Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance (2016)
Well within living memory, the white working class was considered the backbone of the American economy. Capitalism had provided the unskilled with the heavy machinery they needed to be productive; an American high-school dropout plus a turret lathe was more productive than ten Russian potato farmers or mathematicians. When the common folk took to drink or went on strike, the establishment fussed over them like a mechanic tinkering with a balky car. Even when their ministrations were not effective, raw productivity drove ever-increasing incomes that countered many potential problems.
Something changed for the American white working class about forty years ago. Problems arose as they always had, but the elites now seemed unwilling or unable to help, so the problems just festered. Recent data about increasing death rates and opioid addiction, as well as the rise of Tea Party and Trumpian politics, have suggested things are reaching a boiling point, and policymakers have no answers. The easy answer used to be further productivity gains, but those are now out of reach for people who lack specialized skills and the means to learn them. For now, at least, the unskilled in America are back to pre-industrial levels of productivity.
J.D. Vance’s important new book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis puts a human face on the decline of the white working class. It follows the ups and (mostly) downs of a family of Appalachian transplants to the industrial Midwest of Middletown, Ohio. Deindustrialization lurks in the background, but Vance contends that the “working” class (he hesitates to use the term for people who don’t actually work) has always contained the seeds of its own destruction. Hillbilly Elegy offers a cultural, not just economic, take on recent working class history. It argues that the white working class no longer has the cultural resiliency needed to survive hard times.
Hillbilly Elegy is essentially autobiographical. One gets the feeling that Vance woke up the day after he graduated from Yale Law and was so puzzled by how in the hell he succeeded that he had to work it out on paper. Do not expect this book to be a tribute to role models or “good old American values”; Vance seems to have sought them out, and, finding none, made his thesis upon this lack of finding. There is an unintentional up-by-the-bootstraps flavor to the whole thing. Vance has not fully processed his story yet, and in the spirit of the best nonfiction writing, offers explanations that are plausible but never completely convincing. He looks back on a childhood of chaos, bouncing from one dire living situation to another because of his mother’s drug-fueled instability, finding his footing during a stint in the Marine Corps that physically removed him from the worst excesses of his upbringing, then working his way through Ohio State in record time. His story would have been worth telling even if it had stopped there, but he went on to graduate from Yale Law, which conferred an instant legitimacy that Vance finds as intriguing as any of his other experiences.
Vance has a message everyone needs to hear, but his story is not typical. His hillbilly family is more dysfunctional than most, which makes his own astonishing rise all the more remarkable. As one might expect when the problem has been identified but thinkers are just beginning to come to grips with it, Elegy is riveting as narrative, but thin on answers. It is light on historical context where it is sorely needed, and as a result, Vance’s family may become the archetype of an already misunderstood people.
The massive labor force marshaled by 20th century capitalism was a patchwork of subcultures, so a cultural study like Elegy can only focus on one part of the overall picture. That part is the great wave of Appalachian migrants that swelled the rapidly industrializing cities of the Great Lakes states in the first half of the twentieth century. Studies of the role of Appalachian migrants are few. According to Susan Johnson’s University of Akron thesis Industrial Voyagers: A Case Study of Appalachian Migration to Akron, Ohio 1900-1940, over four million Southern whites migrated, and she cites a study that shows Appalachian migrants composing 13% of Cleveland’s population and 50% of Middletown’s by 1976.
From 1880, there were two Appalachias: the agricultural one and the mining one. In agricultural Appalachia, tobacco, corn and livestock farms supported market towns in picturesque valleys. Small colleges and steepled churches dotted the green, hilly landscape, inhabited by conservative, middlebrow people of English and German extraction. Agricultural Appalachia is where traditional mountain music is from.
Mining Appalachia was very different. It drew people from agricultural Appalachia, but it also drew people from the Deep South and from Europe. Mining Appalachia looked rural because of its isolation, but economically it was utterly industrial. Take Youngstown, add a dash of gold-rush California, and pull it into long strands enough to line the valleys over a few thousand square miles or so: that was Mining Appalachia. It was what economics textbooks call an extractive colony. Mining Appalachia is what supplied migrants to the Rust Belt, including Vance’s grandparents, who came from Breathitt County in eastern Kentucky to Middletown in the 1940s.
