The Self-Serving Hustle of “Hillbilly Elegy”

grandpa-and-grandma-march-1957

As one of a smallish group of liberal Appalachian ex-pats, I have always considered myself an ambassador for my place of birth. I have tried to respond graciously to less than good-natured jokes about familial relations and general backwardness in the Appalachian region, and highlight the pride I still take in the work ethic and common decency of my family and community.

Lately, every inquiry has been framed around J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: whether I have read it or whether conditions for “my people” are as dire as described in the book. Vance’s memoir might have eventually faded from relevance, as there is little glamour to be found in the cored and denuded hills of the region. Then desperate Appalachians came in out droves to back Donald Trump’s improbable run to the White House.

While it is debatable what profit the Appalachian will reap from a Trump presidency, Vance has already turned his memoir into a cottage industry, serving as an explainer-in-chief for the nation’s suddenly important underclass. That Vance in no way represents my Appalachian upbringing is less distressing than than the sheer amount of people who, usually without reading the book, automatically assume that he does.

The easiest argument to make against J.D. Vance, and one that I have made to quickly exit conversations about Hillbilly Elegy, is that he was raised primarily in Middleburg, Ohio, close to Dayton and therefore not truly one of the hillbillies for whom he is offering an elegy. Though he did unfortunately grow up in an area experiencing economic downturn, it was more the decline of American manufacturing that occurred as the metals industry closed factories and eliminated union jobs to stay competitive in world markets. Rather than offer his perspective on the hillbillies of Appalachia, he should be writing about the displaced and forgotten factory workers of America’s heartland, the issue being that this particular plight is well-trod ground, depicted in Tom Cruise movies and Bruce Springsteen albums.

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Actual Appalachians, in the wild

Vance would also have a harder time making a case as a child of the rust belt as he does for being a hillbilly: ARMCO, later rebranded as AK Steel, continued to operate at a high level in Middletown until a union lockout in 2006, sparing Vance and his family the devastation felt in places like Youngstown, Ohio or Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In order to set himself apart, Vance has to mine his family’s Appalachian heritage.

As a reader, I found Vance’s main thesis in Hillbilly Elegy to be that Appalachians are a shiftless bunch seemingly unprepared to realize the American dream in the way of people in other parts of the country. In the author’s own words:

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper class. And when the dust clears — when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity — there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway.

Leaving the undercurrent of self-loathing completely alone, Vance presents the spendthrift ways of the hillbilly, combined with violence and substance abuse, as the root problem to be solved. This is a very superficial analysis of what is an observable pattern of behavior in Appalachia, though there are many more stories of families who stretched what little money they had to send a child to college or provide for extended family members.

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More real, honest-to-goodness hillbillies

As a child once removed from Appalachian culture, Vance observed men in Ohio who expected to work their entire careers for a company and make a comfortable living. The factory provided reliable, reasonably safe employment that should have, and in many cases did, allow the next generation a pathway out of poverty. Vance’s mother did attend college and became a nurse, something that he glosses over to highlight her shortcomings and his struggle. Vance’s take on Appalachians, particularly his family, may be uncharitable–but choosing not to fully consider the culture which he is critiquing is inexcusable.

The two most prominent industries in the Appalachian region, mining and timber, are high risk and low reward for the worker. The spending habits Vance finds so odious arise from an economy of fluctuation. Many Appalachian workers–but particularly those in the mining and timber industry–found their livelihoods subject to many outside forces. Company bosses were always looking for a way to maximize profits, and often did so by driving down wages or threatening mine shutdowns. Timber in Appalachia had a very short span of productivity for the worker, as most hillsides were clear cut, enriching absent owners and leaving loggers stuck in a mire of their own creation.

