Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by j. d. vance
harper, 272 pages, $27.99
J. D. Vance has moved house. Having hit the bestseller list with what has been described as a searing attack upon liberals, liberal values, and the condescension which liberals bestow upon the white working class, he has upped-sticks to San Francisco. Beat them over the head and then join them. Vance is a registered Republican voter and a conservative—one of about seven, I would guess, in his new city. Meanwhile, Middletown, Ohio, where most of his book was set, has been left long behind. There is a certain ambivalence at the heart of J. D. Vance, then, and there is an ambivalence at the heart of his interesting book, too.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has been the surprise package of the year. It is even credited with explaining Donald Trump’s election triumph before it happened. I am not so sure about that. It is a strange book to have topped the Amazon charts. It has little in the way of astute political analysis within it, nor are there passages of ringing prose. It is simply a fairly well-written memoir of a magnificently dysfunctional childhood among Kentucky hillbilly exiles in an old steel town, midway between Dayton and Cincinnati.
Why did it sell so well, then? One assumes that the sheer rarity of an articulate account of white working-class deprivation is part of it. Black poverty is a familiar topic in American literature and is usually attended to by explanations which accord with the political sensibilities of affluent white liberals. Since World War II, there have been fewer authentic white working-class voices in this gilded medium.
Of course, the poverty, the violence, the substance abuse, and the migrations of the white working class have been chronicled widely, but in the realm of popular—and especially country—music. One imagines that people who read lots of books—well-heeled, largely white, largely liberal—will read this and think to themselves, aghast: “White folks really still live like that in our country? I had no idea.” They will be unfamiliar with the previous chroniclers, from Hank Williams to Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle. The fact that Vance partly blames his own people for their predicament—while taking great umbrage when others do so—may have made reading the book uncomfortable for those who believe that all hardship can be airily explained away as the consequence solely of an unfair economic system. Vance is for less welfare, not more.
Vance is of Scots-Irish stock. His family migrated from Jackson, Kentucky, along the Hillbilly Highway a few hundred miles north into Ohio, in search of a better standard of living, which, thanks to the Armco steel plant, they found. But what traveled with them was a coarse, violent, and conservative culture full of casual brutality and a perverse pride in being poor. And, in the case of the later generation, the post–baby boomers, a chronic fecklessness, an absence of good work ethic, reliance on drugs and alcohol, and a complete lack of understanding of what it takes to be a father or mother.
Vance’s mother was born in 1961. She provided no stable family life for her children, whom she dragged through an endless series of unsuitable men, and who were thus privy to night after night of hurled plates and slaps and punches. And the attendant drugs, always the drugs. Prescription drugs, heroin, alcohol, anything his mother could get her hands on. There is a particularly harrowing scene in which the young J. D. refuses to provide his mother with a bottle of his own urine for one of the drug tests she is regularly forced to undergo. Her child is important to her only in that he can provide her with “clean piss.” In the end, still furious with his supposed guardian, the young Vance relents, despite the fact that his own urine may well be tainted by the dope he’s been smoking. In the strongest passage of his book, he describes the hypocrisy and futility of this way of living:
This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. 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. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend 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.
Vance is saved when he leaves his mother to live with his grandparents, “Mamaw and Papaw.” They are no strangers to poverty, nor to howled marital strife, but he finds strength and continuity living with them. When he comes home from school every evening his Mamaw will be there, not whacked out of her skull, not shouting abuse at the latest hopeless man. Mamaw dispenses rough justice and makes him get a Saturday job. She enjoins him to study hard at school. His grades improve from Ds to Cs. When he graduates from high school, he joins the Marines, where he learns discipline and obedience, for which he is endearingly grateful.
Later still, after graduating from Ohio State, Vance makes it into Yale Law School, where he is embarrassed about his background and keeps quiet about it. He learns to lower his voice in restaurants, all of his previous visits with his family having devolved into high-volume slanging matches—apparently a rare occurrence among Ivy League grads. At the end of it all, he becomes an investment banker or something—one of those jobs where you make sack loads of moolah by moving moolah around from one place to another. Yay: the American dream, well done. And now he’s in San Francisco—but still has a pride about his hillbilly background. Sort of. Up to a point. An ambivalent pride.
Vance is good—and right—on the fecklessness, the “learned helplessness,” of welfare dependency and horribly constrained expectations, the stuff you might expect from a neocon assessment of the modern world. But on the forces at work, and the generational shift within his people, he has very little to say. “Work hard and take responsibility for your life and the lives of your children” is certainly good advice—but it’s hardly Tocqueville. And given his background, the answers seem to me fairly evident.
I am roughly the age of J. D.’s witless and bereft mother and come from a background which has its similarities, although I suppose these should not be overstated. I was brought up not in the steel town of Middletown, Ohio, but the steel town of Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire, in the northeast of England. You can still buy a house just outside the ’boro for a little over one dollar. Yes, one dollar for a house in a country, though a garage in London will cost you three quarters of a million. It is impoverished and left behind; there are drugs, alcohol—oh boy, is there alcohol—and that same “learned helplessness” now that the steel works have closed down. My parents had much in common with J. D.’s Mamaw and Papaw, although they were a little better-spoken and were not habituated, so far as I know, to carrying guns with them wherever they went. They were respectable working class, which meant they valued church (Methodist, of course), family, and country—roughly in that order. We were not starving, but we were not well off. I felt exactly the same astonishment when I eventually went to the London School of Economics as Vance experienced at Yale: The incredible affluence of my fellow students! It had never occurred to me that people could be that moneyed. The shock still resonates, all these years later, inside my head.
But, at the same time, I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.
Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.
But it’s not just the retreat of religion, or more properly, our retreat from religion, that caused this shift. It was also the rise of two supposedly oppositional doctrines that grew up in the early 1960s. First, the post-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociologists (Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse, et al.), which posited the overthrowing of those old, discredited notions of respect for authority, of capitalism, of anything that could be considered bourgeois, in favor of rampant individualism and free expression—sexually, morally, politically—which unpicked the fabric painstakingly woven by our parents and their parents before them. And then the Chicago school of economists (Hayek, Friedman, et al.), which also posited a rapacious individualism at the expense of the larger society. A deregulated economy in which homes were not places in which one lived, but another form of collateral. An imperative to strive to make money and to spend, to consume and consume without the constraints which had previously attended.
Both of these doctrines, left and right, in the end amounted to the same thing: You are your own God now. The old God will not stand in your way, nor, frankly, will the state. You have total freedom to do as you please. Go, use, enjoy. But for the poorest of us, these injunctions did not bring liberation. They brought the illusion of liberation and the reality of a new poverty, characterized by broken homes, idleness, vast mountains of personal debt, and a disconnectedness with the communities in which we lived.
Did Vance presage Trump? The writer himself did not vote for Trump, he has admitted. I don’t know if that means he voted for Hillary or just stood outside the polling booth looking slightly bewildered. I think Vance is altogether too fastidious for Trump. But Trump’s triumph was, I think, not simply a howl of outrage against the liberal elite, which is how it has been portrayed in much of the media. It was instead a more profound rejection of liberalism itself, a realization that this creed—which has, for a long while now, been almost incontestable—has not brought happiness, or wealth, or a better society. It has brought instead a certain, easily won liberation for the wealthiest of us, but down below has effected nothing other than social chaos and poverty. And it might just have had its day.
Rod Liddle is associate editor of The Spectator.