by J. Blake Perkins
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy topped the New York Times best-seller list within two months of its wonderfully timed release during the 2016 presidential election season. It finished 2017 as Amazon.com’s second-best selling book of the year. Vance, who was born in 1984, is a self-described escapee from the troubled white working-class hill “culture” of his upbringing who went on to join the Marines, graduate from Yale Law School, and enjoy financial success as a venture capitalist in a Silicon Valley firm owned by billionaire Peter Thiel. He wrote Elegy because, according to him, “I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me” (1). “I am a hill person,” writes Vance. “So much of America’s white working class is. And we hill people aren’t doing very well” (22).
Since the book’s publication, Vance has become the national media outlets’ go-to authority for explaining the frustrations of working-class whites in so-called “Trump Country.” Elegy seems to have, perhaps, ushered in a new “discovery” of the rural and small-town denizens of the Southern uplands in America’s “flyover country.” But much like America’s last period of hillbilly “discovery” during John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s subsequent War on Poverty, Vance’s commentary is prone to gross over-simplifications and leans heavily on cultural stereotypes that Upland South scholars have spent the last thirty years challenging. In fact, Elegy has come under scathing criticism lately by many Appalachian scholars and activists, most notably by historian Elizabeth Catte in her recent rebuttal, What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.1
Vance’s memoir recounts his childhood memories of growing up in both Rust Belt Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky, in rural Appalachia. His grandparents, like thousands of other hill folks, left rural Kentucky after World War II, where his Papaw took a comparatively good-paying job at a steel plant in Middletown, Ohio. Despite his family’s newfound economic mobility in Ohio, Vance asserts that they “struggled to adapt” to their middle-class lives and remained tethered to their Appalachian culture (34). Even into the 1990s, the family returned along U.S. Route 23 every chance they had to their roots and relatives in Jackson, Kentucky. Until he was twelve, J.D. spent the summers, holidays, and many weekends at his great-grandmother’s house “in the holler” at Jackson, and he always considered that place his true “home” (11).
Ignoring an abundance of scholarship exposing the myth of a homogenous Scots-Irish hill people2, Vance claims that a “distinctive” subculture of the hillbillies’ Scots-Irish ancestors continued to pass along its cultural and social values to shape his, his family’s, and his neighbors’ attitudes and lives, just as it has done throughout much of America’s white working class. “To understand me,” he writes, “you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart” (3). This perceived culture possesses some attributes that Vance admires, especially its tough commitment to fairness and unconditional loyalty to kith and kin (17). Despite their own rough character qualities and personal struggles, Vance believes he would never have made it out of the wretched trappings of hillbilly culture had it not been for the love, support, and stability he received from the more virtuous hillbillies in his life, namely his Mamaw, Papaw, and older sister Lindsay. “Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me the chills,” he writes. “I am one lucky son of a bitch” (253). Mostly, though, Vance sees his “culture’s inheritance” as one that “increasingly encourages social decay” (253, 7). It’s a culture of chronic poverty, unstable relationships, rage and violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. Vance writes about an array of characters in his life who exhibit such destructive characteristics, but none fits the bill better than his mother, who once demanded that her young son J.D. give her a cup of clean urine, could never hold down a decent job, was prone to fits of violence, occasionally found herself locked in jail, and was constantly bringing new men—mostly low-life dead beats—in and out of his and his sister’s lives. “[I]t is Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest,” Vance sums it up; it’s “a hub of misery” (4). “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future—that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year” (2).
