Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Our author, raised by his maternal grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, is thirtyish and supposedly giving us an insider’s view of an Appalachian family and culture. If it were just this, a true family memoir, it would have the authority of personal experience to speak for it. It’s when author Vance begins to generalize his background in family and friends into cultural analysis that his conclusions seem most shaky. Chief of which is his sense that his parents and friends’ generation are lazy hillbillies, a slight to working-class Appalachians. He himself as a successful businessman would refute this, but his focus is singularly on an older and younger generation that he sees as addicted to alcohol, violence, and welfare dependence.
As one raised in a working-class family living in urban Appalachia of Eastern Ohio, and familiar with his home region between Dayton and Cincinnati, in a town that gets its name from its location—Middletown, I struggle with this portrait.
His portrayal of the Appalachian migration of late 20th century that made its way north for jobs in industry appears accurate, yet such a migration was in fact spotty and regional. For Middletown, jobs appeared in Armour Steel and Proctor and Gamble companies. And yet no such migration appeared in the Ohio River Valley where one needed only to look around or out across the river to the West Virginia shores for Appalachia.
Not all is harsh in this cultural portrait, much of the personal narrative has humor and color of a family, but the over-generalizations to a culture are inaccurate and frankly offensive to a strong majority of the population. His snatches of statistics are often misrepresentations, leaving us to ponder his intention here.
In the short introduction he declares his goals for the book. “I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. 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. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
He thus sets himself up as a prime example of advancement and his background as one to be escaped for his demons. He continues, “But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” This outlook frankly denies any real values of a people and a culture.
Based on the example of one warehouse worker, he concludes of a generation, “The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here—a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”
Vance himself now lives in San Francisco and works in finance in the Silicon Valley, about as far away from his Appalachian roots as possible, far from the economic plight of Midwest small town life. And so it’s an easy shot at a people that he sees as “immune to hard work,” when in fact jobs in this post-industrial age are scarce and low paying.
The more graphic side of this memoir delivered in an easy conversational style has to do with his family and their tendency toward both loyalty and violence. However, the validity of generalizing these family traits to an entire culture seems forced. One can understand how we know the world first from our family perspective, but to use that to define a culture stretches credulity. To a culture too often stereotyped and maligned, this book offers little real insight.