Vance does not seriously explore this unbalanced economic system that kept workers poor while enriching out of state companies. It is a short and unfortunate leap from Appalachians living on scrip or in a company house to running up unrealistic credit card bills. The miner or logger often found himself owing to the bosses at the end of the week. Owing to a credit card company is not vastly different. Vance, rather than exploring the issue deeply or empathetically, simply offers his family’s narrative as a touchstone and casts himself as the hero in it.

Writing a memoir in one’s thirties exhibits a healthy amount of hubris, but Vance spares few details about his family’s strife and his unique blend of talent and grit that allows him to rise above it. Though he pays small homage to his grandmother and a few others, Vance makes it clear that his struggle is mainly a singular one:

Mom had begun using again. She’d stolen some family heirlooms from her fifth husband to buy drugs (prescription opiates, I think), and he’d kicked her out of the house in response. They were divorcing and she had nowhere to go.

I’d sworn to myself that I’d never help Mom again, but the person who made that oath to himself had changed. I was exploring, however uneasily, the Christian faith that I had discarded years earlier. I had learned, for the first time, the extent of Mom’s childhood emotional wounds. And I realized those wounds would not heal, even for me.

This passage is lad literature worthy of James Frey or Augusten Burroughs, openly confessional  and concerned primarily with the deep feelings and struggle of the protagonist. It is my personal belief that an Appalachian would not air out family business in public at all, much less to curry favor with outsiders to the culture. In any case, it is unfair for Vance to make assumptions about the whole of Appalachia based on his life and family. I know much more about Vance’s family than I care to, and it is enough to say that they are hardly archetypal of the region.

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Yes, also not Vance’s people

And Vance, as he portrays himself in the book, tries for soulful perseverance but comes up with smug saintliness. As a human being who has lived forty-one years, I refuse on principle to believe any memoir where the protagonist comes off looking as good as J.D. Vance.

And this is the only real question to pose about Hillbilly Elegy: What would possess a bright and concerned Appalachian to write a hit piece on his own people? His connection with Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital could give rise to all sorts of hypotheses, the most probable being an eventual run for the US Senate in Ohio. Vance has most recently garnered publicity for launching a non-profit to help in Middletown, though details are scant. Vance might actually believe that Hillbilly Elegy and this new venture can help people, and hopefully it does. What J.D. Vance needs to realize is that to help someone, a person should listen and embrace, rather than merely sit back in judgement.

R. Mike Burr is a native West Virginian and public school teacher who resides happily with his wife, two children, and two dogs in Atlanta. His work has appeared previously in Prefix magazine and other publications.

Comments

  1. Good stuff…

  2. Hillbilly Elegy is nowhere near truth. I was raised dead solid center of the coalfields of WV. A key point he leaves out is that he was not raised there. Another key point is that the people I know neither look nor act in the manner he describes. Mr. Vance would do well to go buy himself a can of oil and call himself an oil baron. Pretender.

  3. Joella Johnson says:

    Am in yhe midst of reading and quickly lising interest. Sounds too republican for this Boone County WV girl.

  4. Wonderful article. I am going to print out and give to the next person who wants to talk about Hillbilly Elegy. I guess Vance thought White Working Class Elegy didn’t sound sensational enough.

  5. David Marcum says:

    I love this story because the moment I saw the book hit stores I thought, What educated true Appalachian person uses the word “hillbilly.” While there are plenty of good country folk who don’t hesitate to call themselves hillbillies, no one but NO ONE who aspires to write and inform from the area ever uses that word. When I found out hVance was from Ohio–and not even the Appalachain part–it all became clear to me. I share this writer’s view on the book and the author, and I am glad someone finally said it.

    • Alex Sayf Cummings says:

      I happen to be from WV as well… and felt the same instant knot in my stomach when hearing Mr. Vance being feted by the conservative media and liberal elites alike. People don’t do this to their own people. Except in this case we are not his people at all, which explains a lot.

    • Lisa Greene says:

      And I agree with your comment, Mr. Marcum! Well-stated.

