Hillbilly Elegy (2016), by J. D. Vance

We hillbillies must wake the hell up.

–J. D. Vance


In his wonderful if flawed little poetic book, Studies in Classic American Literature, the British novelist D.H. Lawrence, visiting desert dry New Mexico in the 1920s to nurture his weak lungs, gives us a priceless Outsider’s gift: the dramatizing through nineteenth century American literature that there is but one true American Culture: Adventuring in the New World, a place of Inexhorable and Rapid Change: the optimistic Open Road of Whitman’s “Myself”;  Cooper’s baptismal wilderness; defiant and entrepreneurial Ahab searching the “great shroud of the sea.” And Lawrence anticipates the later versions: Huck’s journeying down the great Mississippi; Faulkner’s hunting the great bear in the wilderness of the Mississippi delta; the African safaris of Hemingway; the mythic Florida of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom; the unfurling Route 66 of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise; the New York night jungle of Holden Caulfield; the long straight Western highways driven by Humbert and Lolita;  the maze of LA freeways entrapping Didion’s Maria Weyth; and the hide-and-seek hinterlands of Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne.

Our scripture. Our metaphor.

But not everyone Runs Away Into The Uncertain New. Moby Dick opens with seaside citizens staring at the sea, spellbound, feeling a pull, but mostly not destined to sail forth on the forceful global waters, symbolic of the Adventure. Apropos, Melville makes a point of Harpooner Queequeg’s deciding to forsake his South Sea island paradise–he is among the royalty of that haven–and take up the whaler’s exhilarating and risky worldwide quest. There is a universal urge for adventure in Homo sapiens that is not followed by many Homo sapiens.

Looking back at it from 2023, J. D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which created a stir in a year of analyzing the Trump “populist working class movement” against the “elites,” is really simply as well as ambivalently about the generic hillbilly impasse seen at a high level, not a sociological explanation. And the book remains topical.

Born in the mid 1980s into the largely Scots-Irish hillbilly culture in Kentucky and then moving to another in Ohio in the good years of manufacturing, Vance is a rare one who left home and took to the sea: Marines, Ohio State, Yale Law, writer, executive in a Silicon Valley investment firm (one of whose founders is Peter Thiel), then a resident of San Francisco, later a politically conservative commentator, and now the Junior Senator from Ohio. Obviously Vance has lived enough to justify a memoir, in this case specifically a classic hillbilly growing-up in which he faced an adult world of poverty, alcohol and heroin addiction, parental neglect and abuse, lawlessness and violence, and an unstable home life dominated by the cycle of out-of-wedlock pregnancies followed by failed marriages followed by drugs followed by essentially the same disasters over again. More generally, there was that abiding and angry hillbilly antagonism toward Others, for these were the contemptuous agents of the afflicting and accusatory elitist Change shown daily in the offensive media bombardment through television and the Internet. Add to this the decline of industrialization and the diminishing of the coal business. Yet down deep, the idea of rising from destruction and pursuing new Change was frightening; hillbillies would have difficulty not only in retraining for new work but in the sheer imagining itself of an actionable idea of Leaving and Adventuring. Hence the proclivity to believe in massive political and other conspiracies to explain their predicament, a shield against the intolerable truth that the hillbilly dead end was really a familiar case of impersonal and mysterious historical forces. Given that his mother was derelict and his biological and several step fathers distant, Vance was fortunate that his fierce hillbilly grandmother, “Mamaw,” intervened and, giving him a home, largely saved him from repeating the dread cycle. Inspired by some stirring discoveries in his schoolboy years, especially in mathematics, Vance discovered and nurtured the very idea that he could leave home for the wider world, dream robustly, and succeed.

Take “succeed” here to mean the discovery of the culture of the big business world, investment, and, in sum, money.

In color and concreteness, Hillbilly Elegy falls far short of some other portrayals in bringing over the American rural poor. The best of these is Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (a novel about far more than the rural poor). Vance’s memoir is more the drama of one person’s transcending of awful circumstances than a deep exploration of why the hillbilly culture has been at a dead end. But Vance makes you think. As a Scots-Irish myself and born in West Virginia, albeit of well-off parents and grandparents, who grew up around hillbillies and their Appalachian culture, I’ve tended to think of two things in particular when thinking cosmically about the striking hillbilly impasse:  First, The Great American Adventure consists of many adventures which have run their course; and second, generations in these aftermaths have been left behind because of the overwhelming speed of Relentless Change in America and the Creative Destruction with which it assails entire subcultures. Consider that there was indeed a great adventure in early American Appalachia. As the  U.S. Forest Service notes in a brochure about Daniel Boone National Park:

Kentucky’s first historian, John Filson, writing in 1784, is probably responsible for the widespread belief that the English meaning of the Indian word “Kentucke” is “Dark and Bloody Ground.” … In his book, Daniel Boone, John Bakeless makes the statement, “Back woods and settlements never loved each other. Friction between them had helped to send Daniel Boone westward into the Dark and Bloody Ground.”

“The Dark and Bloody Ground” conjures up a sense of that seminal American adventure and the sort of culture it most likely created among the Scots-Irish and others who settled the vast area centered on Kentucky and encompassing West Virginia, Ohio, parts of Pennsylvania and beyond. But “settlement” invokes an entrapping stasis in a culture in which frontiers soon disappear and new ones appear, the latter often a most jarring and bewildering New Adventure. The shock can paralyze. And in doing so, it can bring considerable resentment. A friend of mine, musing on the plight of Native Americans seemingly trapped on desultory reservations and on the plight of hillbillies in forgotten Appalachia, points out that there are good and redemptive jobs to be had, for example, there is a crisis in the transportation industry in finding truck drivers; desperate companies are seeking to lure retired drivers back to that well-paid work and its benefits. Yet there clearly are no simple solutions. Vance’s implicit call for hillbillies to wake up runs into considerable spiritual constraints, some seemingly inscrutable, having to do with the formation and persistence of cultures, cultures which were originally adventures before seemingly becoming traps. Must we acknowledge here an iron law of extinction, usually slow and painful?

It is a view that manages to emerge from Vance’s book.