Vance mentions the nickname “Bloody Breathitt” which refers to a period of violent feuding that occurred between the Civil War and the 1920s. But it seems like every other county in Appalachia is called “bloody.” Near Breathitt is “Bloody Harlan,” Kentucky. My father went to high school across Tug Fork in “Bloody Mingo,” West Virginia. That’s three bloody counties in a hundred-mile radius. The blood in Harlan and Mingo looked like labor unrest, but these were not like any strikes that happened outside Appalachia. They were thinly overlaid on the kind of violent, clannish partisanship that has arisen many times in the honor-based culture of the Scots-Irish natives of the region.
My father’s ancestors had been in Appalachia since before there was a United States. They followed the standard route: immigration from the English-Scottish border and northern Ireland to Philadelphia in the early 1700s, migration down the Great Wagon Road into western Virginia in the late 1700s, then dispersal into the bottomlands of the Tug Fork basin, just south of the Ohio, by 1830. If you could follow the typical mountaineer over the decades, that is the path he would have taken. The path would veer sharply north in the early 1900s, heading north on U.S. 23 or Ohio Route 21, taking Appalachian labor, ambition and problems to Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Detroit and Buffalo.
Vance’s forebears are anomalous in that they do not appear to have spent time in coal mining, despite having lived in the coal fields. The experience of coal mining was an important way station for Appalachian workers between the subsistence agriculture of the 1800s and the industrial Midwest. One might imagine that a new migrant from an Appalachian coal town to, say, the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland would be hearing Italian or Hungarian spoken for the first time. In fact, this was rarely the case. Coal companies followed a “thirds” scheme in each town, where one part native whites was leavened with one third immigrants and one third blacks from the Deep South. The “thirds” scheme kept wages down and dampened solidarity among the workers. The non-native workers moved on quickly when mining jobs grew scarce, often bearing little imprint of their years in the hills.
The white natives stuck it out longer, and by the time they eventually did move north to the industrial Midwest, they were not exactly country bumpkins. They already knew what it was like to work for wages. They were comfortable operating big, expensive machines owned by someone else. But, whereas industry had replaced traditional white American cultures with the consumer culture in most places, such was not the case in Mining Appalachia. White Appalachian miners were the heirs of an unusually tough traditional culture that prized independence above all other values.
Hillbilly Elegy will not educate you on Appalachian folk traditions. There are gaps in Vance’s cultural knowledge that leave him puzzled at times. He mentions the practice of giving sugary drinks to young children and how it causes rapid tooth decay, but cannot comprehend why Kentuckians took offense to a TV report about it. The sugary drinks are in fact the modern version of a very old cultural practice called the “sugar tit.” Pioneer mothers would occupy a cranky baby by letting him gnaw on a cloth soaked in sugared water or even sugared whiskey. Then as now, the baby’s teeth would rot, but secondary teeth would come in soon. Putting Mountain Dew in a baby’s bottle is pretty appalling, but Vance might feel better knowing it is an improvement over sugared whiskey.
These were the descendants of Scottish dissenters who said that a bare room with a Bible in it was just as much a church as Westminster Abbey. When the United Mine Workers first tried to unionize the area, they found a surprising number of miners who were desperately poor but unwilling to give up their piecework arrangements in which a miner would dig coal when, where and how he chose, buying his own tools and being paid by the ton. They had no interest in exchanging this for a fixed workday subject to rigid union rules.
The UMW had better luck with the immigrants, who had been brought in at least partly to counter the unruly white native culture. The coal companies knew that when the native whites did manage to team up, it usually involved guns, and they were rightly afraid of this. Because of the “thirds” scheme, unionization failed consistently until it gained the explicit backing of Franklin Roosevelt.
Despite the fact that much of Appalachia rejected the Confederacy, West Virginia in particular owing its very existence to refusal to secede, Appalachian whites bore the full stigma of the Confederacy, and still do. The “white privilege” theorists tell us that racism persists because of the irreducible fact of skin color, which no amount of culture and achievement can change. But Appalachian whites carried a physical marker nearly as indelible as skin color: the deeply ingrained, archaic accent that pop culture has made into a universal symbol of backwardness and racism.
