Tag Archives: Hillbilly Elegy

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ recalls a childhood where poverty was ‘the family tradition’

Fresh Air podcast:

My guest, J.D. Vance, is the author of the new best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis.” He says the book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use and the religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia. He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky. Until the age of 12, he spent summers in Jackson, Ky., with his grandmother and great-grandmother. Vance joined the Marines, which helped him afford college. After attending Ohio State University, he went to Yale Law School where he initially felt completely out of place. He has contributed to the National Review and is now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

J.D. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. There’s a paragraph from your new book that I want you to read. It’s on Page 2.

J D VANCE: There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin – black people, Asians, white privilege. Sometimes these broad categories are useful. But to understand my story, you have to delve into the details.

I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty’s the family tradition. Their ancestors were day laborers in the southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.

Working poor whites have been a neglected minority in the US: Exploited by the religious right and populists like Donald Trump, and scorned and ridiculed by small-government conservatives and liberals.

Trump: Tribune Of Poor White People

Rod Dreher, The American Conservative:

I wrote last week about the new nonfiction book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, the Yale Law School graduate who grew up in the poverty and chaos of an Appalachian clan. The book is an American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. With the possible exception of Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, for Americans who care about politics and the future of our country, Hillbilly Elegy is the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

This interview I just did with Vance in two parts (the final question I asked after Trump’s convention speech) shows why.

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book. 

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

This was one of the most important political articles I’ve read in some time. It helped explain to me how someone can be a Trump supporter, even while I continue to oppose Trump and what he stands for.

I’m reminded of a Twitter exchange some years ago involving an African-American celebrity — actor, athlete, musician, something like that. The celebrity was asked how African-Americans persisted in supporting Louis Farrakhan, when Farrakhan is patently anti-Semitic and a lunatic. The celebrity responded something like: When you don’t have much, you make do with what you’ve got.

Not mentioned in this article: Recent reports showing that Trump supporters aren’t themselves desperate — they’re relatively comfortable — but they come from struggling white areas. However, those reports are reconcilable with what Dreher and Vance are saying: Trump supporters may well be looking at their struggling neighbors and see themselves as only one step removed from the same fate.

And, yeah, a lot of Trump supporters are just plain bigots and assholes. But not all of them.

We’ve been hearing for years that whites are becoming just one ethnic group among many in the US. Well, ethnic groups tend to be tribal — they look out for themselves.

I’m not trying to condone Trumpism. I’m just trying to understand it better.

I was also cheered to read an article in The American Conservative by someone that I felt like I could actually have a discussion with, like they were living in the real world and not that made-up place where social justice warriors go around oppressing all the men with political correctness and estrogen.