Throwback Thursday: Hillbilly Elegy

 J.D. Vance has been in the news lately because he announced his candidacy for senator in Ohio. He's running in the Republican primary and so he's had to do his mandatory obeisance to the head of his party. He made the obligatory pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring and, I suppose, apologize for failing to be an enthusiastic supporter in 2016. He has continued to apologize publicly for the negative comments about the candidate that he made in that political season and to explain that he believes the winner of the election was an excellent president.

I read and reviewed Vance's best-selling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, in 2019. Here's a "throwback" of that review.

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Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A review

February 27, 2019

I have resisted reading this book. It wasn't really hard. I don't usually read memoirs or biographies, so I wasn't particularly tempted. Plus, I wrote my own (metaphorical) hillbilly elegy long ago and wasn't really interested in reading somebody else's.

Yes, I grew up as a hillbilly, too. But my "hills" were several hundred miles south of the ones in Kentucky/Ohio that J.D. Vance called home. My heritage, though, is much the same Scots-Irish ancestry and culture as his.

Moreover, the rural community where I grew up was poor as Vance says his was. However, based on his descriptions of his family's holdings and income, they would likely have been considered middle-class where I lived. But perhaps poverty, at least to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder or in the perception of the one who experiences it.

At any rate, Vance's memoir of himself and his family and the poverty they experienced and how they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps stayed on the best-seller list month after month after month, taunting me it seemed. And finally, after recently reading and enjoying Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, I felt that perhaps I was ready for another. So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy.

What I found was a mesmerizing story of what appeared on the outside to be a dysfunctional family that still managed to function and care for its members on some level. The memoir part of Vance's tale was compelling, particularly his portraits of the grandparents who were the center of the family and who were his anchor and salvation as his mother descended into drug addiction and went through a long series of thoroughly hapless men, only one or two of whom actually took an interest in and tried to relate to her two children. His father had long since been absent.

His family, including his grandparents, were violent; their main claim to fame and a source of pride was their connection to the famous Hatfields of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud. Both the grandparents carried guns and Vance repeatedly refers to his grandmother, the chief influence in his life, as a pistol-packing lunatic who promised to kill anyone who dared harm him. He believed her and loved her for it.

This portrait of a family and its rise out of poverty is paired with a good bit of right-wing political polemic which I found less mesmerizing. He writes about the country's descent into what he sees as a nanny state, with generous government benefits that suck all of the initiative from their recipients. While his family is hard-working and always striving to better themselves, he sees his neighbors as lazy and shiftless. He complains about "welfare queens" and food stamp recipients shopping at the grocery store, walking through the check-out line while talking on their expensive cell phones and paying for their T-bone steaks with food stamps. Alternatively, he complains of food stamp recipients buying nothing but sugary drinks and snacks with their benefits. He is very condescending toward these people who somehow missed the boat when the Scots-Irish stubborn pride was being distributed. He never considers that their challenges might even be greater than his and that they, too, are trying to better themselves and the lives of their children. Empathy seems a concept foreign to him.

Having worked as a social worker and supervisor of social work for more than thirty years, I have quite another view of the poor. Sure, there are those that are lazy and lack initiative, but most are struggling for a better life. Many work two and even three jobs to try to support their families. If they receive government benefits, they are a supplement to their own efforts.

In describing his hard work to achieve his middle-class status, Vance elides over the part that government benefits played in his own rise; namely, his four years as a Marine gave him discipline and leadership skills and his service subsequently helped to pay for his education.

In addition, he got lucky with his friends and his contacts who helped him along the way. Not everyone manages to have such luck.

This book came out in the middle of the presidential election year of 2016 and it fed into the stereotypes propounded by one of those campaigns - the undeserving poor who constantly make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty. It's wasteful and useless to spend taxpayer money on them. Conservatives ate it up.

In an afterword written later, Vance wants us to know that although he admired some things about the Republican presidential candidate such as his "outsider" status and his scorn for the "elites" (This from a graduate of Yale Law School!), he did not vote for him. No, he kept his honor and voted for the third party candidate.

Comments

  1. Mrs. M was a counsellor and social worker for forty years. she would definitely support your vision of the poor, as would i who have been there for a period as well... empathy, as you say, seems sadly lacking in the present day, possibly as a result of increasing population and concomitant competition...

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    1. I've come to the conclusion that empathy is learned early in life or not at all. So, once again, it seems it's all down to the parents.

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  2. Dorothy, your review and overall assessment of Vance seems spot-on. Vance, like so many other elected officials, who now choose to turn the other cheek and want to gloss over the insurrection saying it's time to move out are only interested to pandering to Trump and his voters so they have a chance of staying in office. I grew up as lower-middle class with both parents working full-time in factories to support 3 children. It was at a time when most women were home with children but my mom worked the second shift and my father the first shift to make ends meet. I grew up in MA were were learned that the Kennedy's, although so unlike us with their vast wealth, were the kind of politicians interested in helping the poor and lower income people who only wanted more for their family. I NEVER forgot that.

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    1. Government was established to make life better for people. If it doesn't do that, it has failed in its purpose. Politicians who do not keep that purpose foremost are worthless. Unfortunately, we have a lot of such politicians at the moment.

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  3. I grew up "poor," but in a community where jobs were relatively plentiful, meaning that most families were able to work themselves closer to the middle class from one generation to the next, so I probably don't have the right background to judge Vance's memoir totally correctly. I remember being impressed by his personal achievements and what he had to say about his relationship with his grandmother, etc. At the time, I was kind of surprised that my Kentucky and Ohio friends were almost across the board negative about the book...they hated it. I understood their point of view better now after watching the movie version of Vance's memoir. It will be interesting to see what his priorities are if he is actually elected to public office.

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    1. I haven't seen the movie, but I do understand why Kentuckians and Ohioans might be offended by the book. He's really quite condescending and dismissive of his neighbors who do not happen to be related to him.

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  4. I have not read Hillbilly Elegy. I do like reading memoirs and even though your review of Hillbilly Elegy
    was fabulous, I think I'll refrain from reading this one.

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    1. I understand. As I indicated, I, too, resisted reading it for a very long time. I'm glad I finally did just to see what all the shouting was about.

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  5. I find it sad to see people who have risen in the American class system and who then scorn the people they left behind. No one makes it on her own; every child raised is a child raised by many. Luck is always a factor in success, though it is not often acknowledged by the fortunate.

    I was not impressed with this fellow's story. I wished he'd waited for more time to pass, to develop as a writer and to mature into a well-rounded human being. I see now that he has political ambitions, and that explains, to me, why he wrote a memoir at such an early age.

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    1. I think you may have hit upon his reasoning. And I couldn't agree with you more - it takes a village and more to raise a child and luck always plays its part. Being born the right color, going to the right schools, being in the right place at the right time - no matter how hard one is willing to work, not having those advantages is very hard to overcome in our society.

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  6. I think some people forget that luck can really take you far in life. I've seen terrible people get the best jobs all because of luck.

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    1. I'm sure we all have, Carrie. Luck plays a role in all our lives for good or bad.

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  7. Yeah I was pleased by Vance's memoir that he rose out of tough circumstances to get an Ivy League degree etc ... but now bummed to see that he would stoop to Trump level politics.... though I heard he had been going on Tucker Carlson's show ... so we always knew his politics were marred ... it's a bit sad & bothersome

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    1. He was so quick to point out when the book was first published that he was not a fan of Trump. How his tune has changed in the years that followed.

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