Originally published in the 15 August 2016 issue of National Review.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir
by J. D. Vance
Harper, 2016, 272 pp., $27.99
J.D. Vance’s memoir belongs on a shelf with Senator Jim Webb’s Born Fighting as an intelligent and vivid exploration of Scots-Irish culture in the United States. That’s not a very long shelf, to be sure. The Scots-Irish aren’t ones for book-learnin’, much less book-writin’. Country singing and fighting, in uniform and otherwise, are more their style. Since the first proto-hillbillies came over from Ulster in the 18th century, their contributions to American preaching, generalship, and professional wrestling have outpaced their contributions to American letters. Which is surprising, since the Scots-Irish offer the would-be prose chronicler no shortage of colorful material.
Take Vance’s family, who might have been happier being less colorful. His mother is a drunk with five ex-husbands who, by the end of the book, has made the jump to heroin. Her mother, Mamaw, who more than anyone else raised young J.D., got pregnant at 13 back in the holler and once lit her own husband on fire. Papaw was a Vance, of the Kentucky Vances, who distinguished themselves in the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys—indeed, the Vance played by Tom Berenger in the 2012 miniseries earned himself the cognomen “Crazy Jim,” no mean feat in the context.
From this dysfunctional milieu, J.D. managed to work his way to Ohio State and Yale Law School, by way of a stint in the Marines. He has since served as law clerk to a U.S. senator, clerk to a district-court judge, executive at a biotech firm, and contributor to this magazine. The purpose of his memoir, he says, is to explain the factors that make it so difficult to escape the redneck ghetto in places like his hometown of Middletown, Ohio, as well as the factors that made it possible in his case.
Poor whites need as many tribunes like Vance as they can get, the way things have been going for them. Mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have risen since the turn of the millennium, fueled by suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease, as well as heart disease and diabetes. The illegitimacy rate for whites is close to 30 percent. There are towns in the Midwest where more than a third of working-age men are employed fewer than 20 hours a week. These signs of distress have gone neglected as LGBTQ identity politics and Black Lives Matter antics have monopolized the attention of the Acela corridor.
To the extent that white-trash America’s troubles figure at all in the national conversation, the suggestion has been that they have only themselves to blame. If these bitter clingers get outhustled for low-skilled jobs by immigrants who can’t speak English, then that just goes to show what poor-quality workers they were in the first place. If China is outcompeting them in global trade, well, the free market doesn’t give prizes for effort. As Kevin Williamson has written in this magazine, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. . . . Nobody did this to them. They failed themselves.”
But government bears some share of the blame, as the reader of Hillbilly Elegy will notice. To take an underappreciated example: Many Rust Belt factories (including Middletown’s own Armco Steel) long had family-based employment programs, actively encouraging workers to bring their brothers and cousins out from Kentucky. This was good for the firms and also good for the workers, in terms of what modern social science would call their “non-cognitive skills.” A man is less likely to slack off or quit on a whim if he knows it will reflect badly on the uncle who got him the job. Family-based hiring systems fell foul of federal anti-discrimination law, and the old bonds of morale and mutual supervision have gone with them.
Efforts to boost homeownership have had the perverse effect of immobilizing families who might have moved to better job markets if they’d had a lease instead of a mortgage. Section 8 housing vouchers make it difficult for families on the cusp of middle-class stability to limit their exposure to poverty and its pathologies—as Vance learns when Mamaw’s neighbor registers the house next to hers to accept Section 8 vouchers, and his new tenants immediately enliven the neighborhood with late-night fighting and obvious drug use.
One reason white communities are so demoralized now, relative to periods when their material conditions were worse, is that their cultural resources have been eroded, in many cases by government programs. It is not just that welfare has replaced delicate networks of mutual aid. Licensing requirements for foster parents have made it difficult for extended families to take in relatives from troubled homes. Squadrons of social workers and therapists have undermined the ethic of self-reliance and tough love that once gave hillbillies the grit to see through hard times. “I didn’t know she had a therapist or the money to afford one,” Vance reflects when his mother invites him to join her for a session to address his “anger problems.” Chances are she wasn’t the one footing the bill. Alas, in her case as in others, training in the therapeutic vocabulary only serves to make her more adept at coming up with excuses for her behaviour.
Perhaps poor white America’s problems are not entirely their fault after all. Still, the solutions lie in their own hands, surely. “They don’t need analgesics, literal or political,” Williamson argues. “They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” Could mobility be the answer for communities like Vance’s?
Was it the answer last time? In the era of Harry M. Caudill’s 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, the poor whites of Appalachia moved to better opportunity in droves—hence the Dwight Yoakam ballad of Kentucky emigration, “Reading, Writing, and Route 23.” It worked for a time, but as Vance explains, “Now they struggle to escape Middletown, too. That’s because the problems so prevalent in Jackson [Ky.] have slowly crept into the communities of people who left Appalachia.” Nothing magical in the Ohio dirt prevented Vance’s mother from cycling through abusive boyfriends or driving her car into a tree. Even Vance himself, when he made it to New Haven, soon realized that his physical relocation would have to be followed by considerable mental adaptation.
His greatest guide in that process, after the Marine Corps, was Yale Law professor Amy Chua. Like the Marines, Chua assumed maximum ignorance in raw recruits like Vance, who as a 1L did not even know he was supposed to wear a suit to job interviews. Chua clearly has a gift for social-capital crib notes. Her notorious book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) also laid out in plain English things that high-achieving meritocrats already knew but considered it gauche to articulate. Her bluntest and best advice to Vance was not to take a clerkship that, while prestigious, lay outside the path of his specific ambitions: “This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize Usha and figure out a career move that actually suits you.” Vance and Usha later married. (Think of that next time someone accuses the Tiger Mother of caring only about worldly success.)
The second thing that Vance’s community needs, apart from frank instruction in basic life skills, is church—real church, not the vague affiliation with Christianity that most of them have right now. “The only conservative Protestants I knew who attended church regularly were my dad and his family,” Vance writes (he means his dad’s new family with the woman he married when J.D. was four). Even Mamaw, who read the Bible most nights, “couldn’t say ‘organized religion’ without contempt.” In the book, Vance contrasts his father’s Pentecostal strictness unfavorably with Mamaw’s more relaxed attitude to gays and rock music, but the reader can’t help noticing that Pentecostalism works for his dad in a way that lone-wolf faithiness doesn’t work for his other relatives. It actually succeeds in giving him personal fulfilment and a framework for healthy relationships. Something for future missionaries to rural America to keep in mind.
None of this amounts to a policy agenda, as Vance well realizes. “People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to ‘solve’ the problems of my community,” he concludes. “But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist.” Donald Trump begs to differ. As the Scots-Irish and the rest of the white working class continue to be the subject of debate in the run-up to the November election, they can be grateful that a voice as eloquent as Vance’s has emerged to give a firsthand account of their world. In the absence of a Jim Webb veep pick, it’ll be the best thing to happen for them this summer.