I finished Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance about three weeks ago and it has taken me this long to be able to figure out what I wanted to say about the book. I picked it up knowing full well it was about the pervasive poverty of a class of poor white people in failing or failed industrial towns in the mid-west. I knew the rough outline of Vance's life. I knew that it was not about Appalachia, or at least what is today deemed as cultural Appalachia, which is limited to the southern and central regions of the range of a far larger area called Appalachia, an area that extends across eastern Kentucky and up into Southern New York. And this region too, is different, culturally, from the areas surrounding it in many ways. Middletown Ohio, where Vance grew up is not in Appalachia, although it is in what is called Greater Appalachia, a term that has gained considerable currency since the publication of Colin Woodward's book, American Nation. Woodward tracked culture based on migration patterns and thought that specific regional cultures had developed based on those migrations. And the area called greater Appalachia was heavily populated by an influx of settlers from Northern Ireland, Northern England and the Scottish lowlands, a population that settled the area not only known culturally as Appalachia today, but up into southern Ohio, the Ozarks, and the central hill country of Texas. I grew up in "greater Appalachia" and I can tell you there is far more cultural similarity between Texas, at least the part of central Texas in which I grew up, and East Tennessee, than there is between East Tennessee and the deep south, or even the greater Appalachian part of Texas and other regions of Texas, which Collins, I believe rightly, puts in different cultural regions.
But this book isn't really about Appalachia, and although Vance considers himself a hillbilly, and his family background is definitely Appalachian, even though his grandparents had moved north before his parents were born, the book isn't really about Appalachian culture. It is about a subset of that culture, actually about a subset of American culture, because the problems Vance describes are widespread, and affect a far larger portion of our population than we would like to admit, whether their origins are hillbilly or not. The book is a memoir, it is Vance's memoir, and although he is young, and there are issues in this book that I do not feel he has fully reconciled, it is a book that explores a problem that plagues our country, a problem that the majority of us do not really see or understand, and it is told from the perspective of someone who has experienced both sides and chosen to share his experience with us, hoping that we might learn something from it.
I still believe the book is an important book about the current state of American culture, I believe it is important even if it doesn't address my segment of American culture, or yours. Not all Appalachian families are like Vance's. Not all working class families, or poor families are Appalachian. But the problems Vance describes are widespread, and it is rare that we find someone who has lived through it and not only survived, but succeeded by the standards of successful America, and who is able and willing to tell the tale in a way that, much as we may not like it, we can understand. In Vance's story of his childhood, and his struggles, we see a microcosm of the various trends that are indeed plaguing poor white American families. Although it may not be Vance's intention, I see the point of reading this book being to open our eyes and get beyond labels and look at a problem without anger, and without blame (because although yes the government has abandoned people, and yes we have a long history of disenfranchising the poor, a history that dates back to well before this country was founded, a history that was supported by our founding fathers) because it is a problem of complex and multilayered causes with far-reaching effects, a problem that carries catastrophic implications for our country and the American Dream as we imagine it to be.
I can't say that Vance's experience echoes my own in any important sense, although there are definite parallels in our backgrounds and experiences. Nor can I say that I fully understand where he is coming from, or even if there are clear answers to the many questions his story presents. But I can say that his story has helped me understand a few things that I have encountered since I moved to Tennessee, even though his experience is in Ohio, not here. There are aspects of the culture he talks about that Ihat I have encountered, things that I suspect are intrinsic to a specific culture or area or mind-set, attitudes and biases that I did not encounter when I lived in New York, even though I did volunteer work with economically similar segments of the population in both locations.
And although Vance wants people, his people, poor white people, to accept responsibility for their own actions and the lies they tell themselves, I do not believe this is an adequate response. It is admittedly part of the problem. And part of that problem also comes down to blaming one's ancestry. Genetics are only a part of who we are. Many, if not the majority of Scots-Irish Americans, have not succumbed to the pitfalls experienced by Vance's people, but ancestry can also be a crutch and an excuse. But just as the answers do not lie completely in the hands of the poor themselves, they are also only partially the responsibility of the government. The solution, if there is to be one, also lies in the hands of the middle class and the wealthy, in the hands of the majority of us, the readers of this book. We like to tell ourselves that we live in a land of opportunity, and yet a significant portion of our children have little to no access to that opportunity. Those who have opportunity often ignore, or shield themselves, from the reality that many do not.
Hillbilly Elegy is an autobiography of a person who has come a long way, but who hasn't yet come to terms with everything that his journey has involved or what it all means. He is still a young man after all, and much of his story still feels raw and unsettled. But the book offers a sobering look at parts of our culture that we perhaps would prefer not to see. It is easy to blame the poor, the jobless, the drug- or alcohol-addicted. It is easy to ignore them and pretend like they are irrelevant to our lives. Except they aren't, and their children aren't. Their children, as much as our own, are the future of our country, are our children's future.
How can you expect anyone to have any hope, to believe that there actually can be a better life, when all they see is decay, chaos, and despair? How? How can you expect children to believe in something they cannot see, that seems unimaginable compared to the world they do in fact see every single day? Can you honestly believe that people who grow up in such circumstances will not become people consumed by anger and despair?
Do we want to pat ourselves on the back, relegating the idea that we live in a land of opportunity to the realm of myth? When do we admit that there is a problem and that we are not perhaps as compassionate as we claim to be? The poor are not the only ones who need to come to terms with their own denial. Those of us on the other side of the fence must do the same. We need to admit that we as a society are falling behind if a significant portion of our population is falling behind, and we need to decide if we really are a country of compassion, of opportunity, of liberty and justice for all.