“Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance

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).

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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.

 

How to be a Concord New Englander in 10 Easy Steps

Central Concord
Central Concord

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town
Sarah Payne Stuart
Nonfiction, Penguin 2014

Perfectly MiserableSarah Payne Stuart

A few months ago, I spent a day visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was settled by Puritans in 1635 and “is America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town” (Stuart 10).   While there, I developed a serious “crush” on the town.  I was infatuated by its idyllic charm, its beautiful old homes, its literary legacy, and its hundreds years of American history seeping out of every crevice.  I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Concord; surely it would have been wonderful, right?

I was delighted, then, to discover not long afterwards Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town.  Her nonfiction book is in part a memoir of her growing up in Concord, leaving it as a young adult, and then coming back to raise her own children. The most important element of her decision to both leave and return to Concord has to do with Stuart’s complicated relationship to her mother.  The book is also about some of the famous previous inhabitants of Concord–especially Louisa May Alcott and her family. Mostly, though, her book is about Concord and the quirks of the proud Concord residents.

I am not sure how well all the different strands of Stuart’s book work together; at times it seemed as if she was trying to juggle too many different topics.  I enjoyed reading about all of them, though, and I enjoyed Stuart’s sharp, witty writing style. I think my favorite parts of the book, though, are her many pithy insights on what it means to be a New Englander.

So, dear readers, if you are like me and plan to be reincarnated as a Concord resident, here are the rules you need to learn:

  1. You have to be convinced that you are a wretched sinner, but also, simultaneously, better than everybody else.    As Stuart writes, New Englanders live with  “the creeping certainty that you are a bad person.”   At the same time, you are secretly convinced that you are better than other people.  In this way, you “are like your Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other” (9).
  2.  You have to have impossibly high expectations of others, and, especially of yourself. “New England is an unforgiving place.  Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations” (10).
  3.  Although you may not like these impossibly high expectations, you are not allowed to complain about them. Stuart notes that, “The Puritans bottled up their complaints and made ‘griping’ a punishable offense” (10). Concord still lives by these rules, if not legally, then psychologically.
  4.  If you are woman living there today, you should be an industrious, no-frills, no-nonsense type of woman, preferably one dressed in L. L. Bean.  Concord is populated by “matrons of steel. . . no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go.”  Stuart also notes that “This is the first town I have lived in as an adult where most of the women, rich and otherwise, don’t work for a living. They are nicer, less pretentious than at the tony private pre-school of my friends in Cambridge. . . And yet I am far more frightened of the bustling, competent Concord mothers who have become the leaders of the elementary school, rising like cream to the top of the parent groups, as they had once risen in their professions (77).
  5.  You must be industrious at all times, even if you have nothing to do. “One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady.  A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house.” (17)
  6.  You must be nice to everybody. “My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well-bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady.
  7.  You should be artistic, but not in a professional way. You should not expect to sell your work to anybody who does not know you.  “Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another.  Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist.” (19)
  8.  You should make sure you never have too much fun because it is not lady-like. For example, Stuart’s mother gave up amateur acting because “the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check.” (20)
  9.  You can drink alcohol in excess—but only for an hour a day.    Happy hour was “the one time they were allowed to relax with impunity, and…only the Protestant could drink so deeply and limit it to an hour (31).
  10.  You must be really messed up about money. This is probably the most important criterion for being a true Concord resident.  Stuart devotes a significant amount of space to explaining how Puritanism affected New Englanders’ relationship to money, even today.  There are so many contradictions in this ethos that I had a hard time understanding it, to be honest.  Here are a few of her quotations to illustrate:
    • “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.  At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.
    • The anxiety that Puritanism produced about money still shakes my hometown. By the time I was growing up, moralistic conflict about money had pretty much taken the place of religion.  I don’t remember if my parents ever used God in a sentence when I was little, but I certainly heard plenty about the value of a dollar on the one hand, and money as the root of all evil on the other.  As a result, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. . . I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor; frugal, extravagant, or generous.  I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.  (109)
    •  Money and one’s attitude toward it is so intrinsic to the New Englander’s identity that it is nearly impossible for him or her to have objectivity toward it. As moths to the flame, old-moneyed Yankees are drawn to bemoaning their lack of money even in front of, say, the person who cleans their house.  Having money was nobody’s business, in this complicated culture, but not having it (as long, of course, as you actually did have it) was a subject suitable for any audience.   So, if I understand correctly, a good New Englander will have inherited wealth, which makes him or her feel superior to the rest of the crowd. However, he or she will feel guilty both for having this inheritance and for this feeling of superiority over others, so he or she will try to hide the wealth from others. The one exception to this rule is that the Concordian needs to buy as big and beautiful a house as possible—but then to keep it as threadbare as possible on the inside.
      •  A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election.” (22)
      • So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation.  But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.”  (22)

OK, I need to stop right here.  My Concord fantasy is now over.  While I still think the town is charming, I would find it really hard to live by some of these rules.  Being nice to other people is great.  Not selling any of my artistic or literary output works well for me since nobody seems inclined to buy them anyway.  However, as much as I like L.L. Bean, I find these stern, industrious Concord matrons scary.  I do not believe in being busy just for the sake of being busy. (I work because I need the money and I enjoy my profession.)  And the money part is just too complicated for my simple Midwestern brain.  If I had a lot of money, I would spend it.  If I had a big, old, house and money in the bank, I would certainly furnish it and decorate it to my heart’s content.

I guess I’m just not a Puritan at heart, much less a lady.

One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.
One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.

P.S.  This is my first North American entry for my Reading Around the World Challenge, 2015.  I chose it because it is not only written by an American author, but also because it is about a uniquely American subject.

Tease Me! It’s Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

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Here’s my teaser:

“Weddings here [in Syria] come in two stages, the kitab when the contract which legalizes the marriage is signed and the irs which is an optional party to celebrate the actual wedding night.  Unlike a Christian wedding, there are now vows and a wedding is not a religious ceremony.”

This is from Road to Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady.  This book is the memoir of an American woman who married a Muslim from Syria in the 1950s and moved to Damascus with him.  They lived happily ever after.  Seriously!

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