Hillbilly Elegy and the Primacy of Personal Responsibility

J.D. Vance tells a powerful story about a remarkable and tragic way of life.

So, what is a Hillbilly? And does anyone care?

Occasionally, from a silent, insular sector of American life — often a sector hidden behind stereotype and myth — comes a writer to tell its story. Such a man was Ralph Ellison, in The Invisible Man (Random House, 1952), writing about the plight of urban American blacks in the aftermath of World War II. Surely, another was John Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), although more as an observer than a participant.

J.D. Vance, in Hillbilly Elegy (HarperCollins, 2016), comes to us out of the mute, insular, and too-seldom-escaped world of the American Hillbilly. He comes with scars and trauma, psychologically defensive and ready to lash out, but also with intense love and loyalty to a way of life as definingly American as any — perhaps more than most.

That way of life in America has changed, but for the hillbillies, the change has ranged from disappointing to catastrophic. As J.D. says, again and again, he was exceedingly lucky to escape the enveloping Hillbilly tragedy and experience the American dream. He urges upon us the lessons of sociology, psychology, morality, and government policy that might make such salvation more common.

The Hills and History

If there is a workable definition of “Hillbilly,” it is one born in the Appalachian or Ozark mountain regions. Another definition, though, is historic and ethnic. Arriving in America a half-century or more before the Revolutionary War, a vast immigration from Ulster, Ireland, settled the American South.

By 1950, the hillbillies had spread throughout the mid-South into Florida, west to Texas, and north along the famous “Hillbilly Highway.” Oddly, this was a twice-uprooted people. The Irish of Ulster earlier had come from Scotland and England, driven forth by the “enclosure” movement. Those who arrived in the American South early and in great numbers were the Scots-Irish. No settlers more surely defined the character of the region and era.

In more than a century, from 1730 until after the Civil War, much changed for the Scots-Irish, who had been frontiersmen, settlers, farmers, and cotton plantation owners — and leaders of the Southern rebellion. By the Twentieth century, and the Great Depression, many had become the poor, “white trash,” trailer-park people throughout the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Arkansas.

By 1950, under the pressure of economic crisis and lured by opportunity, the hillbillies had spread throughout the mid-South into Florida, west to Texas, and north along the famous “Hillbilly Highway” to the industrial towns of Ohio and the North and East.

This is not the story of a geographic region; it is the story of people who spread across America. “J.D.” was born in 1984 in Middletown, Ohio, a sociological archetype of post-WWII America. For its residents, including hillbilly families like Mamaw and Papaw Blanton — J.D.’s and his sister’s grandparents and saviors — it was the American Dream. Companies like the great steel producer Armco actively recruited, trained, and advanced thousands of Southerners emigrating North. This was the miracle of industry and manufacturing in America’s post-WWII economic boom.

Because J.D. was born in Middletown, publication of Hillbilly Elegy, a New York Times bestseller, has been met occasionally with charges that he is not a true Hillbilly. That almost might be an ironic affirmation of the theme of Hillbilly Elegy. This is not the story of a geographic region; it is the story of people who spread across America and took with them the way of life and values that were their strength, their glory, but also their tragic weakness and fatal flaw. They passed it along to their children and grandchildren.

Escape into the American Dream

J.D.’s story has a narrative density and specificity that defies easy summary. Apart from memorializing a people and way of life he loves, whatever their appalling failures, he uses himself as a case study of how it was possible — but tragically unlikely — to escape the Hillbilly world and achieve the American Dream. As he goes spiraling down toward failure in high school because his endless new home situations are too chaotic for study or thinking, Mamaw, barely able to walk, insists on taking him in:

Those three years with Mamaw—uninterrupted and alone—saved me. I didn’t notice the causality of the change, how living with her turned my life around. I didn’t notice that my grades began to improve after I moved in.

And there were teachers like Ron Selby teaching advanced placement trigonometry to juniors:

In twenty years, he never missed a day of school. According to Middletown High School legend, a student called in a bomb threat during one of Selby’s exams, hiding the explosive device in a bag in his locker. With the entire school evacuated outside, Selby marched back into the school, retrieved the contents of the kid’s locker, marched outside, and threw those contents into a trash can. “I’ve had that kid in class; he isn’t smart enough to make a functioning bomb,” Selby told the police officers gathered at the school. “Now let my students go back to class and finish their exams.”

If escaping Hillbilly culture to seek the American Dream sounds a bit “ho-hum,” then you need to read Hillbilly ElegyWhat does it mean to be a boy in a family and culture of relentless violence, including murder, endless screaming fights, five new live-in fathers (his mother’s boyfriends) in five years, a mother who never stops loving and succumbing to drugs, a round of rehabilitation centers and jails, and fist-fighting as a duty and honor?

In fighting, as with many things, Mamaw taught me through experience. She never laid a hand on me punitively…but when I asked her what it felt like to be punched in the head, she showed me. A swift blow, delivered by the meat of her hand, directly on my cheek. “That didn’t feel so bad, did it?” And the answer was no. Getting hit in the face wasn’t nearly as terrible as I had imagined.

