Sometimes a book gets lucky and comes along at the perfect moment. J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy would have been read and well-received if had been published several years ago, but its publication coincided with the rise of Trump and the conscious of the working white voter, and as a result every pundit in the country has turned to Vance's memoir to help make sense of the phenomenon. Who are the white working class? What, exactly, are white voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan so mad about?
Vance's novel isn't really an ethnography, it's a memoir. Good--the last thing we need is another thinkpiece by a Brooklyner or Manhattanite about what's really going on in the white working class. (Do you notice how often you see a story about the latest neurological breakthrough that tells us what goes on in a conservative's head? Who's out there wondering what goes in in the brainstem of liberals?) Vance speaks about his experiences growing up in the manufacturing town of Middletown, Ohio, as the offspring of a Kentucky holler family, with the empathetic clarity of someone who grew up on the inside. Vance managed to get out--a stint in the Marines led to a whiplash tour at Ohio State and Yale Law--but not to escape; his success has come with a lot of concomitant guilt about the people he left behind, and the anger of a childhood in crisis remains an ineradicable part of his own personality.
Vance describes a culture steeped in profoundly traditional ideas of loyalty and honor:
Or there was that day when Uncle Teaberry overheard a young man state a desire to "eat her panties," a reference to his sister's (my Mamaw's) undergarments. Uncle Teaberry drove home, retrieved a pair of Mamaw's underwear, and forced the young man--at knifepoint--to consume the clothing.
And yet, while the hillbillies--a term Vance uses lovingly--value these things, his experience shows a culture in decay. For all the mouth-service to loyalty and honor, Middletown is consumed by rampant drug use, violence, and broken homes. Vance talks about his own mother's struggle with addiction and abuse, including a time when, as a child, he sat in terror as his mother slammed the gas in their car and threatened to kill them both. He talks about moving from house to house of itinerant father-figures, only to be saved by the constant presence of his fiercely protective and foul-mouthed grandmother, Mamaw.
At the beginning of the book, Vance frets about the way that "in our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin." The similarities between his own family and the poor blacks in the Section 8 housing across town are not lost on Vance or his Mamaw. Part of what is so useful about Vance's perspective is that it opens up the life of the white working class to questions that have long dogged us about the state of black American life--the sufficiency of government aid programs, whether it is fair to blame aspects of culture for economic woes. That's a question that has been with us since the Moynihan Report, and before. The white working class, Vance suggests, is deserving of the same kind of scrutiny.
Vance certainly believes that the culture of the white working class is at least partially to blame for their problems. He talks about a worker he knew in a tile factory who showed up late, or not at all, and was fired--and then blamed the Obama economy for his problems. Because of examples like these Vance remains resolutely conservative:
The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who did everything to could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio's, but that had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students. I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me. These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government's control.
I am mixed about Vance's comments here--I too am suspicious of the faith we often put in the government to fix what is rotten in our most broken communities. I am reticent to blame cultural factors in people who have clearly had much go wrong in ways that have nothing to do with their own existence. But I too, like Vance, believe we are responsible for the choices we make, and the characters in Vance's stories make plenty of mistakes.
Mostly, I wonder if I have the kind of credibility to even properly address such a question. I recognize in the rural south where my parents grew up a lot of the same people, the same problems--drug use, empty factories, social stagnation--but in any real way I've been inured from that world by my own middle-class upbringing. In some way the most significant effect of the book on me is that it forces me to recognize how much I can't identify. But the power of Vance's memoir comes from his credibility, and his willingness to level harsh criticisms as well as demand profound empathy. Vance tells us that we can do both.