J. D. Vance’s grandmother (“Mamaw”) was tired of her husband (“Papaw”) coming home drunk night after night. Fed up, she told him that if he came home drunk again, she would kill him. One week later, Papaw came home drunk. Vance tells us in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy that,
“Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns” (43-44).
This depiction of violence in hillbilly culture is nothing new. Poor white people (a.k.a. hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, trailer trash, po ‘buckra—with their propensity towards violence and addiction–have long been fodder for humor in American popular culture. The butt of countless jokes, poor whites have been featured over the years in TV shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Honey Boo-Boo. At first glance, it might appear that Vance’s book is one more example of derisive humor at this group’s expense. However, this is not the case. Despite their failings, Mamaw and Papaw are the heroes of Vance’s memoir. A graduate of Yale Law School, Vance claims he owes his successful rise out of the rustbelt to his violent, deeply flawed, yet fiercely protective grandparents.
J. D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio—a rust belt town that at one point was prosperous because of the local steel mill, Armco. His family moved there in the 1950s from Jackson, Kentucky, and he refers to himself and his entire family as “hillbillies.” Although they no longer live full-time in the mountains, Vance claims, his clan still proudly bears the marks of a distinct Appalachian culture. Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s attempt to analyze this culture in order to explain why his people are suffering so much today.
Students of creative nonfiction should note that Hillbilly Elegy is an example of CNF that combines both the personal (memoir) with the public (sociological study of a particular demographic). Vance writes about his family in order to make a larger point about what it is like to grow up in a downwardly mobile subculture. Vance explains that “Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck” (8).
Knowing that Hillbilly Elegy was an attempt to explain the problems of the white working class, I expected this memoir to be a tale of economic hardship for people who want to work hard, but simply cannot find employment; a tale of good, solid, morally upright folk who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot catch a break. I was wrong. Vance does mention briefly the devastating effects of the decline of good-paying factory jobs. However, he argues that the decline of good factory jobs is only part of the problem. The other problem, he asserts, is cultural. To be blunt, he suggests that many of the “hillbillies” with whom he grew up suffer because of their own laziness, short-sightedness, prickly sense of honor, and tendency to blame others for their own problems. As he states, this book “is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7).
Vance explains that his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) grew up in the Appalachian mountains in a subculture known for his honor, fierce loyalty to family, and violence. They moved to Ohio when they were still young, and Papaw found a good job at the local steel factory. His grandparents lived a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle—at least, economically. They never really developed mainstream, middle-class values. They brought with them, though, their hillbilly lifestyle (complete with violent responses to any perceived slight), which they passed on to their own children.
Vance’s own parents were divorced when he was very young. His mother went through a revolving door of relationships with men and eventually became addicted to drugs herself. By his own reckoning, Vance would have been lost without the solid home base of his Mamaw and Papaw. Despite their many shortcomings, they did provide him with a solid work ethic, a respect for education, and a stable home. These things, Vance believes, are what helped him to succeed and what so many of his peers were lacking.
In some ways, Vance’s memoir reminds me of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Like Vance, Karr wrote about being raised in a hard-scrabble, working-class town in a deeply dysfunctional family. Interestingly, both Karr and Vance recount memories in which their mothers try to kill them. Karr, however, is less analytical. She does not attempt to draw conclusions about the socio-economic group into which she is born. Vance does. For me, this attempt to combine memoir with socio-ethnic-economic analysis is both the strength and the drawback of Hillbilly Elegy. I found Vance’s cultural analysis compelling and insightful. He painted the portrait of a culture in pain, but did not pretend that the pain was all inflicted from the outside (globalization, immigrants, the government, or whatever). This was refreshing. On the other hand, I found his book less effective at portraying characters as individuals with unique personalities and motivations. He does not have Karr’s gift at creating a strong voice or plumbing the depths of individual psyches.
Overall, I found Hillbilly Elegy excellent as an insider’s view of a particular sub-culture (rust belt hillbilly/working class white), with both its strengths and weaknesses. Given Trump’s unexpected victory, some political pundits have been urging democrats to pay more attention to working class whites and their concerns. Vance’s memoir is a good place to start.