Josh Hetherington takes a trip to the dark, battered heart of Appalachia in the pages of the international best-seller – and number one at the Unity Books chart – which offers “a unique and valuable insight into Trump’s America”.
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance is a raw and visceral account of the life of a self-proclaimed hillbilly. It’s also an exploration of the community that both shaped and yet also almost destroyed him. More broadly it’s a compassionate, insightful, often moving, yet unflinching window into the seemingly almost insurmountably vicious cycle of poverty, abuse and alienation which continues to blight the so-called “hillbilly” working class of the US – in geographical terms, the descendants of Scots-Irish origin who inhabited the Appalachian Mountains, stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the south, to Ohio and parts of New York in the north.
Almost an entire class and culture has felt profoundly disenfranchised. Millions no longer have access to the promise of opportunity and betterment at the very heart of the American Dream (which remains an enduring foundation in the nation’s collective psyche, and also in Vance’s own).
Though published before last year’s presidential election, Hillbilly Elegy offers a perspective and an insight which goes a long way in explaining a culture and people far removed from the so-called beltway politics of mainstream America, and just as distant from the more socially and politically liberal states of the Union – which may as well be another country as far as the predominantly Republican states of Appalachia are concerned.
Vance writes, “Appalachia’s political re-orientation from Democrat to Republican [has] re-defined American politics.” But how and why did these predominantly working classes switch, en masse, from blue to red in the space of only a generation or two? And how is it that the predominantly Democratic Party-driven social programme has failed these people so radically, according to Vance’s own personal experience and insight?
There’s another, even more confounding question which lies at the heart of Hillbilly Elegy: how can a culture so fundamentally rooted in an ethos of family, honour and Christian faith find itself so at war with itself and indeed with the cornerstone precepts of its very faith, yet still provide such solace and sense of belonging for a man once nearly torn apart by its essential dysfunction?
Vance’s adept navigation of this minefield of contradictions makes Hillbilly Elegy a compelling read. He writes, “It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”
Razib Khan in his 2012 article The Scots-Irish as Indigenous People describes Appalachia as “the most distinctive and unchanging regional sub-culture in the country”. It’s overwhelmingly Christian, with strong community values, an almost pathological sense of honour and family loyalty, and a pervasive and deep distrust of outsiders. Its communities may have been economically exploited and subsequently abandoned by employers over many decades, but Vance also places great importance on his own culture’s almost pathological inability to face its own harsh truths. Many continue – either through choice or otherwise – to participate in and exacerbate a relentless cycle of poverty, unemployment, violence, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, health problems, malnutrition, drug abuse, and crime. It leads to a further alienation not only from mainstream America, but also from many of the systems which ostensibly serve as safety nets, such as police and social services. They frequently make matters worse for themselves, Vance argues, in a clear-eyed and unflinching fashion, attempting to illuminate many of the reasons for this in the process.
Trump’s clarion call of ‘Make America Great Again’ was a clear and direct communication with the working classes of America. It spoke about, and to the disintegration of the industrial, construction- and manufacturing-driven economy that failed the uneducated, blue-collar working classes of Appalachia.
Those same industries drew hordes of hillbillies north from the Appalachians to the factories of the Midwest from the 1940s and 1950s. They were encouraged to leave their own logging or coal mining-based communities by the aggressive recruitment and extended-family-based hiring practices of industrial firms, which transported families, neighbourhoods and communities from their home towns to the factories of the northern Midwest. In the 1950s, 13 per cent of Kentucky residents migrated out of the state, with some counties losing as much as 30 per cent of their population to the north.
Cities such as Middletown in Ohio, where Vance’s maternal grandparents moved to in the 1950s, were flooded with people from Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee. In 1960, one in ten Ohio residents were born in those Southern states. They effectively became Appalachian satellite communities, and maintained close ties to their original communities and homes hundreds of miles to the south. Families such as Vance’s frequently travelled back and forth between Jackson (in Brethitt County, Kentucky) and Middletown along the so-called “hillbilly highway”, every holiday, and for family events such as weddings and funerals.
