This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on March 20, 2017.
In my last Late Last Night Books posting, I discussed three books of non-fiction that touched on topics of empathy, compassion, and a shared social contract, and that together, I felt, made some illustrative commentary on the events of that day, January 20th, 2017. One book that I had hoped to include—but which landed on my reading stack a bit too late to make the cut—was another unexpectedly successful work of non-fiction. It, too, highlights some of the themes of my earlier discussion.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by a young Yale-educated lawyer named J.D. Vance. He beats his readers to the punch in offering his own wry objection to a 31-year-old’s writing a memoir, but he has much to offer us as he relates his own experience in what is arguably the most forgotten and dismissed segment of the American population.
Elegy has variously been described as the book that explains to liberals the inexplicably successful candidacy and then election of our 45th president; a shameful sellout that feeds into the conservative myth that the poor are poor by choice; and a fresh and welcome new voice in support of right-leaning philosophies. The literary equivalent of a chameleon, Elegy is being used as a sort of shorthand by commentators of every stripe to support whichever underlying philosophy is being argued or promulgated.
That’s a lot of baggage for one slender volume to drag along with it. My recommendation is to jettison all that and read the book entirely for itself, because it is worthy and thought-provoking on its own. More than that, it is a wonderfully engaging story of a family we come to care about and wish the best.
Vance is the product of a strong and insular culture that is familiar to the heartland of middle America but which feels like foreign territory to the outlying populations on the east and west coasts of the U.S. Vance’s introduction does an excellent job of sketching out the bigger-picture issues that he’s spent a lot of time considering, based on his own experiences: that of the firmly embedded, cohesive/corrosive, and almost unchanged culture of the Scots-Irish of Greater Appalachia, a huge, sweeping region that ignores the traditional ideas of a north-south cultural divide. The migration of large Appalachian populations en masse to places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have in effect transplanted that insular culture along with its attendant strengths and weaknesses.
Though the author grew up in Middletown, Ohio, in what had been a solidly middle-class town supported by the local steel factory, Vance’s heart and soul resided in the holler of Jackson, Kentucky, the locus of his extended and fractious family. His fondest early memories of feeling grounded and secure came from spending time with his beloved grandmother, Bonnie Blanton Vance—Mamaw—at the home of her mother, Mamaw Blanton, in Jackson. Vance’s stories of the Blanton family, in particular of the men, would make for some wonderful fiction, while at the same time they illuminate a society steeped in clan loyalty so deep it embraced “honor” killings, the most famous of which was the Hatfield-McCoy feud.
In Middletown, where Vance was surrounded by family and neighbors who had all migrated from the general vicinity of northern Kentucky, things were less stable. His troubled mother, who had grown up in a chaotic household when Jim and Bonnie Vance were going through a brutally tumultuous period in their marriage, was nevertheless an excellent student in school and described by several as brilliant. She also dropped out before graduation—pregnant—and later succumbed to drug addiction, continually upending her children’s lives with an ever-changing cast of stand-in fathers and endless drama.
Vance makes it abundantly clear that he owes any success he’s had in life to his beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw (Jim Vance), who provided a bedrock of stability that he otherwise completely lacked, and instilled in him the absolute necessity of education. His readers can’t argue that living with Mamaw during his critical adolescent years were the difference between failure and success for Vance, but it’s interesting to consider that Mamaw and Papaw, to an outsider’s viewpoint (say, to someone from Child Services), might have looked like frighteningly inappropriate caregivers for a child. His grandparents didn’t even live together, the f-bomb was one of Mamaw’s favorite parts of speech, and a Marine recruiter once told Vance, “Those drill instructors are mean. But not like that grandma of yours.”
It’s important to realize that if the courts had been aware of the custody agreement worked out informally between his mother and grandmother, Vance would never have been allowed to live with Mamaw. It was fine by the courts for Vance to remain with his unstable mother, but if he didn’t want that, he’d have had to go into the foster care system; his grandmother would not have been seen as an acceptable guardian.
Vance is adept in helping us to see through his eyes a culture that few outsiders understand but nonetheless feel entitled to caricature and dismiss in ways that would be outrageous were they applied to other cultural or racial minorities. He very thoughtfully uses his personal experience to consider the larger issues that dog the poor whites who remain in Appalachia, as well as those who seemingly “made it out” only to find themselves trapped in the ever-rustier Rust Belt of post-manufacturing America.
Peeling back the causes and effects of enduring, multi-generational poverty—much like any complex issue with endless nuances and variables—is a thorny problem with no quick or easy answers. Hillbilly Elegy is a sincerely offered, deeply personal attempt at considering some of those thorny problems, and it deserves rational consideration and discussion.