Dad came up to Cleveland in 1953, and one of his favorite writers was Don Robertson, the Cleveland columnist turned novelist who was Stephen King’s favorite writer as well. Robertson’s father was a newspaperman and so the idea of being a professional writer was real to him in a way it never could have been to Dad. In 1977, one of Robertson’s lesser Morris Bird III novels, The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened, was made into a TV movie. The interesting thing was, while Morris Bird III was a white kid in all of the novels, in the TV movie he was played by the black actor Jimmie Walker. Dad wanted to ask Robertson, writer to writer, the obvious question of why it was decided to change Morris Bird III’s race. He got his chance at a book signing. But on hearing the question, and Dad’s accent, Robertson growled, “What are you, some kind of a racist?”
In Elegy, Vance chooses to focus on his family’s actions, less so on their appearance and hardly at all on their accent. This may be because they only ventured as far north as Middletown, Ohio, where the Appalachian dialect persists. But Vance’s relatives were headed for trouble no matter their accent. The cast-iron voice box of his “Mamaw” (Mamaw is the Appalachian word for grandmother) spews forth torrents of obscenity that would be an obvious barrier to all but the meanest forms of employment.
My own Mamaw, who was orphaned at 11 and then raised by a violent, drunken farmer in northern Kentucky, was so mild and devout in her old age that the tirades of Vance’s Mamaw are all the more shocking to me. Not every old lady talks that way in Appalachia. On the other hand, when Vance’s Mamaw sets fire to her drunken husband (the old sot escapes with nary a singe), I couldn’t help but be reminded of a story my father told me about my Mamaw. When Dad’s brother was a teenager, he fell in with some older “Hunkies” (a catchall local word for eastern Europeans, not necessarily Hungarians) and returned to the house one day steaming drunk on their homemade liquor. Mamaw cleaned him up and put him to bed, then marched into the immigrant neighborhood, found the guilty parties, and said, “If I catch you near my son again, I will kill you.”
This quick resort to violence was vital in the time and place it evolved, but going around telegraphing to everyone that you’re a ticking time bomb is bound to cause problems in modern society. Once, a neighbor kid tried to run me down on his dirt bike, so I called the Lake County Sheriff. When Dad found out the police were coming, he figured the neighbor dad would be pounding on our front door soon, so he took out a bayonet and paced near the door, saying, “I’ll put him away.” (The guy never showed up.) Another time, I was visiting home from Ohio State and went to the old Just Closeouts store in Painesville with Dad. A couple of guys cut in front of us at the register, and Dad silently opened his jacket to them, revealing an ivory-handled pigsticker. The two guys turned as white as the knife handle and found a different register; I fear if that incident were repeated today a SWAT team would have been called. Dad was retired from TRW and forty years removed from Appalachia when that happened.
Alcohol, violence and religion play a central and connected role in Appalachian culture. Here Vance cannot help but dig a little deeper, and he quickly unearths a whiskey bottle but no Bible. There is little casual or social drinking in Appalachia. People drink to get drunk, and when they get drunk, they fight, and when they fight, they get arrested and lose their jobs. Much of Vance’s memoir could be summed up in that one previous sentence. Alcohol magnifies the tendency toward violence, but equally responsible is an Appalachian bent toward cultivating and deploying strong emotions.
There is only one path to redemption in Appalachia, and it isn’t Alcoholics Anonymous or prison; it’s the Lord. Religion appears in the form of the Pentecostalism of Vance’s biological father, whom he lives with briefly. Appalachian or Southern-style fundamentalist religion may seem to have theological content, but the hidebound insistence on the literal truth of the Bible is less theology than sociology. Religion is Appalachia is a weapon against alcohol and violence, not theology. Like any weapon, it has to be rigid and sharp. It has to offer a simple, clear path to heaven and define an equally clear path to hell. A religion that admits doubt and tolerates change is intellectually superior, but is as useless as a foam Halloween sword as a weapon against bad behavior.
Vance’s narrative is full of his relatives’ drunkenness and drugs, but he resists the too-easy connection between addiction and failure. Instead, he makes things a little more abstract:
…whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”
Here we are caught between a rock and a hard place. Any thinking adult knows that people cannot completely control their own destinies. There is unfairness, sexism, racism and plain bad luck. So we have replaced the morality tales of the past by a complicated story in which individual actions matter, but circumstances matter, too, and in different proportions for different people.
At the same time we started telling young people this more accurate, but more lenient, version of how the great game of life works, the connection between actions and consequences has actually grown far stronger. It is as if theory and practice have passed each other in opposite directions. In 1950, one might engage in what people used to call “hometown troubles” like petty crime, but be able to leave it all behind and start anew in another city. Not any more. Computerized record-keeping and social media ensure that every mistake you make is now preserved, context-free, for perpetual scrutiny by anyone.
