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A Review of “Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J D Vance

The Appalachians - Mika Matin

Pub. William Collins, London, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy has received a number of very positive reviews, The Economist said that “You will not read a more important book about America this year”, The New York Times said that it is, “Essential Reading”, The Times (London) called it, “Clear-eyed and nuanced, a powerful antidote to the clamour of news.” It is a unique account of growing up in the white working class, with roots in the Appalachians. In the United States a number of commentators have seized on this book as a partial explanation for the appeal of Donald Trump, something that was discussed during an interview that the author gave to Slate on the 25th August 2016. Vance said, “What I think is driving the Trump phenomenon is this social and cultural anxiety that I write about in the book.” He added, “If you ask people, the people I know for example who are supporting Trump, what the biggest problem in their community is, it’s something very, very real and it’s something noneconomic, it’s something nonracial: It’s that every single time that they open up their local newspaper, they see kids dying of heroin overdoses.” Vance is not a Trump supporter, in fact he said in his interview that Trump is, “leading the white working class to a very dark place.”

What is obvious is that white Americans without a college degree are in crisis. Case and Deaton (2017) found that there were increasing death rates for non-Hispanic white American men and women in all age groups from 25-29 to 60-64, who do not have a college degree, whereas death rates have continued to fall for college graduates. The causes of death include, drug overdoses, suicide, and alcoholic-related liver mortality, death rates from heart disease have also stopped falling for this group. However, mortality rates among blacks and Hispanics continued to fall, and by 2015 the mortality rate of non-Hispanic white Americans aged 50-54 with only a high-school diploma was 30% higher than that for Blacks in the same age group. Vance says that the largest problems are in the Appalachian states, particularly West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts of Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, and the Carolinas. David Hackett Fischer, in “Albion’s Seed” (1989) describes the migration of the “Scots-Irish” in the 18th century from the north of Ireland, the English-Scottish borders, and the Scottish Highlands, to America, driven by poverty, and fears of famine. According to Hackett Fischer the culture of these areas was one of endemic violence. Landing at Philadelphia and New Castle, Delaware they were encouraged to move westward into the Appalachian Mountains, where they established themselves and replicated their culture across this region. These are the “hillbillies”, independent-minded, aggressive and hostile to strangers. It was from these people that Vance and his family descended and the modern culture and attitudes of white working people in the Appalachian states still reflects their Scottish-Irish inheritance.

Vance says that, “it is in Great Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seems dimmest. From low social mobility to divorce and drug addition, my home is a hub of misery.” He describes in vivid terms the frequent domestic violence, displayed by family and neighbours. He said of his grandmother, Mamaw, “she was a non-violent drunk. And she channelled her frustrations into the most productive activity imaginable: covert war….. When he [her husband] came home from work and demanded fresh dinner, she’d carefully prepare a plate of fresh garbage. If he was in a fighting mood, she’d fight back. In short, she devoted herself to making his drunken life a living hell.” He describes one incident where Mamaw told her husband, that “if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him.” When he did come home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch she, “calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.” He survived with only mild burns.

The society Vance describes was violent, socially disruptive, dysfunctional, and with a strong family orientation. He says that it is not sufficient to blame outside agencies for the decline of the white working class, although the lack of well-paid jobs, and the sense of despair, played an important part in creating the social crisis, but we can see in contemporary Appalachia. He says that social psychologists have shown the group belief is a powerful motivator affecting performance, that when groups believe it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group at perform other similarly situated individuals. He adds that in the same way, when people fail the group mindset allows them to look outwards, and to blame others. He refers to a man in Middletown who quit his job because he was sick of waking up early, who then blamed the decisions of the government, but as Vance said, “his status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself.” He says there is tendency in the American white working class to blame problems on society or the government. Those who fail for victim to premature parenthood, drugs, and incarceration. As he says, “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives.”

I think that to focus our attention only on the rise of Trump, which is likely to be a short-term phenomenon, is to miss the larger picture, what Vance describes is the deterioration of an old and well-established culture, with its own values, which was well adapted to life in the Appalachian Mountains, but which is ill suited to deal with the problems of the 21st-century. The hollowing out of industrial jobs in much of the United States, the increasing inequality and the need for a new type of social dialogue, to give meaning to the lives of ordinary Americans.

It is important, to avoid being wholly negative about the experience of the American white working class, particularly when you consider the size of the drug problem that is now affecting them. Margaret Talbot, writing in The New Yorker, described how this epidemic has affected West Virginia, which is the highest death rate from drug overdose in the United States. As she says, “at this stage of the American opioid epidemic, many addicts are collapsing in public – in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores.”

If Vance is correct, this society is suffering from a disintegration of its values and lacks a positive belief system, that can carry it forward. The symptoms are everywhere, the increasing death rate amongst middle-aged white working class Americans, but this is not to absolve the actions of corporations, government and other institutions, which have failed to care for their citizens. There is a need to offer hope, revival of positive values, and division of what the future could be, Trumpism is not the answer, but a cry for help. As Adam Shatz wrote, “Betrayed by ‘the system’, viewed with contempt by elites in New York and Washington who considered them incapable of adapting to the new economy, the white wretched of the earth attached themselves to Trump as if he were Moses leading them out of Egypt.” (LRB 10 Nov. 2016)

Vance escaped from Middletown, Ohio, via the US Marines, and via studies at Ohio State University and Yale Law School. Today he works in Silicon Valley, a world away from the place he grew up in. A Yale he was one of the few people from a working class background, and was also one of the few students who had served with the US military in Iraq. He is married and a strong patriot, tough-minded, he does not look for excuses, but tries to understand, and in this book he successfully conveys his understanding to his audience.

There is today, throughout the United States, a sense of anger, and alienation, amongst many ordinary people, Vance’s book is a useful guide to the stresses experienced by one group of Americans, it is well written, accessible, and I strongly recommend. Finally, the author’s own life shows that it is possible to escape from a negative and self-destructive culture, and he takes care to highlight the good elements, within Hillbilly society, the careful family, and the struggle that ordinary people face in order to avoid what at times appears to overwhelming threats.

© Andrew Palmer, 2017 (please do not reproduce without permission)

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