All last fall I resisted reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
The bad reviews I saw from other Appalachians convinced me it would make me mad.
In October, I went to a mayoral forum and the women behind me were talking about it — “I mean, he’s from there, so he must know” — I did not read it.
In December, when my boss urged me to read it — “he’s from Appalachia just like you” — I did not read it.
In January, when an acquaintance who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign touted it on Facebook, I was unable to argue because I had not read it.
So now I have read it.
And everyone was right. It made me mad.
As a memoir of a rough childhood, it’s fine. Vance grew up in an Appalachian ex-pat family in Ohio with rough-talking relatives who thought nothing of trashing a store until they got what they wanted, and who regularly communicated by screaming at each other. His mother became a drug addict with a series of husbands or boyfriends.
It’s a sad story, although it’s also clear from his writing that there was love despite the dysfunction.
But Vance claims his relatives were violent and had poor coping skills because they were Appalachian. That this violence and abuse was somehow innate to what they were, caused by the culture from which they had come.
“Destroying store merchandise and threatening a sales clerk were normal to Mamaw and Papaw: That’s what Scots-Irish Appalachians do when people mess with your kid,” Vance writes on page 40.
No. Sorry, but no. That is what brutes do. Being violent is not a symptom of Appalachianness. It is not part of “hillbilly justice.” If his family were acting like violent jerks, it’s because they’re acting like jerks, not because they’re Appalachian.
On pages 228-229, Vance writes about instability in working-class families, due to relationship instability. He mentions his aunt, who had an early abusive marriage, and his mother.
“Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”
Again, no. Unstable people beget instability. Chaotic people beget chaos. No one is all good or all bad, but family life for most American hillbillies I know is not how Vance, wielding his overly broad brush, describes it.
My father was one of 11 children, and my mother is one of five. I have 26 first cousins, not counting step-cousins, second cousins, etc. And none of them behave the way Vance describes his family behaving. They don’t scream at each other, they don’t fight loved ones or strangers as a way of life. Should I credit all this to their hillbilly heritage? Or should I save that for the couple of cousins who did become addicted to drugs?
Vance also ascribes some of his familial dysfunction to the stress of his grandparents’ move from the hills of home to the industry of Ohio. In that same exodus, several of my mother’s uncles moved to Ohio and Detroit for work. They, like Vance’s family and many other Appalachians, came home for regular visits and the annual reunion. None of them, as far as I could tell, fell into laziness, violence or what my mother might call sorryness.
Vance and I are of the same generation. I look around the classmates with whom I grew up — in Appalachia — and the family that has lived deep in Appalachia for generations, and I see little like the generalizations Vance applies. People exist, of course, who are violent, dysfunctional, addicted, and on welfare. But they’re no more the norm than people who aren’t like that.
Vance’s book is simplistic, and it generalizes. His experience is valid, but it’s not everyone’s experience.
He also fetishizes his idea of being a “hillbilly” and the traits he believes go along with that. Frequently he attributes rough behavior and inexperience with the world to, essentially, hillbillies being hillbillies. He uses this word over and over, beating it into the reader’s consciousness. It is a regular reminder that you’re not just reading about a kid in Ohio with a druggie mom — oh no. This kid is a hillbilly, which makes it special.
Vance has chosen the version of his life to tell, and he chooses to emphasize what fits his narrative. The fact that it IS a narrative is one big reason why his book has gotten the attention it has, when more deserving explanations of Appalachian culture and history have been perhaps overlooked. He is telling, in a very simple and easy to read fashion, a story, and stories trump textbooks every time. It is not dense, it does not use large words or complicated concepts. You could assign this in high school if it didn’t have cuss words. It is approachable, easy to understand, easy and quick to read. It asks very little from the reader. You don’t have to work to read this book.
It’s also a dramatic story. My own happy and stable Appalachian childhood does not make for an exciting book.
Vance writes of being lucky in his life and he certainly is when it comes to this book. He mentions the law school mentorship of Amy Chua, who went on to write a book about Chinese tiger mothers. He mentions that she pushed him to write this, apparently recognizing that claiming his Appalachian heritage as an obstacle to overcome would sell. It also seems that along the way, he had already been writing something for the conservative outlets like the National Review (whose editor has a glowing blurb on the back cover, as does Chua) that helped promote him and make him the hillbilly whisperer for more mainstream publications.
Vance also was lucky in that his book came out last year, while the national media was looking for someone to explain Trump’s popularity with rural and Rust Belt whites. And he must have one hell of a publicist. He’s been everywhere, touted as having some new and amazing insight into the white rural Appalachian voter.
The problem is, he does not have a new or amazing insight. He is doing what outside media has done to Appalachia for generations.
Like newspaper stories and TV news before and since the War on Poverty, Vance has looked at Appalachia and seen a narrative of a place that needs to be fixed, a place where things have gone wrong. A “culture in crisis.”
If others of us don’t see that — or don’t see only that, and are tired of it being the focus — Vance has already preemptively inoculated himself from such criticism.
He cites a 2009 ABC report on “Mountain Dew mouth” in Appalachia, and the outraged reaction of Appalachians. I remember this story myself. And I was outraged too. But Vance thinks that outrage is Appalachian people being unwilling to take an honest look at Appalachia’s problems.
“The angry reaction supports the academic literature on Appalachian Americans,” he writes, then proceeds to cite exactly one piece of academic literature, a paper three sociologists published in 2000 about how “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them.”
“We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves,” Vance writes. “This is why the folks of Appalachia reacted strongly to an honest look at some of its most impoverished people.”
I view it, and much reaction to Vance’s own book, as Appalachian people being tired of hearing that their only story is the negative one. Like those many before him — including many news stories last year — Vance has just written yet another “look at these poor people” story. To paraphrase a tweet from author David Joy, you can read Hillbilly Elegy. Just don’t read it and think you understand Appalachia.
It isn’t that Appalachians can’t face the truth. It’s that we know the truth isn’t so generalized, that Appalachia isn’t just a culture of poor white people, that ignorance and poverty and drugs and violence aren’t its only components. Vance ignores valid reasons why Appalachians are leery of outsiders telling them who they are — because historically, that has always been done through a very skewed lens.
It’s just especially galling to see it done by someone claiming insider status.
(Note: I have made a couple of minor edits since this piece was first posted.)
*I’m not an economist, a historian or any kind of academic. Here are three more in-depth reviews of Hillbilly Elegy.