J. D. Vance was born in the 1980s and raised in Jackson, Kentucky, and later Middletown, Ohio. The northerly migration of Kentuckians was generations-old by the time he was born, but places like Middletown no longer offered the same upward mobility they once did. Vance grew up in an environment of lowered expectations in a section of America (loosely referred to as the “Rust Belt”) where the [End Page 415] phrase “white privilege” has little currency. Through trials and travails, particularly his family’s self-defeating habits, Vance escaped Ohio for a stint in the Marines, Yale Law School and, eventually, Silicon Valley. Hillbilly Elegy is his tribute to his background as well as his admonishment to a white working class he believes has “react[ed] to bad circumstances in the worst way possible” (p. 7).
Vance’s life story is engaging and well written, particularly his baroque descriptions of his family and his misadventures in the military and higher education. It is his broad statements about his place, and population of origins, that represent an author biting off more than he should try to chew. For one thing, he considers hillbilly to be a sociological or ontological status that is fairly self-evident. “Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix” (p. 41). Where do these traits originate? Vance borrows (without attribution even though the book does have a short endnotes section) from the work of Grady McWhiney and Forrest McDonald, as well as Jim Webb, attributing various folkways to Scots-Irish ancestry.
Ethnocentric explanations of human behavior are popular but unconvincing when held up to the light of history and social science; for instance, descendants of Ulster have migrated and intermarried so widely since the eighteenth century that broad statements about their habits in postindustrial America are simply not tenable. Nor is his attempt to meld said ethnocentrism with a modicum of the “culture of poverty” narrative from the 1960s. Vance’s people, in short, are poor because they keep themselves poor, and he tries, infuriatingly, to say this kindly. Perhaps this is how things appeared from one “holler” (one of Vance’s favorite words, along with “backwoods”); but that does not mean Vance’s experience speaks for an entire region or population. His recommendations for saving “hillbilly” children from poor families are wan suggestions about school vouchers and reforming social services. “This book,” Vance assures readers, “is not an academic study” (p. 8). Concomitantly, academics will find it dissatisfying.
If nothing else, Hillbilly Elegy represents one voice from the [End Page 416] conservative intelligentsia acknowledging that the bromides about hard work and individualism that have been sold to the American working class for ages are ultimately empty. The fact that this book was written by a contributor to the National Review suggests that the conservative intellectual community is undergoing a moment of self-reflection, perhaps crisis. This is a fine, artful book to reveal this, if perhaps inadvertently. It is a shame that this comes at the cost of a distorted and solipsistic perspective on Appalachia.
If Vance did not feel the need to essentialize himself and his family and had simply written a story about the fascinating upward trajectory of his life, this would be an engaging autobiography—albeit by one of the youngest autobiographers this reviewer has ever encountered, considering that noted autobiographers, like Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams, waited until their sixties (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written by a younger man but under circumstances mitigated by human bondage). Perhaps it makes sense that a youth-obsessed American marketplace would be hungry for autobiographies by millennials, and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy says more about Vance’s generation than it does Kentucky and Ohio.
T. R. C. HUTTON teaches at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. He is the author of Bloody Breathitt: Politics and Violence in the Appalachian South (2013...