Review of “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

Below is the review of the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, which is quite a read, and a topic (white working class) that is the subject of much writing and discussion in light of the heavy support given by that group to Donald Trump. I have included links to an interview done by Vance with the American Conservative, as well as a scathing attack on the white working class by Kevin Williamson over at National Review, and an Atlantic story that is quite good, which takes a look at the book, as well as some other writings on the subject.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I highly recommend this book, but it is, for me, a most difficult book to write about. In light of the Trump movement many have said the book should be read to “understand” the mindset of Trump voters, and the author has been a frequent guest on some of the political shows. The book, without question, sheds some light in this area, but it, for me, was not a political book.

JD Vance is a “hillbilly” and the book takes us into what Vance defines as “hillbilly” culture, both strength and weakness. Maybe the book can be difficult to define because the author does not try to take one position and fit it into an overriding narrative, but shows us both good and bad in the culture he grew up in. I loved the family stories, which are both personal and instructive in a larger sense. His grandmother has an outsized role in the book, and in his life. Safe to say that without her J.D. Vance would not have had the life success he has enjoyed, and her role in the book is so very enjoyable, and instructive.

As mentioned Vance is willing to highlight deficiencies as well as strengths in the culture, and where he does deal with politics he takes a fair look at both sides of the cultural divide. Why did the white working class turn away from the Democratic Party?

“Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”

“Mamaw listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be.”

Vance is critical of the section of the culture that he says is “content” to live off the dole, highlighting instances where individuals lost jobs due to misconduct and flat out poor performance, but simply believed that they had been “wronged” by the employer. His willingness to examine things as he sees them, rather than trying to fit facts into a pre-defined political narrative, is refreshing.

“We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

What is also refreshing is the author, a conservative, looking at some of the belief sets that drive the politics of white working class folks. The hatred for President Obama?

“The symptoms are all around us. Significant percentages of white conservative voters—about one-third—believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. In one poll, 32 percent of conservatives said that they believed Obama was foreign-born and another 19 percent said they were unsure—which means that a majority of white conservatives aren’t certain that Obama is even an American. I regularly hear from acquaintances or distant family members that Obama has ties to Islamic extremists, or is a traitor, or was born in some far-flung corner of the world. Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor—which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him. President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

There are some other new books out there that look at the class divide, and the white working class role in our society, but none will likely bring the first hand knowledge and insights that J.D. Vance brings to the subject. You may end up with something that you did not expect, but it is a valuable book written by someone who has made a great success, but just as easily might have been stuck into the cycle of poverty he managed to escape.

View all my reviews

The American Conservative interviews J.D. Vance

The Atlantic looks at the white working class, including a section on the J.D. Vance book.

The Kevin Williamson attack on Trump voters, and the white working class, published in National Review.

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