Reflections from a Hillbilly at Heart: A Response to Hillbilly Elegy
I’m not sure what I expected when I began reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I knew many people in Appalachia were angry about the book, and I was aware that there have been several rebuttals penned in response. Other than that, I wanted to go in blind, as it were, without outside opinions influencing how I might feel about this book and its author. It didn’t entirely happen to plan, but that is to be expected in the twenty-first century. Still, I was determined to be open-minded and, at times, that was challenging enough.
Hillbilly Elegy has been on my shelf for more than a year, one of the many books that popped up when I began looking for secondary sources to explore for an upcoming historical I have planned. I suppose what I expected were tales of growing up in Appalachia, little vignettes of the author’s life that would take me on my own trip down memory lane in the hills that will always have a place in my heart. Instead, I got the Rust Belt of Ohio, a family in crisis, and a kid who, at times, lets his judgments and perceptions of people cloud his perspective. All that being said, this will not be a review disparaging the book. For what it is, there are some very valid points mixed in with the dramatics of the Vance family and the prejudices of the author. There is, in fact, an opioid crisis in America, the Appalachian region – though it is becoming a popular vacation spot for rich folks – is still overwhelmingly poor, and upward mobility is still tricky whether you hail from a holler in Kentucky or a valley in Southwestern Virginia.
Vance begins his story by distinguishing between home and where we stay. When he writes, “[m]y address was where I spent most of my time […] But my home never changed: my great-grandmother’s house, in the holler, Jackson, Kentucky” (Vance 11). As a girl unwillingly plucked out of Appalachia at the tender age of ten, I felt this profoundly. I have lived in North Carolina for more than thirty years, but Rt. 1 Box 25, Cedar Bluff, Virginia will always be my home, an address long gone now, replaced by the new system adopted sometime in the 1990s. In that simple statement, I found a kindred spirit in Vance. A child, unable to spend their life in the one place they love more than anything, the same child that as an adult has the choice to move back and won’t. We know what the heart wants, but we also know what comes with it. Maybe for Vance, it’s monetary, but for me, it’s knowing that even though the seasons change, the people and their ideals stay the same.
Jim Vance and Bonnie Blanton, the two most influential people of the author’s childhood – his maternal grandparents – left the hills of Kentucky amid scandal in the late 1940s and migrated to Ohio away from their multi-generational home in the Appalachian Mountains. For those unfamiliar with the codes and beliefs of “hill people”, you might think that this meant a whole new life for the Vance family. While it did, in a way, it takes more than a move up the “hillbilly highway” to break free of experienced traumas. The mountains may be enchanting, but they have dark recesses where learned helplessness lives, and stagnation thrives. One need only spend a little time in certain areas of Appalachia to witness Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development in real-time. I see them every time I go back home, and I see them from family members who have moved away. Breaking out of learned behaviors is difficult. I appreciate Vance being truthful about this, and for mentioning the “avoidance and wishful-thinking” ways of coping so prevalent in people of this region. When he writes, “We [hillbillies/mountain folk] tend to overstate and understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves,” I can’t help but think of my own family and their propensity to do exactly this (20). Vance’s grandparents knew how to survive, persevere, and how to provide sustenance, but like many hill people, they didn’t know how to show love in what is considered a healthy way, especially not to one another. I grew up a hill person and I am a southerner. I understand Bonnie and Jim in a way that readers outside the region may not. I’ve spent my life decoding criticism to find the true compliment, studying the body language to find the message of love, and digging through the pride to find the apology. J.D. Vance’s grandparents loved their family, there’s no doubt about that, and they did the absolute best they could.
Vance understands this, just as he is aware that his family found themselves in much happier economic circumstances when his Papaw (PAP-aw) secured a job with Armco in the 1940s, a company he would retire from, thus providing the author’s mother and her siblings with – outwardly, at least – the typical nuclear family experience that was so promoted in the mid-twentieth century. So, while the family certainly had more opportunity than their kin back in that Kentucky holler, the codes and learned behaviors of the hills followed them, and the childhood Vance’s mother and her siblings lived through was fraught with tension, abuse, and trauma. This isn’t to cast a negative glow on the family of the author. Every family has its issues. A favorite quote from Bishop T.D. Jakes comes to mind, “Broken people can't do all that we might want them to do... they don't have the capability.” Jim and Bonnie Vance – Papaw and Mamaw – gave their children a home, but they couldn’t give them what they themselves never really had, an environment that cultivates stability and growth.
