An elegy is a lament for the dead.
And as J.D. Vance describes it, his is a memoir of a family and a culture that is (at best) on life support.
Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the plight of America’s working class whites through the saga of his own family, which was transplanted from Appalachia to a dying factory town in the Ohio Rust Belt.
The book skyrocketed to #1 on bestseller lists as it became apparent that Donald Trump had somehow swept these so-called Blue states. And while there are many reasons for this unexpected victory, much credit (or blame) went to the demographic Vance describes.
His memoir shines a light on Rust Belt poverty from the inside—and from the perspective of one who has both deep affection and scathing criticism for the culture of his youth.
I encourage you to buy it here.
FROM THE “HOLLER” TO THE FACTORY
Like many hill people, Vance’s family left the “holler” to take well-paid factory work up north. Yet as times changed, the steel communities like Middletown, Ohio began hemorrhaging both jobs and hope. And with the addition now of rampant opioid addiction, the hemorrhaging continues.
As a boy, Vance never knew his father, and his mother was a prescription drug addict who rotated boyfriends and husbands more frequently than others rotate tires.
He was raised by “Mamaw”—a foul-mouthed, pistol-packing grandmother who got pregnant at age thirteen, and who had a soft spot for F-bombs and Jesus Christ (both the Savior and the curse word).
Despite her faults, Mamaw saved J.D., and he eventually went on to the Marine Corps, to college, and then to Yale Law School.
AN INDIGTMENT OF ENTITLEMENT
What I expected from the work was more an indictment of the Rust Belt’s failed economy: factories shuttered, jobs outsourced, pensions lost.
I anticipated stories about hard-working men and women who fell afoul of a changing world.
And there was some of this.
But more frequently, Vance pulled no punches in acknowledging the crippling laziness and entitlement that has besieged his friends and family. As he states:
This book is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it (p. 7).
People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness … the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground (pp. 57–58).
To many analysts, terms like “welfare queen” conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white (p.8).
We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach (p. 147).
At the root of this problem were not just economic forces, but the wholesale breakdown of the family.
Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world. … Virtuous fathers are in short supply in Jackson [KY], but they are equally scarce in the lives of my grandparents’ grandchildren.
When it came to motherly influence, Vance says things were not much better:
“I was nine months old the first time Mamah saw my mother put Pepsi in my bottle.”
As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”
In this environment, Vance claims that a stigma is often attached to those who try to better themselves. Thus they are “too big for their britches” and are ridiculed by friends and relatives.
Another takeaway was the role that religion plays within this culture.
As Vance describes it: “[Here] in the middle of the Bible Belt, active church attendance is actually quite low.” And in the steel mill town that he grew up in, it was “about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco.”
Most folks are nominally “Christian,” yet the faith is full of contradictions:
Mamah always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew (p. 189).
For Vance personally, his own faith was ignited (momentarily) when he went to live briefly with his adopted father. This man had been divorced by Vance’s mother, and had now found God with a new family.
I devoured books about young-earth creationism, and joined online chat rooms to challenge scientists on the theory of evolution. I learned about millennialist prophecy and convinced myself that the world would end in 2007. I even threw away my Black Sabbath CDs (p. 95).
In my new church … I heard more about he gay lobby and the war on Christmas than about any character trait that a Christian should aspire to have. … Dad’s church required so little of me (p. 98).
As Vance describes it, this was “evangelical” theology. Yet for those of us who study such things, it is frustrating to note the way in which mindless fundamentalism has become synonymous with “evangelical.” Perhaps, as many now argue, the label is beyond repair.
Likewise, the result is easily predictable:
[I didn’t] realize that the religious views I developed during my early years with Dad were sowing the seeds for an outright rejection of the Christian faith (p. 99).
In the end, Hillbilly Elegy is an eye-opening look into a culture that (till recently) had gone mostly unseen by those of use who don’t live in it.
It is both love song and lament, both thank-you and Dear John.
Yet for those who want to understand what’s happening across the Rust Belt of this country, it is a required read.
See also, Strangers in Their Own Land (here)