  6. Thank you for writing this. “What would possess a bright and concerned Appalachian to write a hit piece on his own people?” — partly, his “Tiger Mom” professor, Amy Chua, at Yale, he said in an interview with WaPo. Maybe she even hooked him up with agents or Harper Collins. Acquire those power imprimaturs and you’re on your way to having the NY bookish and pundit class anoint you as the voice of Appalachia, or is it the Rust Belt? Wait, it’s neither. As you, Mr. Burr, smartly point out. But the political and cultural analysts are absolutely desperate to understand Wha’ happened? with the election, and Elegy gives them an answer — as valid as all their other insular and, as it turns out, wildly erroneous explanations.

  7. I just finished reading it. My people are East Tennessee, Hawkins County. I lived in the area off and on until my father died (Vietnam). Then we moved off for good, although, like Vance, I have continued to go back. I wrote my own memoir about my father’s death and its impact on the family (After the Flag has been Folded) and a set of novels set in East Tennessee (Mother of Rain, Burdy, Christian Bend). However, I don’t feel at all like I could be the megaphone for Appalachian people. I try to tell the stories I know. I avoided Vance during the election, and have approached Vance’s book cautiously. I think your analysis is spot on. I’d add a couple of observations. What rang the truest for me had nothing to do with Appalachia and had everything to do with family – Vance was saved in a large part because of his grandparents. I had such a relationship with my own granny, so all that resonated with me. The beauty of the story is a grandparents love for a grandchild. And it is true of all people no matter what region of the country they are from – we all need a cheerleader. The book’s true value lies in the testimony of that relationship. The other observations – Vance worked PR for the military. If you’re going to have a safe job in a war zone, that’s the job to have. I think much credence is allotted Vance because of 1) his Marine service 2) his PR/marketing skills 3) His Ivy League degree 4) Well-groomed White Guy. And I think you are spot on – he always paints himself in the memoir as good guy in a white hat. He really deflects any drama around what had to have been drama, except for the one scene where he runs from his momma and even in that, he’s the victim again. There is a lot of Vance the victim in this book. That’s hardly mentioned at all in his innumerable TV appearances. Thank you for this.

  8. Dan Adkins says:

    I grew up in Breathitt County, the place from which Vance says his forebears came. A friend recommended the book, so I looked it up on Amazon and read the sample. In the first chapter, Vance talks about Jackson having 6,000 people and a sizable number in public housing.
    Jackson’s population has never been close to 6,000, not even in its heyday in the 1920s as a railroad town. During my lifetime, the population has hovered around 2,400, maybe a little more in the coal-boom period from ’73 to ’84, but never reaching 3,000. And there may have been a few people in public housing in South Jackson, but no large number.
    It’s true things have become desperate in Breathitt County, primarily, in my view because of Oxy and meth. But Vance’s claim to know Appalachians through his experience with his family members in Southwestern Ohio seems to me to be presumptuous.
    And I’ll say this: If the poor research displayed in that sample exemplifies his work as a lawyer, I’d look for a different firm.

  9. I’m not sure you actually said “strip mining Applachian culture” but I think you did, and I think I like the phrase.

  10. “It is my personal belief that an Appalachian would not air out family business in public at all, much less to curry favor with outsiders to the culture.” My own experience growing up here certainly supports your belief; family business was private, period. My relatives didn’t even want positive publicity. As most of us well know, there is no one Appalachian archetype. We come in all stripes and colors and values.