Like many social critics who commented on poverty and other rural plight in the Upland South in the 1960s, Vance—once again, dismissing the conclusions of hundreds of scholarly books and essays on political economy and society in the Southern Uplands3—places the primary blame on a pathological hill culture, rather than economic, political, and other structural problems. Rejecting the notion that hill people are “experiencing less happiness because their economic opportunities have declined,” Vance seeks to prove his point by telling about the lazy, “terrible workers” he worked with at a floor-tile distribution center the summer before he went to law school at Yale. “Bob” and his girlfriend, who also worked for the company, were the worst. They were habitually late or absent, and Bob was also apt to take long bathroom breaks when he did show up to work, to the point that Vance and one of his other co-workers made a game of keeping up with how long he would stay gone from the warehouse floor. Both Bob and his girlfriend were eventually fired, says Vance, but in their minds they were the victims of the manager’s unfair treatment and not their own sorry work ethic. “The problems I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy,” he explains. “Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time.” According to Vance, who somehow seems oblivious to distinguishing between someone like himself working at the floor-tile warehouse for a few months to save up some cash before starting law school and moving on to greener pastures and others who feel stuck in a monotonous, unappreciated job possibly for the rest of their working lives, his former warehouse co-workers ought to have been more appreciative and satisfied with their low-wage, non-union jobs. “Every employee who worked there for a few years earned at least sixteen dollars an hour in a down economy,” writes Vance, “which provided an annual income of thirty-two thousand—well above the poverty line even for a family.” For Vance, then, the crux of the problem for America’s white “working class”—the disgruntled constituency that, according to many political pundits, was most responsible for putting Donald Trump in the White House—is not a lack of opportunity but instead a wrongheaded sense of entitlement and victimhood.
To be sure, as a native Ozarker who has lived in the Southern Uplands my entire life, there are aspects of what Vance describes as a culture of entitlement and I’m-the-victim attitudes that sound very familiar to me. But as I think about history and social change in the Ozarks and anecdotally about my neighbors, members of my own family, and what I saw and heard as I traveled throughout northern Arkansas and southern Missouri in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, it seems to me that Vance is barking up the wrong tree. Rather than the poor and working-class folks Vance wants to focus on in Elegy, the angriest and most entitled hill folks I know and observed who, for instance, so loudly and visibly rallied behind Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” “Lock Her Up,” and “Build the Wall” were comfortable-to-relatively wealthy middle-class business and agribusiness owners and retirees, many of them recent in-migrants from the suburban Midwest. They seemed to want to cling tightly to the post-World War II light-industrial-, tourism-, and Big Agri-based economy that hinges on low taxes and cheap, disposable labor and safeguard their white privilege in an increasingly diversified region and country. Theirs is an American “culture in crisis,” rather than some timeless and exceptional Scots-Irish, “working-class” hillbilly culture that Vance claims hill folks are “born with . . . hanging around your neck” (8).
It is not surprising that Elegy has been such a hit. It is a well-written, quick, and entertaining read about timely issues (i.e. rural America’s opiod epidemic), and Vance’s simplistic logic, unencumbered with the depths of complicated scholarly analysis, fits easily enough into age-old assumptions about hill folks and feeds fresh political emotions that make the book seem compelling. Vance’s sincerity and his cool and measured personality in appearances as a talking head on TV news shows after the book’s publication have undoubtedly contributed to its notoriety as well. But one certainly has to wonder if his new life of affluence in Silicon Valley and his running in prominent circles of conservative intellectuals (he has contributed pieces to the National Review) has impressed too much on his “elegy” about so-called working-class “hillbillies like me” (4). Reports surfaced in 2017 that Vance, a Republican, was considering returning to his home state of Ohio to challenge U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, but he announced his decision not to run in January 2018.4 If Vance plans to continue moving forward as the “spokesperson” for America’s working-class hillbillies, let’s hope he slows down to catch up on some much needed reading about his kindred working-class hill folk’s history and society and abandons the worn-out stereotypes and increasingly impenetrable barriers of political ideology.
- Elizabeth Catte, What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing, 2018).
- See, for instance, John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Donald Edward Davis, Where There are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003); and Wilma A. Dunaway, The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
- To mention only a few works: Ronald D. Eller, Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008); Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blethen, High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 200); Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Cynthia M. Duncan, Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America, Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
- Kevin Robillard, “J.D. Vance Passes on Senate Run in Ohio,” Politico, January 19, 2018, posted at https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/19/jd-vance-no-senate-run-ohio-349970.
J. Blake Perkins, a native of the Arkansas Ozarks, is an assistant professor of history and department chair at Williams Baptist University. His scholarly articles have appeared in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, the Missouri Historical Review, and Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. His Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks was published by University of Illinois Press in 2017.