems.
- Hillbillies are the largest “powerless” group of Americans, but they are not granted that status by cultural elites. “Doubtful,” you say? Just look around. Think about it. Of what other people group, besides conservative Christians, is it permissible to deride in polite company. Rednecks and Christians. These are the last American cultural laughingstocks.
- Dismissing hillbillies as a valuable sector of American culture is detrimental to all Americans. Their history, families, traditions, stories, and talents all uniquely and positively contribute to the American national identity.
*I want to say a little more about Vance’s take on religion. His Christian faith does not play a prominent part in the book, but the hints he gives make clear that Christianity has been a major factor not just in the author’s life but also in hillbilly culture. Vance was raised to be a conservative Pentecostal Christian of the particular Appalachian variety. Not quite snake-handling church, but more the fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-world sort. As a teen he went through a stage of strong devotion and piety, attending church services regularly, reading his Bible voraciously, and praying that God would ease his family’s struggles. But then at some point he concluded that in order to succeed by “getting out” it would be in his best interest to jettison the faith. So Vance became a self-described atheist. And being free from religion and God served him well in the world. For a while at least. Not until he made some Roman Catholic friends at Yale Law School did he question his atheism and begin to reconsider Christianity as true and beneficial. Of course the author’s story is still being written, but as of HE’s publication in 2016 Vance is again a professing Christian exploring which church he might fit into. The two reasons that led him back to faith were (1) realizing that a person doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a Christian, and (2) noticing that Christianity is not necessarily hurtful to prosperity and human flourishing. In other words, Vance came to see that Christianity and the churches that embody the faith can be instrumental in giving hope, shelter, and assistance to the needy and vulnerable. Even more than that, God and his church are vital to transform the hillbilly song from elegy to psalm. That is something every American ought to be excited about, and perhaps be a part of.
These lessons about Christianity and hillbilly culture are the lessons that make sense of what happened in America in 2016. Most everyone who reads HE can see how Vance’s depiction of hillbilly culture explains a lot. It explains Trump without mentioning him. It explains working-class and stagnant-class anger at the elites and establishment institutions. It explains the decline of small town America. It explains many family troubles of a huge class of Americans.
What HE doesn’t explain is solutions. Vance knows that hard work and perseverance are not the only things necessary to succeed and prosper. He is self-aware enough to realize that he was helped immensely by his Mamaw, other stable relatives, and his academic aptitude. Not everyone can count on these advantages. But he’s not sure what can help. In the end, the purpose of Vance’s memoir is just like any other: to tell a gripping story and get lots of people talking about what it means. With this end in mind, Hillbilly Elegy hits a home run.
Hoover Institution Video: J.D. Vance on his new book Hillbilly Elegy
Read a publisher’s sample from Hillbilly Elegy
Interview of J.D. Vance by National Public Radio
Interview of J.D. Vance by The American Conservative
Interview of J.D. Vance by Religion News