Sunday, September 18, 2016
HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
a term used by people from the country to describe themselves with pride, but used by others as an insult for people whom they regard as ignorant and unsophisticated
a mournful or reflective poem
I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. – J.D. Vance
J.D. Vance grew up in the town of Middletown, Ohio. However, his grandparents were originally from Jackson, Kentucky, a coal mining town in the Appalachian area of the state, and had migrated to Middletown in 1947 so that his grandfather could take a job in the Armco steel mill. Their move was part of a large wave of migration from the same region to the same area and for the same reason. He says that he lived in Middletown, but his heart was always in Jackson, an area that he often visited with his grandparents when he was a youngster, and that he considered himself to be a hillbilly.
At first the migrants fared much better than they had in the areas they had left. They worked hard, of course, but their jobs required no education and little technical skill and their union insured that they were paid well and that their fringe benefits were substantial.
But then came globalization, automation, conglomeration, de-unionization, and things went south for the whole Midwest, literally in some cases, and a region that once led the world in industrial production became known as the Rust Belt.
Vance begins his book with a confession:
“I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life….The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous….I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.
“So I didn’t write this book because I’ve achieved something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. 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….
“I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”
The book has become a publishing sensation. Just type in the author’s name or the title of the book in Google and you will see what I mean. Political conservatives love it because Vance, a conservative Republican, lays a lot of the blame for the ills of the Rust Belt citizenry on the lack of individual initiative and responsibility. While he admits globalization and automation have played a role, and that government policies might help a little, he also believes that “the problems were not created by the governments or the corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” By “we,” he means the very people whose lives have become unmoored by political and economic forces and who face uncertain futures.
Some of his solutions strike me as being overly simplistic. For example, he says that those who have no future in the Rust Belt should go where the jobs are. After all, that is what his grandparents and many others did when they left Kentucky and migrated to Ohio. And there have been many other mass migrations through the years in which people who experienced economic dislocation pulled up stakes and headed west or north in search of a better life.
But those people had a chance of purchasing cheap farm land or finding good unskilled jobs that paid well. Today, however, neither the cheap land nor the unskilled jobs exist. Both are gone. What good does it do one to go where the good jobs exist if one has neither the education nor the skills to get one?
But I heartily agree with one reviewer who wrote that Vance chooses “to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding – almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age" and another reviewer who wrote, “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”
Vance is a good writer and a natural born storyteller – and what an inspirational and touching personal story he has to tell. He has lived an amazing life in which he has overcome tremendous obstacles that the vast majority of people have never confronted or even imagined. And against all odds, seemingly insurmountable, he has achieved the American Dream. At one point he admits “I am one lucky son of a bitch.” Well, yes, he is, but sometimes we make our own luck and his life is exhibit number one.