Appalachian appropriation: A review of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

IMG_4081

I grew up in and around one of the most stereotyped cities in America – Chicago, known today as the “murder capital” of America (a falsehood).

Then a few years ago, I moved to Appalachia, one of the most stereotyped regions in the nation (if not the most stereotyped region in America) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not entirely filled with opioid addicts and moonshine makers. So when I first heard about JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” his memoir of growing up with “Appalachian values,” I was eager to read it. The reviews were spectacular.

From Jeffrey’s Fleishman’s review in the  LA Times:

“Vance’s unapologetic autobiography, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is a poem to the hills and hollers of his childhood where a blue-collar sentiment often blames government and big business for poverty, addiction, violence and families in disarray.”

From Jennifer Senior’s review in the New York Times:

“Economic insecurity, [Vance is] convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself. Though proud of it in many ways, he’s also convinced that it “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

From Joshua Rothman’s review in the New Yorker:

“Much of the personal story Vance tells in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ revolves around his slow and painful divorce from ‘hillbilly culture.’ Hillbillies, he writes, are proud of their ‘loyalty, honor, and toughness’; of their fierce, unpretentious patriotism; of their work ethic, their tight-knit families, and the decisiveness with which they administer ‘hillbilly justice.'”

Then I read the book.

And wondered how a man who was raised in a Rust Belt river town, elevation 656 feet, could claim “hillbilly values.”

I understand that his grandparents hailed from Appalachia, that they moved to Ohio in the 1940s when they were still teenagers (his Mawmaw was 14; his Papaw was 17 when they migrated out of Appalachia). And I know that Vance visited Appalachia on multiple occasions as a boy.

But as the progeny of people who moved away from the hills many years ago, Vance himself has never lived in Appalachia. He is, in fact, a second-generation Rust Belt boy; Vance’s mother was raised in Middletown, Ohio, a Midwestern river town located in the southwestern corner of Ohio. And like his mother, JD Vance also was born and raised in Middletown, though he claims his “home” is in Appalachia.

In an NPR interview with Terry Gross, Vance calls Middletown, “Middletucky” because “there are various studies that suggest that at any given time, at least 30 percent of the population of some of these Rust Belt counties were directly from Appalachia.” On the flip side of that coin, 70 percent – the vast majority of residents of those Rust Belt counties – are not “hillbillies.”

My mother grew up in a different part of the world than I did – she was a Dubliner. Like JD Vance’s grandparents, who migrated to Middletown and found themselves in a community with a number of others from the “holler,” my mother settled in a city, Chicago, dominated by her ethnic group, the Irish; as JD Vance knew many people who hailed at one point from Kentucky, so, too, when I was growing up, many of the people we knew and associated with claimed Irish heritage; like JD Vance, we traveled far from home to visit grandparents – he visited Appalachia; we visited relatives in Ireland.

Unlike JD Vance, I would never claim “Irish values” were the reasons for my success or failure. I’m American to the core and though my Irish ancestry is part of who I am, I would never claim to be a Dubliner, even though that is where my mother grew up and where we visited multiple times when I was a girl.

Vance, however, claims “hillbilly” status. The ills he sees around him – in a Rust Belt river town – are identified as evolving from “hillbilly” culture. The justice he sees in Middletown is “hillbilly justice.”

As I read his memoir, I kept wondering why he identifies as a “hillbilly” when in reality, his story describes the much broader impact of the collapse of the steel and manufacturing sector, an issue not the result of “hillbilly” values. The anecdotes he describes – of a young couple too lazy to work, of spendthrifts spending “money they don’t have to buy iPads and giant TVs,” these are Rust Belt narratives that take place in a dreary, dismal, hopeless river town in the Midwest, not in the hills of Appalachia. When Vance describes the economic decline of his hometown, he’s describing an American story, not one isolated to the hills of Appalachia.

And yet, whenever he relates a story of violence and poverty, he associates it with his “hillbilly” heritage. Here he talks about the physical abuse and violence that his mother and her siblings experienced in the home growing up:

“Because [his grandparents] were hill people, they had to keep their two lives separate. No outsiders could know about the family strife–with outsiders defined very broadly. When Jimmy [Vance’s uncle] turned eighteen, he took a job at Armco and moved out immediately. Not long after he left, Aunt Wee found herself in the middle of one particularly bad fight, and Papaw punched her in the face. The blow, though accidental, left a nasty black eye. When Jimmy–her own brother–returned home for a visit, Aunt Wee was made to hide in the basement. Because Jimmy didn’t live with the family anymore, he was not to know about the inner workings of the house.”

Hiding evidence of physical abuse is in no way representative of the values of “hill people.” It’s a far too common attribute of people involved in abusive relationships, regardless of status and income. We’re seeing this now with the allegations of physical abuse lodged against Trump aide Rob Porter by two of his ex-wives. Close associates claim ignorance of his violence. Jennie Willoughby, one of Porter’s ex-wives, explained it like this:

“Abuse is indifferent to education level, socio-economic status, race, age, or gender. And no one can ever know the dynamics of another’s relationship.”

Alleged abuser Rob Porter was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a Republican educated at Harvard and until recently, was employed within the Trump administration. He is the furthest thing from a hillbilly and yet he, like Vance’s Mawmaw and Papaw, has an aversion to making public the humiliating details of the violence he engaged in within his home. Regardless of heritage, families living with domestic abuse keep the facts of the abuse hidden from the larger community. It’s absurd and dishonest to identify this secrecy as a tradition isolated to the “hill people.”