The narrative can be viewed as a series of breathtaking escapes, a concatenation of “there but for grace of God go I” moments, as J.D. (barely) completes high school; chooses the U.S. Marines over college because he doesn’t trust his own discipline and resolve; graduates from Ohio State University summa cum laude in two years; enters Yale University School of Law; and emerges into what those who were born to it may dismissively call “the American Dream.”

For some readers, especially perhaps new generations, that hackneyed phrase may come to life for the first time because J.D. makes real the alternative in terms of human lives — the surrender to hurt, hardship, hopelessness, and mere lethargy. Americans who do not achieve the dream of economic prosperity and security — a family able to care for its own and love without tragic drama — live side by side with the American success story.

The agony is to be mired in failure but see success around you. Hillbilly Elegy comes back, again and again, to ask what makes the difference.

Mamaw Made the Difference

The unforgettable character in Hillybilly Elegy is Mamaw Blanton, J.D.’s grandmother, born in Jackson “holler,” Kentucky, where J.D. spent the summers of his boyhood in the woods, by the ponds, and on the mountains steeps. This is the legendary county that in WWI was the only one in America with so many volunteers that the draft did not apply.

Bonnie Blanton flees Jackson as a 13-year-old pregnant girl with a 16-year-old husband and travels the Hillbilly Highway to Middletown. They do not leave behind the ethos of the “hill people,” nor the guns that they tote, nor their heroic and destructive code of values.

When Mamaw said anything, including that she would kill you, you had to take it literally. When Mamaw’s beloved husband, J.D.’s grandfather, becomes a nightly boozer, she declares: “If you come home drunk, again, I’ll kill you.” He soon does come home drunk and sprawls on the couch. Mamaw fetches the can of gasoline from the garage, pours it over him, and drops a match on his chest.

The point? When Mamaw said anything, including that she would kill you, you had to take it literally. Fortunately, her 11-year-old daughter leaps to the rescue and beats out the flames so Papaw survives with minimal burns. Domestic clashes are serious in J.D.’s world.

There is an abiding warmth, humor, and love in Hillbilly culture that J.D. portrays. Much of it comes from his foul-mouthed, violent, feisty Mamaw, who calls him a “brainless little s**t” when he slacks off on homework, and a “stupid little f**k” on almost any other occasion, but, in the end, gives everything she has and can earn to those she loves. And, for all her fury of judgment, forgives again and again in perpetual hope that good will prevail.

Mulling Over the Lessons

Achieving permanent escape velocity at last, J.D., with his diploma from Yale (Mamaw does not live to see it), can search the literature of American economic and social decline — Losing Ground by Charles Murray is an example — for why his people are failing.

Experience made J.D. skeptical of government programs, and his book made him an attractive commentator during the rise and triumph of Donald Trump. During the 2016 Presidential election, Hillbilly Elegy became a focus of debate over what ails America. J.D. is more than aware of economic changes (the transformation of America’s industrial heartland to the Rust Belt) that devastated Middletown. He knows there are government policies intended to help the struggling working-class American that disastrously fail.

Early on, he says, he and others in his culture burned with resentment that their meager paychecks had deductions that they knew were going for food stamps that enabled the jobless to eat better than they did. He makes the broader point that after WWII, the white South went from solidly Democratic (“the party of the working man”) to equally solidly Republican.

Experience made J.D. skeptical of government programs, and his book made him an attractive commentator during the rise and triumph of Donald Trump. He does not mention Trump in his memoir, but his probing depiction of how individual irresponsibility has crippled his culture, his comments on the failure of government programs, and his insistence on the individual’s choice in life positioned him as an authentic voice of the non-college-educated whites who gave Trump victory.

And he greatly annoyed partisans of the interventionist welfare-state. In the New Republic immediately after the election (November 17, 2016), Sarah Jones wrote:

Appalachia overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and Vance has since emerged as one of the media’s favorite Trump explainers. … Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens ... Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. … Pull up those bootstraps. … Don’t call it what it is — corporate deception — or admit that it plunged this country into one of the worst economic crises it’s ever experienced.

Arguments of this kind cannot refute the report J.D. brings from his world. In his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Alexander Solzhenitsyn advanced the proposition that great stories are self-proving because, in reading them, we experience first-hand what is being asserted.

And our direct experience is self-evident; it cannot be argued away. Hillbilly Elegy is such an experience; we are not told that the individual’s choice to be self-responsible is radically causal. We experience it for the duration of the book. We draw our own conclusions. Solzhenitsyn said:

…a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force — they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

Hillbilly Elegy never loses sight of the real actor striding on the human stage. It is individual human choice that J.D. saw, again and again, make the difference in the lives around him. The supports were there — the teachers, the hospital rehabilitation units, the community programs, the income tax credits — but individuals, again and again, faced the choice between reality and the world of drugs — and defaulted.

As a boy, J.D. elected repeatedly to go to his mother’s rescue. She did love him, but not as much as her highs. When she needed to pass a drug test, she borrowed his urine. In Hillbilly Elegy, individual morality is never discounted.

The individual responsibility was his own, but, equally, he never lets us forget, the lifelong choice of Mamaw and Papaw never to let him down. To take care of yourself and your own is the sacred best of the credo that the Hillbilly brought to the American character.

Further Reading


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