The last time I met with my LA book club was right before the recent election. We had an animated discussion about the voter demographics that ended up significantly influencing the election’s results just days later. During the discussion, I proposed that we select Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as our book for December to continue our discussion about the role of the white working class in America’s future.
At the time, none of us knew that white working class voters in Rust Belt and elsewhere would come out in droves to vote for Trump, or that they would believe Trump’s and the Republican party’s ongoing rhetoric that all of their problems were due to the current Democratic government. Some of these voters also felt their ideals unfortunately represented in the racism and discrimination spewed by the Trump campaign. The election demonstrated the importance of this sometimes ignored group of people, who have certainly faced the death of their American dream due in part to the decrease in factory and manufacturing jobs.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance provides a biography of his white working class (or ‘hillbilly’) family, trying to extrapolate from his personal experience an explanation of the status and viewpoints of white working class people in America today. Read my review and enter the giveaway to receive a hardcover copy of Hillbilly Elegy.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Published: June 28th, 2016
J.D. Vance is a former marine and graduate of Yale Law School who recounts his experience being raised in America’s Rust Belt. From a personal analysis of his family and their neighbors economic development, Vance draws a wider analysis of the status of white working class people in the U.S. today.
Part personal memoir and part sociological investigation of class decline, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of a demographic struggling with diminishing employment opportunities as well as the scourges of domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug addictions and self-perpetuating poverty.
What I Liked
First and foremost, Hillbilly Elegy is a very successful personal memoir – the author writes clearly and beautifully. J.D. Vance’s story of growing up surrounded by many instances of domestic violence, with a revolving door of character’s as father figures and with an unpredictable mother suffering from drug addiction is moving and inspiring. Unlike many other young men (white and POC) growing up in similar circumstances, J.D. was able to break the mold and rise out of his upbringing, attending an Ivy League law school and making his way into the upper middle class. Vance’s natural talent for writing also imbues the story with humor, which is necessary in any memoir like this one that is also filled with tragedy.
At another level, Vance’s memoir is also a sociological investigation of the largest demographic group in America – the white working class. This part of the memoir I think succeeds in some ways and has its limitations in others – limitations which however Vance often addresses directly. Vance’s family is likely a representative case study for other white working class families, but you can only extrapolate so much from the narrow sample to which Vance had access through family and neighbors he grew up with. Vance is aware of these constraints and also of the complexity of factors that influence the situation of social and economic decline experienced by many working class whites today, and certainly since the recent depression.
The aspects of Vance’s analysis that I found most compelling where those in which he grappled with trying to decide whether personal agency or circumstance and predisposition were most significant in determining a person’s fate. When speaking of his mother’s addiction, Vance recognizes that doctor’s have determined that there is a genetic predisposition to substance abuse. At the same time, Vance sees the way in which being able to say that her addiction is a disease has allowed his mother to plead a lack of personal agency in her ability to make better choices for herself throughout her life.
Vance also ponders the role of large companies and government in the condition of the ‘hillbillies’ he grew up around. The companies who decided to close their doors in small towns and small cities they had helped build were certainly complicit in the rapid decline that these places suffered once they were abandoned by these businesses. Vance also reflects, however, that the companies likely had little choice due to dwindling returns or a changing economic strategy but to leave as they did. When thinking of the role of government, Vance discusses both policies he has seen help the white working class poor (like payday loans for example), and one he has noticed being abused and ultimately allowing people to avoid finding a job and taking responsibility for themselves (like food stamps in some cases).
Even more interesting were Vance’s reflections on the way in which the white working class mentality of his family and neighbors often demonstrated a pessimism and paranoia about the society they lived in that was paralyzing. Vance writes:
“We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard: If you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”
There were parts of Vance’s book which felt very familiar to me as an Italian citizen. I lived in Italy for the first 18 years of my life and I go home to visit my family twice a year, so I’m well aware of the dismal political and economic situation of my country. The disillusionment there among young people especially towards the corruption in our government and the difficulties they face in finding well-paying, stable jobs is disheartening. I have to be honest though that like Vance I believe that in America, this negative view of the government is hugely inflated and J.D. is a demonstration that with hard work and perseverance, people in this country can still rise above the circumstances in which they were born. Though America’s economy is suffering, and definitely more in some areas than others, it’s not quite as stagnant as that in Italy, which I think makes a big difference.
What I Didn’t Like
Like I said above, I think the book works better as personal memoir than as stringent sociological inquiry into the status of the white working class in America today. Vance’s bibliography of studies, books and articles on which he based some of his more encompassing claims about the demographic group is pretty scant for his book to be considered a serious sociological and economic exploration (only 28 items long). Some of the claims he makes about the white working class make common sense and feel true, without needing further research. Still, the book must be viewed as interesting and significant, but not scholarly. To Vance’s credit, he makes this exact disclaimer in the prologue to the book, so he’s not attempting to trick the reader into thinking his memoir is something it isn’t.
An inspiring and engaging personal memoir that is eloquently written and that sheds an anecdotal light on some of the experiences of an increasingly significant demographic group.
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