 

Early in the book, Vance notes: “It is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem the dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.”

Two pages later, he points to one of the sources of this misery – the laziness and entitled attitudes of people like “Bob,” a teenager with a pregnant girlfriend, a young man who is too lazy to succeed at a $13/hour job at the tile company where Vance works. However, “Bob’s” connection to Appalachia is unknown. In following shortly after Vance’s blanket statement about the misery of his Appalachian “home,” it’s hard for a reader to remember that both Bob and this particular job are located squarely within the Rust Belt, not Appalachia. Vance weaves a skillful tale centered around “hillbilly” values, yet in the anecdotes Vance shares, the failures of the Middletown residents he discusses – these are not necessarily the result of any Appalachian “values” or experience.

Vance notes:

This book is about something else; what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

Vance isolates these “worst way possible” reactions to the toxic culture of “social decay” specifically to the Appalachian region. But it’s simply not true. We see drug addiction and high unemployment in struggling communities across America, from urban ghettos to Appalachian hollers to Rust Belt towns hollowed out by the collapse of manufacturing.

Vance also holds some (the poor) accountable for their circumstances and yet does not hold others (doctors, etc.) accountable for their failures. As a teenager, he worked at a grocery store and “learned about America’s class divide.” He witnessed the store providing wealthy customers with large lines of credit, which were not available to the poor. He also saw how the poor “gamed the welfare system” – buying soda with food stamps and later selling the soda for money. And then there was the steak:

“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.”

Vance is bitter about his tax dollars being used to subsidize steaks for poor neighbors, but when his grandmother falls victim to an unscrupulous doctor who performs a “completely unnecessary” surgery on her back, not a peep of complaint out of the family:

“Now that I am a lawyer, I marvel that we never considered a medical malpractice suite against the doctor who operated unnecessarily on her back. But Mamaw wouldn’t have allowed it: She didn’t believe in using the legal system until you had to.”

So Mamaw never held an unscrupulous doctor, who got paid handsomely for his services, accountable for an unnecessary back surgery. As a result of her silence, the surgeon was free to engage in more unnecessary surgeries on other unsuspecting patients.

*****

As a resident of Appalachia reading Vance’s elegy for the Appalachian life, I discovered that this memoir is much broader than a “hillbilly elegy” – it is, in fact, an elegy for the demise of hope for the middle class, an American elegy that says good-bye to the American dream of upward mobility.

In the late 1940s, Vance’s grandparents fled Appalachia as teenagers for a better life in a Midwestern steel town. When the steel industry collapsed, so, too, did the local economy. And so too, did the dreams of many Middletown residents. Today, the median household income in Middletown is about $36,400 and nearly 25% of Middletown residents live in poverty.

I wondered why most reviewers never questioned Vance’s self-proclaimed “hillbilly” status, never asked how a childhood in a Southwestern Ohio river town can lead to an Appalachian memoir; how growing up in a town that peaks at 656 feet above sea level can inspire a “poem to the hills and hollers of his childhood,” in that there are no hills and hollers present in the low-altitude city of Middletown, Ohio.

But after six years in Appalachia, I know why. The Appalachian hillbilly is the simplest way to quickly define the rube, the loser, the bottom of the barrel, the worst type of failure in America.

If you blame the hillbilly, you don’t have to look at institutional issues within our society that led to stagnation of wages for most workers since 1984 (when Vance was born.)

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 8.34.00 PM

Source: Dr. Daniel Bachman, “Rising Inequality in the United States: What do we know and what does it mean?” Published by Deloitte Consulting, July 2017. 

If you blame the hillbilly, you can turn a blind eye to the massive increase in inequality in America since Ronald Reagan promised that the “rising tide would lift all boats.”

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 8.35.32 PM

If you blame the hillbilly, you can ignore the impact that the collapse of manufacturing had on steel towns like Middletown.

If you blame the hillbilly, you can ignore the fact that executive compensation has drastically outpaced the pay of workers.

And if you hold only the poor accountable for their failures, you don’t have to hold those in power accountable at all for any of the ills that trouble this nation.

•••••

Like JD Vance, most mainstream news media journalists have never lived in Appalachia. And in the various reviews of Hillbilly Elegy, the reviewers seem to see very little that differentiates the Rust Belt from Appalachia.

Today when I read news stories about Appalachia, I get the feeling that for most journalists, generally based in large urban centers, the flyover zone is just so much all of one thing – a vast region full of quiet desperation experienced by American losers. When Vance writes about his Rust Belt experiences in Middletown and paints them with the broad brushstroke of the Appalachian hillbilly, it’s widely accepted as true.

Unfortunately, as Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” shows, the struggles of the American poor extend far beyond the borders of Appalachia. But by blaming “hillbilly” values for the poverty Vance witnessed growing up, he can easily ignore the structural issues that are devastating our culture.

Today, the promise of America is far removed from far too many Americans. In writing his powerful and compelling memoir of his traumatic, tumultuous childhood in Middletown, Ohio, Vance writes a eulogy for America, not an elegy for the hillbilly. But he falsely plants the losers squarely in Appalachia, a region stereotyped for its poverty, its drug addictions and its hopelessness. And in doing so, he does a disservice to the bigger story of the urban decay he experienced growing up in the Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio.

 

 

 

Advertisements

One thought on “Appalachian appropriation: A review of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s