Hillbilly Elegy; A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By Dan Clendenin

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J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy; A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper, 2016), 264pp.

J.D. Vance (born 1984) grew up in Middletown, a small town in the southwest corner of Ohio that epitomizes all the chronic woes of America’s Rust Belt. It’s a people and a place that’s been losing jobs and hope for as long as he can remember.

In this “hub of misery” you find stray dogs wandering around looking for food, you put your old furniture in the front yard, and for lunch you enjoy a fried bologna sandwich with crumbled potato chips on top. The public schools have been taken over by the state. The misery index as measured by divorce, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and unemployment is off the charts. Vance’s mother was married five times, and that doesn’t include the “revolving door of father figures” that drifted in and out of his life (or her descent into heroin and homelessness).

Vance wrote his book to explain “what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it.” His personal story illustrates how and why his people — the “hillbillies, rednecks, and white trash” of Greater Appalachia — are characterized by cultural isolation, disconnection from our most important institutions, anger, resentment, blame, and, most important of all, feelings of futility and a lack of agency — that their choices don’t matter. Studies have shown that they are the single most pessimistic demographic group in America.

It would be nice if all these people needed was more money, a good job, a better economy, or more robust public policies. But the problems run broader and deeper, for “it’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” Thus, “our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” In a vicious circle, poverty causes social decay, and the social decay worsens the poverty.

Vance is one of the lucky ones who made it out alive, all the way to Yale Law School. Today he lives in San Francisco and works as an investment banker. He never pities, excuses, or condescends to his own people — he’s proud of his heritage. Nor does he romanticize their plight — he’s brutally honest, and many of his stories are painful to read and even hard to believe.

He calls himself a “modern conservative” without explaining just what that means. He appeals to personal responsibility rather than to any government policy, which at best can only be a thumb on the scale. At the end of the day, he administers what one reviewer calls a heavy dose of very “tough love” to his own people. That has the ring of truth born of personal experience, but I doubt that very many of his family and friends in Middletown will read his book, or hear him interviewed on NPR, and so consider his wisdom.

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