This economic opportunity experienced by the Vance family when they moved to Ohio may explain why the author has such a harsh view in the book toward those on welfare. One of the most telling passages is when he discusses his time as a cashier at a local grocery store. It’s here he claims to have become something of an “amateur sociologist” (139). It’s also here that the author’s prejudices about his own kind can be found, especially when he writes, “I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse [money or gifts given generously] enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about” (139). I understand this observation is from a teenager in the early 2000s who sees someone with a cell phone paying for their groceries with food stamps. Still, for him to write about it in 2016 without adding the addendum that he may have judged these people with limited information, points to lasting prejudices, to me. Yes, he admits to this being his mind-set as an angry seventeen-year-old boy, but instead of saying he may have been wrong in his assumptions, he blames the “policies of Mamaw’s ‘party of the working man’—the Democrats” (140).
Growing up in Appalachia, I knew plenty of people who needed assistance but refused due to their own pride, though I suspect they, too, were amongst those receiving “monthly checks”. This refusal led to harder times than may have been necessary, but the old mountain mentality I’m familiar with won’t abide “handouts”. Pride is a big thing in Appalachia. Or at least it was when I was growing up, and still is in my family. When I moved out of Appalachia to the Piedmont of North Carolina, I met people who collected that monthly check my mountain family always mentioned with disdain. Some were gaming the system (some maybe still are), and some collected from the government rather than work, but none of them were living high on the hog, as my mawmaw would say. For the author to perpetuate the middle and upper-class belief that those on welfare are eating steaks and caviar while the hardworking folks suffer goes against his thesis. This idea that welfare recipients are somehow living it up while others struggle is counterproductive, in my opinion, and dangerous, as it threatens to villainize those of the lowest economic status in our country. I know these people Vance refers to, the ones who “buy beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash,” and then pay for their food with food stamps, as well as those who sell their stamps for cash, but I’m not about to judge them for their vices, or for doing what they need to do for a little bit of money, not when I’ve seen firsthand how they have to live (139). I’m willing to bet J.D. Vance has never huddled as close as possible to an electric heater in a 45-degree house because there’s no money for oil or wood pellets to fill the main heat source. I’d also lay money down that he’s never sat staring at a final notice for his electric bill with nothing but a food stamp card in hand. Some of these people he judges as “gaming” the system are just trying to do what they can to survive in a country that tells them every day they’re not worth helping.
This doesn't imply Vance is creating a problem that doesn’t exist. With all social programs, you can guarantee someone will take advantage. I get where he’s coming from. Give money to someone who struggles to live every single day, who rarely gets to vacation or have a decent car, or who doesn’t get to have that 70-inch television their middle-class friend has, and there is a distinct possibility they’re going to spend it frivolously. We see it every year at tax time. People buy new phones, get new car loans, etc., and then two months later they can’t afford the phone bill or the car payment, and the repo man comes calling. As a young family, my husband and I often misused at least a portion of our tax returns. We made sure the bills were caught up, the children’s needs were taken care of, and then we bought things we didn’t necessarily need, but, oh, how we wanted them. Unlike Vance’s claim that “we spend to pretend that we’re upper class”, we spent because we believed that even though we barely made enough to stay afloat, we deserved some of the good things in life as well (146). I can see now that this frame of mind is one of the problems with lower-income individuals and families, but when you’re in it, living in a place where it seems like people are getting ahead while you’re sitting still, it’s easy to take what you can get and even easier to make decisions that the elite believes to be irresponsible or extravagant.
I’m not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but even I know that these are merely symptoms of a multi-rooted problem in America. As someone in the realm of the working class, I can tell you absolutely that what seems careless to those like J.D. Vance is Americans trying to have a little material happiness in a world that consistently denies them wages that might afford them some sort of stability and contentment. I’m not making excuses for squandering, nor am I justifying misusing the social programs we have here in America. I am, however, saying that Vance’s prejudices against lower-income Americans was a major point of contention for me with this book.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t have a fair point when he discusses the misspending habits of working-class Americans. I’ve seen it and experienced it. Vance lived it as a child, watching his mother and other members of his family squander the savings and retirement of his grandparents with divorces and rehab stints and loans to make sure there were gifts under the tree at Christmas time. Outside of his obvious prejudices, though, is a knowledge that many in his current position – as he acknowledges – can never have. Maybe this is what angers many about this book. Vance doesn’t hold back from pointing out that there are people who would rather live off of government assistance than work a job, and that working-class Americans are consistently living above their means. Though he often paints those accepting “government largesse” as lazy and irresponsible, an assumption that is erroneous for the most part, he’s right that some take advantage and, for whatever reason, are complacent living off of the government, though it is far from the life of leisure alluded to in certain passages of this book.
