Editor’s Note: This excerpt appears in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, published earlier this year by West Virginia University Press.
Once upon a time, there was “a strange land and peculiar people.” It was a mythical place known as “Trumpalachia.” J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, has been widely acclaimed as its foremost explorer, mapmaker, interpreter, and critic. Countless readers have turned to his book to understand the appeal of Donald Trump to white working-class voters. But Hillbilly Elegy is not a “Trump for Dummies,” nor is it an elegy for Appalachia. It’s an advertisement for corporate capitalism and personal choice.
J. D. Vance, a political conservative and self-described “Scots-Irish hillbilly,” was a thirty-one-year-old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a Silicon Valley investment firm when he wrote Hillbilly Elegy. Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and abusive, drug- and alcohol-addicted single mother in Middletown, Ohio, a once-thriving but now Rust Belt town he describes as “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubling economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working class, especially those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else—something extraordinarily audacious—to presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.
A nostalgic image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a gravel road is on the book’s front cover. But Vance knows very little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy, nor its past and ongoing struggles for economic, labor, environmental, and social justice. He has only visited family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of pathological Appalachian traits—drug addiction, teen pregnancy and illegitimacy, violence, fatalism, the lack of a work ethic, “learned helplessness,” poverty as a “family tradition,” the inability to face the truth about one’s self, and so on—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian scholars have worked so long to dispel. Vance’s Appalachia is refracted through the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family experience. It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from the fictional Tony Soprano.
Vance’s main argument in Hillbilly Elegy is that Appalachians and their descendants in the Rust Belt have been “reacting to [economic decline] in the worst possible way.” In his opinion, the problem boils down simply to the bad personal choices individuals make in the face of economic decline—not to the corporate capitalist economy that creates immense profits by casting off much of its workforce or the failure of governments to respond to this ongoing crisis. The real problem, he says, is “about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” His bottom line is this: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual neoliberal fix, is fix thyself.
Although some readers in Appalachia and the Midwest have identified positively with the book, most Appalachian commentators have written trenchant critiques of Hillbilly Elegy and the Vance phenomenon. So too have some national writers. Robert Kuttner, for instance, claimed that Hillbilly Elegy is nothing more than “a conservative infomercial, disguised as an affectionate memoir,” and another described it as “a vicious little book, a litany of well-worn complaints against the intemperate and shiftless poor disguised as a hardscrabble personal narrative.” Describing Vance as “the liberal media’s favorite white trash-splainer,” Sarah Jones called him “the false prophet of blue America.”
But many national commentators were not as discerning as these writers. In a New York Times review, Jennifer Senior described Vance’s “tough love analysis of the poor who back Trump” as “a compassionate, sociological analysis,” and in the same newspaper David Brooks hailed Hillbilly Elegy as “essential reading for this moment in history.” Even Larry Summers got into the act, calling Hillbilly Elegy “the most important book for understanding American inequality.” (Summers should know about inequality since he contributed greatly to it in his role as Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury and chief economic advisor to President Obama.) With such accolades, Vance soon became the darling of the corporate media. He was hailed as a spokesman for the white working class, the hillbilly guru, the Trump whisperer, the foremost interpreter of the Trump phenomena, the Rust Belt anger translator, and even the poor whites’ Ta-Nehisi Coates. His omnipresence on television and radio—CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, NPR, CNN, Fox News, and Fresh Air—and in the print media was remarkable. Hillbilly Elegy, according to one source, is said to have sold more than one million copies by October 2017. Sadly, no book about Appalachia has ever been this widely read.
Undoubtedly, efforts to understand voters’ choice for Donald Trump led many readers and much of the mass media to Hillbilly Elegy, probably the single factor that most directly contributed to the book’s phenomenal sales. Despite its ultra conservative slant—Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recommended it as his favorite book of 2016—many of its readers were political liberals according to an analysis in the Economist based on Amazon book sales. Readers of Hillbilly Elegy were far more likely to buy books like Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land rather than right-wing books such as Ann Coulter’s In Trump We Trust, Eric Bolling’s The Swamp, or Mark Levin’s Rediscovering Americanism. One hundred fifty years of stereotypes about Appalachia and elitist stereotypes about poor people as “white trash” (shown by Isenberg to date back to the early colonial era) help to explain why liberal readers might find J. D. Vance to be a plausible guide to the current political scene as well as an analgesic for any qualms over inequality and injustice in the United States.
The top echelon of the superrich in America has never been wealthier, while the income of deeply indebted American wage earners has been stagnant for decades. Millions of people in the United States are forced to live in poverty, and millions more suffer from economic insecurity and severe hardship. Now is no time for shibboleths about self-sufficiency and personal choice. In “The Afterlife of a Memoir,” Aminatta Forna advises, “Write a memoir but only if you are sure you want to live with the consequences every day for the rest of your life.” The great danger and ultimate tragedy of Hillbilly Elegy is not simply that it perpetuates Appalachian stereotypes. It is that it promotes toxic politics that will only further oppress the hillbillies that J. D. Vance professes to love and speak for.
Dwight B. Billings is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is a past president of the Appalachian Studies Association and past editor of the Journal of Appalachian Studies. He is coauthor, with Kathleen Blee, of e Road to Poverty: e Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and coeditor (with Gurney Norman and Katherine Ledford) of Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes (University Press of Kentucky, 2000). Other books include Planters and the Making of a New South (1980), Appalachia in the Making (coedited with Mary Beth Pudup and Altina Waller in 1995), and Appalachia in Regional Context: Place Matters (coedited with Ann Kingsolver in 2018).