J.D. Vance’s memoir made him ‘hillbilly guru’ for a unique political moment

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy.”
J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy.”

J.D. Vance didn’t see the American cultural superstardom coming when he started writing “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Yahoo named him one of the 16 unexpected people who made this presidential election interesting. His media credits are the stuff of dreams: discussed at length in The New Yorker, interviewed by Brian Williams on MSNBC, a TED talk on “America’s forgotten working class.” He deconstructed a Trump-Clinton debate for The New York Times under the headline “Trump Is Faltering, But Does Clinton Know It?”

Vance, now a lawyer in Silicon Valley, has become the Hillbilly Guru, the Redneck Whisperer: While appalled by Donald Trump, he can explain to the nation’s elites why Trump’s simple, confrontational style resonates with voters disaffected by the lack of the stable middle class lives they thought were theirs and looking for something to blame.

After all, Vance has been in such an environment. His family is from Breathitt County but migrated to Ohio for Armco Steel, which was giving manufacturing workers the means to move up to the middle class; other Kentucky families went to the Detroit area, where they made everything from trucks to potato chips. Then the jobs dried up, and the communities collapsed, and the next generation was left with empty storefronts.

Expect Vance to be among the chief attractions at the upcoming Kentucky Book Fair, where he will speak.

Vance started writing “Hillbilly Elegy” after noting that his background was unique among his colleagues in law school at Yale, but he was surprised as the book gained national traction during “the very unique political moment we find ourselves in. ... As somebody who’s not a big fan of Trump, I think it’s not necessarily the country’s gain that so many people are asking these questions.”

Vance said he knows people who “view Hillary Clinton as the representative of a cultural tribe that is alien and hostile and judgmental of nearly everything about their way of life. … That feeling of cultural alienation is very real. … There is a certain amount of cultural condescension that comes from the elites to the rest of the country.”

Vance suffered a chaotic childhood with an addicted, unpredictable and serially monogamous mother and gained a measure of stability — and academic confidence — when he came permanently to live with his colorful and plain-spoken “Mamaw,” who was the rock of his life.

Befuddled by financial aid forms for college, Vance instead chose a four-year stint with the Marines, which taught him about travel, discipline, fitness and budgeting.

By the time he attended Ohio State, he was on an unstoppable academic roll. He went to Yale, he tells readers, because although expensive, it offered him the best deal financially.

Vance said his good luck is that he had mentors and “that people who had no reason to decide to be nice to me decided that they were going to be nice to me.”

But at Yale, he felt his “otherness,” and he set out to discern how he had made it out of the dead-end background for which he might have been destined: someone who screamed at their partner, didn’t read to their children and quit a job because they grew tired of getting up early.

Such a feeling of unworthiness can set in early, Vance said. He worked briefly as a substitute teacher between college and law school and remembers a child “in one of the pretty poor schools” who got to school and refused to remove his coat: He had dressed himself but had forgotten to put on a shirt. He knew he would be harassed for it by other students.

Vance knows that the “Hillbilly Elegy” name has sparked some controversy among whether an Ohio-bred, Yale-educated, Silicon Valley-practicing attorney gets to author anything with a title that starts with the word “Hillbilly.”

The word has a double-edged meaning, Vance said: It can be used pejoratively, to humiliate a person, or positively, as when “hillbillies” in Middletown use it to describe themselves and their culture: “Using the word ‘hillbilly’ comes along with a certain baggage, and I get it.”

Vance was raised in Ohio, but his environment was steeped by hillbilly mores.

“We’re allowed to call ourselves hillbillies,” Vance said, describing it as “a loving term when used by members of my family.”

He doesn’t plan a follow-up to “Hillbilly Elegy”: “I think I’ve sort of opened the book on my personal life as much as I care to.”

If Vance wrote another book, it could be about the role of Christianity in opening up social capital — the knowledge and mentoring about the larger world and its opportunities — and making a difference in the lives of children.

Vance said, “It really worries me that lower-education people are going to church less and less.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 5

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort

J.D. Vance will discuss “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” at 3 p.m. on the book fair’s main stage. Other events on the main stage include Pulitzer Prize winner Maria Henson, interviewed by Bill Goodman, at 10 a.m.

Events will also take place in the Green River Room and Kentucky River/Cumberland River Rooms, including the Affrilachian Poets 25th Anniversary Reading at 1 p.m. in the Kentucky River/Cumberland River Rooms.


From “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance:

“Mamaw always resented the hillbilly stereotype — the idea that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But the fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead. Not knowing things that many others do often has serious economic consequences. It cost me a job in college (apparently Marine Corps combat boots and khaki pants aren’t proper interview attire) and could have cost me a lot more in law school if I hadn’t had a few people helping me every step of the way.”

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