Blue-collar work paid well for the post-war generation of the forties and fifties, but economic success did little to help their integration in the Northern towns and cities. Nor did it seem to nullify the cultural chip the Southerners often wore, often with a perverse sense of pride. Despite the upward mobility which strong wages and union-protected packages offered, social alienation – driven by the frequent violence, alcoholism and abuse inherent and inherited culturally – often saw the potential for stability and a better life for one’s family and children squandered. It was an opportunity lost, and much of the blame lay with a community unable or unwilling to adapt to their misplacement, geographically, culturally and even economically.
This was certainly the experience of Vance’s family. His grandparents’ success in Middletown (well-paying, secure jobs and their own home and car) was hampered by an ongoing sense of cultural isolation, along with his grandfather’s alcoholism, tremendous instability at home and the (sometimes) extreme domestic violence their children (Vance’s mother and aunt, in particular) were often witness to.
Born in the late 1980s, Vance’s funny, often deeply moving and sometimes painful account of his childhood, undermined and troubled by an all too common instability, underpins his subsequent achievements. In the face of chronic childhood instability, a home life blighted by the unpredictability of his mother (fuelled predominantly by her drug addition), and exacerbated by a long string of surrogate fathers (many of whom he bonds with, only to lose again due to the volatility of his mother and many of her relationships), Vance’s survival depends upon the bravery, protection and nurturing of his older sister, Lindsay, herself at the mercy of their constantly unstable and unpredictable home life. His salvation lies in the love, strength, support, wisdom, sheer will and commitment of his grandmother, Mamaw.
The turning point for Vance is his permanent move to Mamaw’s home. The stability, focus and sense of purpose this provides him with is transformational. Mamaw’s three rules are, “Get good grades, get a job, and get off your ass and help me.” Her combination of support, love, openheartedness and discipline, along with the solid and positive connection to his hillbilly roots, is invaluable in the young man’s development.
And yet he’s constantly confronted with a feeling of uncertainty, despite his determination and success, through four years service with the US Marine Corps, including active service in Iraq, and his subsequent college life at, and graduation from Yale Law School. As an emotionally and psychologically damaged young man Vance struggled to come to terms with his heritage in the face of frequent realisations that the world was not always as he’d learned to expect, not always untrustworthy, despite ingrained, culturally-inherited instincts to the contrary.
He writes, “I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it… how upward mobility really feels… that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
Vance’s need to confront himself, his roots and his culture amounts to an attempt to explain not only his own alienation but that of an entire class and community. He examines his own failings, anxieties, and sense of alienation and disenfranchisement; he also studies the same themes in his family, and his culture. It serves to re-humanise a people who are routinely caricatured as sub-human to a point which has exacerbated their increasing sense of dislocation from mainstream America.
His own success story, against the odds, may well be read as testament to the American Dream. Given the fact his book is now an international bestseller, the self-made man mythology must feel more like a stone-cold reality – and yet Vance is at pains throughout the book to affirm his success was only made possible through the support of his family and community.
Without the steadfast support of his grandmother, his sister, and his wife, Vance would likely still be in Middletown, Ohio or back in Jackson, Kentucky, at the mercy of the terrible gravity of the cycle of poverty. It remains the fate of many others from his community.
If it’s true that you can take the man out of Breathitt but you can’t take Breathitt out of the hillbilly, perhaps it’s not so surprising where Vance’s allegiances ultimately lie. Family, community, church and country remain central to the author’s identity, and throughout the book his fundamental loyalty to these cornerstones couldn’t be made clearer. The important distinction with Vance these days is that such loyalty is no longer unconditional.
Hillbilly Elegy offers a unique and valuable insight into Trump’s America, and Vance’s timing couldn’t have been better. More pertinent than whether Trump’s commitment to reinvigorating American industry is a realistic proposition, however, might be an acknowledgement and understanding of the complexities of further engaging a bloc beyond the securing of his election triumph. The knee-jerk politics of the disenfranchised on a scale such as this achieves little, if anything, towards the re-engagement required to implementing the sort of positive changes needed at a community level, which Vance sees as crucial. His personal story – empowerment through the facing of one’s own demons in combination with the commitment to addressing them – offers a great deal more in the way of hope and a practical and positive way forward than Trump’s politics of division.