  11. I think this review is a bit harsh. I really enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy. I am a descendant of hillbillies, or perhaps rednecks would be a more accurate term. My hillbilly experience is not the same as J.D. Vance’s but I can certainly relate. I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina where my family has been for several hundred years. We still have the land, from a land grant from the Cherokee. My hillbilly ancestors were educated. They were the teachers, the preachers, the lawyers and the doctors in the county. They left to go to the military and to go to college but they always came back and worked in the community. My generation was the first to really leave and make a life elsewhere and I do not think we will go back. I’m nearing retirement age and prefer a gentler climate. Growing up in that region in the 1960’s I noticed the difference between my family and the some of the kids I went to school with who didn’t have shoes or electricity or running water. The school buses went up into the hollers and dragged them to school whether they wanted to go or not. And I think it worked. For those who didn’t leave the area after high school, and there weren’t that many, most have done ok. And yes, even after more than 40 years we stay in touch due partly to the magic of Facebook. The addiction connection undoubtedly touched Mr. Vance’s life in a terrible way from his alcoholic grandfather to his addict mother. The nightmare of living with and loving people afflicted with this ugly disease is devastating and life altering and certainly not confined to the hillbilly population. The opioid addiction problem has some roots in the rust belt since the first pill mills reportedly started in that area. I believe I read that J.D. Vance is starting a foundation to help people affected by the opioid addiction epidemic. Unless you’ve lived it you cannot understand it. For a child being raised in the disease the repercussions last a lifetime.

    So please, don’t judge. Enjoy the book for what it is–one guy’s experience. Apparently millions of us have. It’s a runaway best seller.

  12. Paul J. Nyden says:

    I have read a heck of a lot of books and literature about Appalachia, beginning with Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands,” shortly after it was published in 1964. I wrote a thousand-page PhD. thesis in sociology about the United Mine Workers and its reform movements back between the 1960s and 1974. In 1981, I began working for newspapers and wrote widely on the Appalachian coalfields and politics.

    R. Mike Burr’s analysis of this book is brilliant — full of powerful critiques of Vance’s incredibly negative portrayal of Appalachian people. Vance repeatedly seems to imply his own disturbing lifetime experiences capture the typical experiences of most people who live in Appalachia even though, as Burr points out, Vance basically grew up in Ohio.

    I have traveled very widely throughout the region, both while researching my dissertation and working as a newspaper reporter. And I met a whole heck of a lot of people in West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, East Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and other nearby areas.

    I think Vance’s book is one of the worst two books about Appalachia I have ever read. The other one is Russell Sobel’s “Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It.” One chapter in Sobel’s book, for example, “proves” that coal mine safety got worse when federal and state governments strengthened mine safety laws. (There are no statistics to back up that absurd idea.)

    Vance focuses completely on himself. His book offers no statistical evidence about the negative qualities he assigns to Appalachian people. Vance also makes no effort to look at personal problems faced by all kinds of other people across our country and world.

    Thank you Mike Burr for your article,

    Paul J. Nyden
    Charleston, West Virginia

  13. Jared Taylor says:

    While Mr. Nyden and Mr. Burr’s critiques have merit, they are both speaking of a different time than JD Vance speaks of. I grew up in south central WV 10 years before Vance. There weren’t issues with miners owing the company, or use of scrip at that time. Those issues were real ONCE, but not in the 70s (when I grew up there) or the 80s (when Vance is describing). The spending issues were real. My Dad worked in the coal mines. When times were good, we had a new vehicle every two years, lots of toys, etc. But there were families much worse than us. 4 wheelers, guns, campers, trucks. Luxuries that consumed all funds available, with people conveniently forgetting (over and over again) that the good times would come to an end.

    Secondly, does he violate the typical code of keeping family problems secret? Yep, he sure did. How much good has that code produced? That is a major part of his thesis. Appalachians have ways of dealing with their lives, and the difficulties they face. Those ways just aren’t always particularly good. Maybe we should abandon them and try some different approaches.

  14. Bob Wurster says:

    Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant is a much better book.

  15. Colonel David Halsey, P.E. says:

    I grew up in a hollow in southern WV., the middle of southern Appalachian country, as the oldest of 5 siblings. Starting out in a one room school, no indoor plumbing at home, and a coal miner father. It was the best of times! We had no wants. There is nothing in Vance’s book, and I read it from cover to cover, that relates to my Appalachian childhood. It’s as if all was either a night mare or fiction.

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