We already know the economic reasons for the decline of the white working class, but now we come to a possible cultural reason. The larger culture, run by what pop business books call “thought leaders,” used to carefully box in the working class. They were given a religion, whether Catholic or Protestant, that did not hesitate to condemn certain behaviors not only as wrong but as a literal path to hell. They were presented with moral examples via the media: the good guy always wins in the end; crime does not pay; a male-headed, intact family is the only one that works; drunkenness or sexual license only leads to misery. These were Kipling’s “gods of the copybook headings.” Finally, employers like Henry Ford did not hesitate to pry into their employees’ lives and tell them how to run their households.
To avoid the appearance of hypocrisy, the elites had to pretend to abide by these rules themselves. Americans have never tolerated one set of rules for one group and another set of rules for another. But the elites had money and brains, and could thrive without the dull moralizing. Movie stars can afford to be drunks. The rules had to go, and when they went, they went completely, because they were only a list of pat answers, not intellectual tools that could be used in changing times.
Vance realizes the working class is no longer fed a diet of moral simplicity, but why not? Did the rise of mass media make it impossible to hide all the complexities? Did consumerism result in telling people only what they want to hear? Did we think the world would soon end in nuclear war, so people should stop planning for the future and live for the moment? It’s hard to remember how pervasive the feeling of nuclear doom was up through the late 1980s. These are points of departure for future works on the topic.
Now we live in a paradox where America’s elites are more morally pure than they’ve ever been. The public morality, whether it concerns race, feminism, sexual orientation, ethnic and religious minorities and even consumption patterns like recycling and organic food has a relentlessly progressive tone. Few would deny that this represents real progress, but it has perhaps come at a price. The great task is now to explain these changes to people in a way that does not invalidate the entire rulebook.
But there is more. We are told that Appalachian folk are a proud people, but does not pride get in the way of education? A very proud person thinks subjecting himself to a teacher is an admission of ignorance, and there is no greater shame than ignorance today. We are all supposed to have been born knowing the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Pride, which in past times shielded the working man from all the base temptations, now shields him from getting an education.
Vance finished his manuscript too early to have to deal with Donald Trump, but we must. Polls show that Trump’s base is formed from less educated (although not the economically worst-off) whites. He took 156,000 primary votes in West Virginia, a historically Democratic state. That is 32,000 more than it took Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic primary. The reporting about the Republican turn in West Virginia focuses on the Democratic Party’s hostility to coal, but there is more going on.
Trump’s great weakness nationwide is his blustery personality. When a public figure attacks Trump, he or she can expect to be quickly and personally insulted with a barrage of dubious claims. Many voters are repelled by this, but it costs Trump nothing among Appalachians and many of their descendants; quite the contrary. Why? Trump has no connections to Appalachia, but he is a cracker in the original sense of the word. Listen to what the Earl of Dartmouth said about the frontier dwellers of western Virginia in 1760: “I should explain…what is meant by Crackers: a name they have got from being great boasters…”
The Appalachian-derived white working class has the cultural tools to know when to take Trump seriously and when not to. They hear him and something in their subconscious says, “He is one of us.” This is the way they’ve talked to each other for centuries. These personality traits have deep, deep roots, and are not going to be much altered by a few decades’ exposure to Northern ways. Vance has completely missed this connection in Elegy and in subsequent interviews. But Salena Zito of The Atlantic caught on. She said, "The press takes him literally but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously but not literally."
Donald Trump is a proud, boastful man who can survive the loss of an election and will no doubt profitably carry the public mantle of the opposition if he does lose. [Post-election note: that was a big "if", wasn't it?] But a proud, boastful community-college dropout in East Akron has no such path open. He has to eat his pride and take orders from supervisors and customers who treat him as if he has nothing to be proud of. The old ways that he soaked up from watching his relatives interact with each other and the outside world, have to give way if he is to succeed according to values he himself already accepts.
J.D. Vance realizes that the answer to the white working class’s problems cannot be the one he found, which is to go to Yale Law School and work in Silicon Valley venture capital. Nonetheless, his account of his time at Yale is valuable in that it lays bare the ignorance and hostility toward the working class found too often among our elites. Hillbilly Elegy asks questions and demands answers, and should occupy a place on the growing bookshelf of efforts to understand why things have gone so wrong with the white working class.