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“Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance

Posted in Reviews - of books, mostly by EloiSVM42 on September 16, 2017

For the same reason I studied Bernard Lewis to understand Islam and how its extreme elements came to be, I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance to understand the people who voted for President Trump in numbers large enough, and in just the right places, for him to win the election. I reasoned hillbillies and many of Trump’s voters are basically one and the same…and I was right.

An elegy is a lament for the dead, technically in the form of a poem. Vance, a self-described hillbilly, doesn’t say they are dead, but he suggests they are doomed, economically at least, by their own hand absent significant changes.

The term “Hillbilly” originally applied to descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants – Calvinist Protestant dissenters – who migrated to America in the 1700s and settled mostly in the back woods of Greater Appalachia.

Vance’s description of the hillbilly culture pretty much matches up with my own, admittedly stereotypical view of them: uneducated, backward, rural, misogynistic, blame everyone but themselves, pessimistic, extremely conservative and LAZY.

I wasn’t expecting this last one at all. I thought these to be people who want to work, but just can’t find jobs. Vance says hillbillies may say they want a job, but don’t really, and even if they do, they are unwilling to do what is required to get and hold one. In other words, they’re almost unemployable.

Vance observes that hillbilly men draw “strict lines between work acceptable to men and acceptable to women.” It’s clear what “women’s work” is, but not clear what’s acceptable for men. “Apparently, not paid employment,” Vance writes.

As a result, the hillbilly population is rife with unemployment, poverty, ignorance, broken homes, drug addiction and violence out of proportion to other populations. Although Hillary was stupid to say it, these are deplorable people.

To make his case, Vance serves up his own family as typical of the breed. His father came and went; his mother, a slut and hopeless drug addict, ran through “husbands” at such a pace that Vance had difficulty keeping up with their first names, as well as his own last one. His maternal grandparents were uneducated, violent, vulgar and profane, but at least they loved him. He credits them for saving him from a hillbilly’s fate.

Most of Vance’s family members have killed someone, or tried to, including in the case of his grandparents, each other. Vance’s uncle thinks of the family as normal, but admits, “They go from zero to murderous in a fucking heartbeat.”

Judged on this scale, Vance’s family has somewhat celebrity status. One of his forebears – Jim Vance – killed Asa McCoy, which ignited the Hatfield and McCoy feud. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hatfield%E2%80%93McCoy_feud)

Similar to the migration of southern blacks to find work in northern cities, hillbillies began migrating from Appalachia in the same general direction, to find work in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The out-migration was so great along U.S. Route 23 that it is called the “Hillbilly Highway.”

Vance grew up in Jackson, Kentucky, a rural town in the county of Breathitt, in the southeastern part of the state. Breathitt County (also formally the name of the town) was a place of such violence (much of it due to feuds) that it became known as “Bloody Breathitt,” and the feds came in to clean it up.

During the migration, Vance’s grandparents moved to Middletown, Ohio along with so many others from his home state that it was called “Middletucky.” The grandparents moved not for economic opportunity, but to avoid an underage pregnancy scandal and certain honor killing.

The migrating hillbillies were able at first to find good paying jobs that didn’t require much education, and the work became progressively easier as manufacturing technology advanced. A significant economic spread developed between the income and opportunities of those who left Appalachia and those who stayed behind, but the culture remains the same in both places.

Inevitably, things reached a tipping point when manufacturing technology advanced to the point very little labor was needed in the plants, and the work could be done in other countries with similar labor skills at much lower labor cost. The jobs disappeared, and both the Appalachian hillbillies and the transplanted ones are back in the same boat, as unprepared to compete as ever. Vance calls them “relics of American industrial glory.”

(Note: Middletown was the home of A. K. Steel, which was the employment anchor of the town. But A. K. Steel jobs declined along with the rest of the steel industry in the U.S., and though there is still a plant in Middletown, there are very few employees. Today, without the A. K. Steel jobs, Middletown is the center of opioid addiction in Ohio.)

The bleak history of Appalachia is pretty well understood, but the migration story was new to me. Put together, they explain how Trump voters came to be and how they came to be where they could nudge the election to Trump, though Vance opines that “Hillbilly” describes much of America’s white middle class today.

