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After reading J. D. Vance’s recent memoir and listening to various media outlets describe the book as necessary to understand the “Trump phenomenon,” I am reminded of the arguments made by Jack Weller’s Yesterday’s People (1965). Following revived concern about rural white poverty, the book was one of many contrasting the supposedly anachronistic culture of Appalachia with the modern society all around it. Building off sociological theories addressing poverty, Weller argued the region’s greatest challenge was its people. Unlike the War on Poverty, J. D. Vance does not advocate for a massive federal government effort to address current economic misery; in fact, he discourages it. Vance describes the dilemma as one affecting the mind-set of Appalachians: “Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly” (229). Thus trapped in a “culture of poverty,” the poor lack the skills to succeed and have only themselves to blame for their poor life choices.
J. D. Vance’s story is a window into his family’s struggles with poverty, drug addiction, and violence. With roots in Jackson, the county seat of “Bloody Breathitt” County, Kentucky, his grandmother’s family, the Blantons, were known for a “feuding history nearly as illustrious as Papaw’s” (24). The story shifts after World War II when his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, joined the great Appalachian outmigration, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Vance’s grandfather found a good union job working at Armco Steel (27).
In the 1950s, the Vance family found improved material conditions, but also a sense of dislocation, having “one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one” (36). They remained connected to eastern Kentucky via US Route [End Page 81] 23 (the “Hillbilly Highway”), which out-migrants traveled often to visit their mountain homes. But hillbilly behavior found its way to Middletown. Vance details examples of violent behavior by his grandparents. In one terrifying story, his grandmother, angered at her husband’s binge drinking, poured some gasoline on his chest while he slept and lit a match (43–44).
Next, the memoir examines the trials faced by Vance and his mother. Vance details a litany of husbands and boyfriends who enter his life, only to leave shortly thereafter. All the while, he assumes, “Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life” (73). Probably the most heart-wrenching moments are Vance’s descriptions of his mother’s drug addiction. The remainder of the book focuses on Vance, which like the Horatio Alger stories of the nineteenth century, pulled himself out of poverty with his grandparents’ help. He joins the Marines and deploys to Iraq, goes to Ohio State, then to Yale Law School, and currently is a successful partner at a Silicon Valley investment firm.
Hillbilly Elegy is really two books in one. One is the personal life story Vance tells with passion and grace. However, the second book is a scattered, overly generalized political argument for why poverty exists in Appalachia. First, most of the book takes place in Middletown, Ohio, outside the Appalachian region. Second, his core argument develops from his assertion that the region is populated by those of “Scots-Irish descent” whose culture is rooted in frontier violence (3). Finally, Vance’s sample size is too small. To be fair, Vance admits he does not have all the answers to the region’s plight. However, places like Pittsburgh; Boone, North Carolina; and the eastern panhandle of West Virginia have seen new job growth and rising standards of living.
Vance spends the lion’s share of the memoir noting the negative, personal traits of a people hit hard by poverty—drug addiction, alcoholism, and lack of education. However, Vance gets his cause and effect misconstrued by suggesting these traits are innate to the people. In actuality they grew from the boom-and-bust nature of a single-industry coal economy. With only passing references to...