Two friends recommended J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (Harper Collins). One started an online group to discuss it. The other left a copy in my car just to make sure I had it. So I read it. Here’s my short take. The final chapters reveal it as an extended apology for and about “hillbilly” culture as the refiner’s cauldron from which some are able to emerge, bringing with them the gold and silver of individual fortitude without the dross of behaviors that are destructive of lives and societies. It’s an essay on learned helplessness and the ways, or at least his way, of unlearning it. In it are echoes of behaviors many others have experienced in their own lives, regardless of where they grew up. Finally, it is a commentary on how cultural heritage is baggage, both good and bad, that is not easily discarded, no matter how far away one gets from its epicenter.
Vance uses hillbilly as a label for the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the Kentucky town from which generations of his family came, and the cultural baggage they took with them when they migrated for a hoped for better life elsewhere. Although he escaped the cycle of ignorance, abuse, poverty, and addiction that infected most of the people he knew, the culture that formed him came with him into his new life far away from Kentucky and Ohio.
His personal story aside, there are more than a few subtexts in the book. Primary among them is his attempt to explain right wing populism as an extension of “hillbilly” culture that exists in many forms throughout industrial and rural America where decent job prospects are scarce and the people are deeply suspicious of those whom they identify as effete, yet powerful, upper class manipulators of their misfortunes. Another is a predictable reverse snobbishness that celebrates the hardscrabble endurance of “hillbillies” who know how to survive under conditions that would kill upper class softies who have never had to do hard work with their hands. It’s the subtexts that interest my friends, although both of them are familiar with life experiences that share similarities with his. Most of us do, I suspect. The subtexts offer attractive generalities because there is some truth in them, but like all generalities , they bite off too much. They can only be tightly focussed beams illuminating a small portion of a more complex reality. Anything more is too much, and I think Vance knows that. The problem comes when readers have their “aha moment” and declare that it explains everything.
The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy may honor family loyalty, hard work, and Jesus, but it’s also a culture that habitually undermines the foundations of family loyalty, works hard sporadically, and proclaims religion without practicing it. It’s a culture that opens doors to addiction, tolerates abuse as normal, belittles higher education, and assumes a knowledge of how the world works that extends no farther than the next “holler.” It despises government welfare, and takes every penny it can get. It’s not a culture on which a successful democratic society could be built or sustained, but it is a culture that can be turned easily to fascism offered to them as a bulwark protecting their rights and freedom. Vance, I think, would like to see a way for them to assimilate more successfully into an America that will never again provide the economic opportunity they imagined was theirs for the taking in the mines and mills. It’s a more complicated America that requires different skill sets, but has yet to understand the economic value of critical jobs that are chronically underpaid. The hillbilly culture he describes works against it, but there is alway hope.
It’s also important for readers of the book to remember that it is not the only culture around, nor is it the only one that burdens its people with baggage they haul with them into future generations and far away places. We all carry something with us. I’ve never lived in Kansas, and haven’t seen my Kansas relatives in almost fifty years, but there is something of the Kansas prairie that is an important part of who I am. You have your own story too. The old shibboleth that we were a melting pot nation was a sixth grade text book dream in which everyone eventually became a white middle class Protestant. It gave way to being a stew pot nation, which is still not a very good metaphor, but at least it gets at an important point. Assimilation of cultures into the American way of life means learning how to live together sharing important transcultural values while remembering and honoring the best of whence we came. The dominant cultural standard has been the white suburban middle class, and it’s been a good one, but it cannot stand. It’s evolving, as it always has been, into something less white and more colorful with norms that accommodate more than a suburban house and two children who grow up to go to college. It will become a better thing, if we let it.