Interestingly, Vance goes easy on hillbillies on the Obama-racism issue. He says hillbillies didn’t hate him because he is black, but because they knew that he is simply above them. They knew he had done it right.”

Hillbillies bought into Donald Trump and vulgar rhetoric and impossible conspiracies because they are simply not able to compete and resistant to becoming so, and they have to blame others for this.

Vance believes about hillbillies that “you can’t believe these things [conspiracy theories] and participate meaningfully in society,” but hillbillies did participate meaningfully, at least to the extent that they showed up and voted overwhelmingly for Trump. It’s those who stayed home who failed the citizenship test. Sadly, hillbillies picked precisely the wrong man to address their problems. So, maybe Vance is right about the “meaningfully” part. Hillbillies aren’t going to participate in any meaningful way economically any time soon.

Hillbilly Elegy, informs our understanding of what went on in 2016. However, the mystery of J.D. Vance himself remains. By any measure, Vance, for all his affinity/distain for hillbillies, simply does not fit the picture.

Vance was smart enough to get accepted at Ohio State University. He was smart enough to realize how unprepared he was for the broader world, so he joined the Marine Corp to catch up before matriculating at OSU. He was smart enough to graduate from Yale Law School. He is obviously an extreme outlier from the culture in which he lived.

That said, Vance can’t be the only one. There must be more potential in the people of this community. We need to find ways to nurture it. In the meantime, I cannot respect them, or even sympathize with them. Respect for determined ignorance and violence is just not in me. But I can emphasize with them better now and realize there are more resources in the Appalachian Mountains than just coal.

Vance is surely right that there is no magic solution, no single government program to rescue this group from its status. It will take many approaches, a long time and a lot of money. But education would be a good place to start.

One Response

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  1. George Brose said, on September 30, 2017 at 9:39 am

    Stephen,
    Really interesting review of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’. I read it earlier this year and just finished ‘White Trash, a 400 Year History of Class in America’ by Nancy Isenberg. I would call ‘White Trash’ the pillars upon which ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ stands. You brought back to me the important lines and the flavor of the book, much of which I’d already forgotten. I grew up 20 miles from Middletown, OH, and many of my grade school and secondary school classmates were from Eastern Kentucky. This is not the horse country around Lexington, but the coal mine and moonshine country of Campton and Louisa near the West Virginia border or Harlan Co. on the Tennessee border. The exodus every Friday night to ‘down home’ on I-75 was known as the Kentucky 500. It started in Detroit when the auto plants let out and ended in Eastern, KY, and then it came back the other way on Sunday night. I don’t recall the violence, well some, in the schools, but you didn’t go down to the Blazin’ Stump Bar on 5th street in Dayton, OH any night of the week unless you were looking for trouble. One of our neighbors, Tom Bowman, still in high school, went regularly and found plenty. He also played basketball for my high school and was what hockey would call an ‘enforcer’. At six four, 220 pounds he was able to deliver on the court and off. Tom’s dad worked in the GM plants and had a grasscutting business on the side. He and Tom came home after dark from that second job every weeknight. There were plenty of good industrial workers among those parents. Some became entrepreneurs, and every kid who graduated in 1961 could find a job in the auto industry and peripheral businesses. When GM and NCR left Dayton, there was absolutely nothing to fall back on. One of my good friends Bruce Pence and his brother Hobart, whose parents had six years of education between them, both went to college. Bruce and Hobart’s parents both worked hard and made sure the boys had summer jobs. Hobart went to med school, and Bruce to law school. So like Vance, those people were not dumb, and certainly not lazy. But that support of industry for the masses was traded in for welfare, alcohol, and drugs, when the auto industry decided that cheap foreign labor was in their best interst. Public schools turned to shit, spurred on by charter schools that weren’t any better in the long run. The public money that funded them just went into private hands of political cronies. White flight left the inner city to African Americans and Hillbillys. Even the Hillbillys who managed to stay employed fled out to the ‘burbs.

    In Ohio where I grew up , they were called ‘Briars’, short for ‘Briarhoppers’. They invented bluegrass, which put them on a certain level of cultural , what do I want to call it? Elitism? Bluegrass went west and helped make our friend Byron Berline famous.

    Well written words, young man.
    George Brose


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