There has been a very distinct change in working-class Americans since the mid-1990s. It’s difficult to explain if you’re not an academic, I suppose, but it feels like a detachment from humanity. We’re vicious, willing to take down someone else for the slightest offense as long as it means we get what we feel is ours in the end. Maybe this is because the grandparents of Generation X are dying off. The people like Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw, the Americans who knew downtime came after the hard work was done, the ones who knew really hard times and would move heaven and earth to make sure they (and their families) didn’t go through them again. Vance recognizes this change in Hillbilly Elegy, breaking Americans into two types, “[those who are]old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking, [and those who are] consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful” (148). His grandparents being the former and his mother’s generation being the latter. Maybe it is the fault of our grandparents that we’ve devolved into a self-centered, materialistic society that feels the world owes us because they didn’t want their children to go through the same struggles they went through. It is my opinion that the only thing Vance forgot to add about this group of angry, distrustful consumerists is that this new attitude isn’t a regional problem. It isn’t an issue limited to the Rust Belt of Ohio or the hills of Kentucky, it’s a national problem.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out here that there is a third group Vance doesn’t acknowledge, a group with attributes from both types he mentions. The working poor. These are the people who work multiple jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and they still need assistance. They don’t have the newest iPhone, they don’t drive modern make cars, they don’t wear name brand clothing (unless, of course, it was purchased at Goodwill or the Salvation Army, or gifted to them), they don’t get to eat out, and they often don’t have internet or cable at home. They’re the people you see counting their change at the checkout line, their kids staring longingly at the chocolate bar their parents can’t afford, the ones who likely have to put back a staple food or paper product because their food stamp card ran out and they don’t get paid until next week. For all the great points this book makes about the working class living above their means, it ignores the population that is consistently neglected in this country. We can pass judgments and point out the faults in working-class spending all we want, but that won’t even begin to solve the problems of those Americans living below the poverty threshold. While I understand that this likely isn’t covered in the book because Vance has never experienced it, and this is, after all, a memoir, I would’ve appreciated an acknowledgment of those forgotten people and their families.
Though I found myself struggling with Vance in these moments where he discusses his experiences with and observations of working-class people in Middletown, Ohio, he briefly mentions a struggle I’ve dealt with throughout my adult life and finally recognized in my thirties. In his first year at Yale, Vance talks about meeting his future wife, Usha. She’s unlike anyone he’s ever known (aside from his brother-in-law). She’s from a calm, openly loving family, and she “instinctively underst[ands] the questions that [he doesn’t] even know to ask” (210). It was like being smacked in the face. Here I was thinking that I was the only one dealing with this, with not knowing how to be a functioning human, yet this guy is admitting to the same thing. When he writes, “that first year at Yale taught me most of all that I didn’t how the world worked,” we are once again kindred (210). I am a highly educated woman, but, like Vance at Yale, I don’t know what questions to ask, and I don’t know about opportunities to go after because I don’t have the instinct that people outside my social class have. I noticed this about myself while attending university and again working for a local small business. Like Vance, I am born of people who “didn’t know how the world worked” and because of that, I’ve never learned how to do this thing called life. For all my frustration while reading this book, Vance hit it out of the park with this admission and he made me realize what I only started to notice less than a decade ago. I don’t know what questions to ask or what opportunities to go after because people from my social class aren’t expected to go after those things that they don’t deserve. We don’t know to ask the questions because we’re only being prepared to survive in this world, not know how to make it work for us. We don’t know what opportunities to seek out because we’re not welcome. In his concluding chapter Vance writes, “We don’t need to live like the elites […] We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance” (256). No matter what you think of the author, his prejudices, or his politics, there is no denying that he has made a very valid point. Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand and with a lever, I will move the whole world.” Though I believe he was speaking in an engineering capacity, this sentiment can certainly be applied to this situation. Give us the knowledge to know what questions to ask and we shall exceed every expectation you have of us.
I know Hillbilly Elegy isn’t supposed to solve the working-class American’s problem with spending or drugs. I realize it was written to share one view of life as experienced by one person in this vast world. Well, one family of persons. As infuriating and preachy as it is at times, I think it’s an important text to add to the conversation we should be having. We’re living in a country obsessed with consumerism. You can’t watch a thirty-minute television show without watching at least 7 – 10 minutes of commercials about products you shouldn’t live without, we have networks like WE broadcasting reality television shows around the clock where people make boatloads of money to be trashy human beings, and we see members of our Congress saying daily that we, the little people, can have what I have if you just cancel Netflix! As if canceling streaming services will somehow give us the money to pay rent or a car payment. Whether you like J.D. Vance or not, there’s no denying that this book scratches the surface of a very troubling cycle in this country and gives needed perspective where it oftentimes doesn’t exist.
Bishop T.D. Jakes discusses capacity for love: http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/bishop-td-jakes-on-having-a-10-gallon-capacity-for-love-video_1
Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy. HarperCollins: New York, 2016.