I must confess I was late to the excitement surrounding J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Somehow, I missed initial conversations about it, and only learned it existed when it was mentioned in a different book I read and reviewed last year. I finally got my hands on it this year, thanks to my local library, and even then I wasn’t ready to properly examine it because my initial reaction was too strongly impacted by the recent loss of my own grandmother, who I remember in very similar ways to how Vance portrays his. In fact, it wasn’t until Netflix announced their adaptation of the book that I managed to take some time and evaluate the book’s merits in any serious way. Having done that, however, I found that I have some concerns.
Before I get into that, however, I think it’s important that we remember why this book is getting so much attention. It is, fundamentally, a memoir; Vance details his own experiences and connects them to larger trends within his own family for the vast majority of the book. However, it is not being treated fundamentally as a memoir (though I expect Netflix will have to, I haven’t actually seen it yet).
The social impact of the book has been almost entirely focused on Vance’s attempts to analyze a wider culture through the lens of his experiences. Peppered throughout the story but mostly explored at the back end of the book is Vance’s view that his experiences are a representative microcosm of Appalachian culture as it engages with the broader social norms of the United States in the modern day. And he isn’t entirely wrong about that, though I feel the nature of his experiences has led to some false conclusions. Others, especially those from Appalachia, have voiced disagreement with his conclusions, though, and it is probably better to hear those concerns from their own perspectives rather than mine.
With that in mind, please understand that you will not find in this article a detailed explanation of everything Vance gets wrong in his conclusions. Rather, what I aim to do here is explain where his logic seems to have broken down, based on my personal knowledge of his perspective. I will highlight two major areas of concern, two big things that I believe have an impact on his conclusion but are not given their proper weight. These two things are the formation of the Rust Belt, and the position Vance and I have relative to Appalachia. But first, let me briefly explain why I consider myself able to analyze his perspective.
Vance’s background sounded incredibly familiar to me as soon as he began explaining it. Both of us came from Appalachian families who had long histories in the mountains. Both of us are descended from grandparents who left the mountains at a young age, sometime near the birth of their first child. Both of our families ended up in industrial areas on the edges of the Midwest, his near the border of Kentucky and Ohio, mine near the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Both of us were born away from the mountains in the first half of the 1980s, and our childhoods were in some degrees defined by the collapse of industrial work in the United States during the 80s and early 90s.
My grandparents, like his, experienced separation and then some limited reconciliation (though mine each remarried new partners), and had much greater experience with the grandmother than the grandfather. Our grandmothers both regularly returned to the mountains and maintained connections there, and both of us experienced some participation in these trips and connections as children. And, while for very different reasons, we both grew up with stronger ties to the Appalachian side of our family than the non-Appalachian side. We both are able to recognize ways that our grandparents’ culture continue to affect our lives and outlooks, despite leaving the areas where we were raised and partially alienating ourselves from people who did not support the paths we’ve taken. We both ended up generally conservative but critical of the current state of American conservativism.
With all of this, and some similar direct experiences, I connected very well with Vance and his memoir. The differences were just as obvious — for instance, while I know of addiction problems in my family, none of them happened within my own household, which caused massive differences in our actual experiences — but because of our commonalities I could easily see the reasoning behind how he responded to those differences. It is for this reason that I believe I can understand Vance’s perspective on Appalachian culture: we both look at Appalachian culture from very similar positions. But this is also why I see problems in his approach.
The Rust Belt
The first important factor to Vance’s story that is not given enough weight is how much of it was impacted by its location. During our childhood, the industrial portions of the Midwest went through a drastic change. The steel industry, which fueled both of our hometowns, almost entirely collapsed. I say ‘almost’ for the simple reason that Vance recalls Armco still existing in some form after being bought out by oversea interests, and I remember the end of Sharon Steel and the names it was given by later buyers, at least one of whom came from overseas. But the steel industry quickly became but a shadow of what it had been when our parents were children, and in many towns between Detroit and Pittsburgh, the economy fell apart without steel to hold it together. This region has since been dubbed the Rust Belt.
I see, in Vance’s story, that his experiences growing up in the shadow of the steel industry were very similar to mine. However, when he encounters those effects, he attributes them to hillbilly culture rather than economic collapse. He talks at length about work ethic concerns, about his frustrations at seeing people who appear to benefit from not working, and the hypocrisy of people who refuse to accept some discomfort for work complaining about the economy under Obama. And, sure, those problems exist (though less often than many in the GOP would have us believe), but there is sufficient evidence in Vance’s own account that some of the problems he sees are more regional than cultural.
For instance, Vance talks about family who left the mountains and ended up in other parts of the country, away from the industrial eastern portions of the Midwest. He notes that many of the problems in his own childhood were simply not present in those households. He attributes this to their ability to shake off the worst aspects of hillbilly culture, but spills absolutely no ink on the fact that they were not living through the same economic collapse that his mother was living through.
He also takes no time to analyze the fact that non-Appalachian parts of his community were dealing with some of the same problems he was. The drug use that defines so much of his relationship with his mother is a common refrain from all across the Rust Belt, regardless of cultural ties to the mountains. This is a known effect of economic hardship, recorded widely in studies about addiction, especially now that more money is being thrown into understanding the opioid crisis.
The economic collapse of the Rust Belt has, from what I have witnessed, caused many of the things that Vance talks about. I have witnessed and even participated in the apathy that comes from having no real options on the table, the drug use that happens when you want to soften the blow of a daily life that is going nowhere, and the desire to take comfort in a past that seemed much more promising. I watched as my hometown ignored new approaches and threw itself time and time again at the feet of people who promised to bring back the steel industry and the good times that accompanied it, and I watched as that same desperation snowballed into larger and larger spheres until a man like Trump could be acceptable if he would only restore some semblance of those days.
And none of it, all of these issues that Vance gets praised for blaming on Appalachian culture, were in any way derived from Appalachian culture. I watched it consume so many people in my life growing up, and so few of them had any cultural ties to the mountains. My family, some of the only mountain people I personally knew in my hometown, actually fared better in some of these regards than many families around us. And part of why we fared well was a deep connection to our faith, which is a frequent trait of Appalachia.
Vance’s logic falls apart when he lays all of his problems at the mountains’ feet before looking for any other causes. The story he tells, in many ways, can be told in much the same way by people all across the Rust Belt, whether they have Appalachia in their rearview or not. So why does he blame Appalachian culture for these problems? I think there are two reasons.
The first is that he saw many of the same problems in the mountains, as he states in Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a fairly reasonable connection to make, really, if all the information one has is the information he recounts in the memoir. He sees a set of problems in the hillbillies around him, and then sees those same problems in the hillbillies still in the mountains, and concludes that it must be a hillbilly trait. But this ignores the fact that the collapse of the steel industry reached well beyond the towns that housed steel mills. Those steel mills relied on coal, and that coal came from the mountains. As the steel industry collapsed, the demand for coal dried up, and the towns built around the coal mines (or, in some cases, towns which housed both coal and steel) suffered the same economic collapse that the steel towns suffered. Vance traces the effects of this collapse from the mountains to the Rust Belt, when in fact they went the other way. The Rust Belt collapse caused the harrowing of the coal region, and we should not be surprised that two neighboring regions who went through the same economic hardship at the same time for the same basic reason ended up showing the same traits in their people.
The second reason is that, for all of our connections to the mountains, neither Vance nor I are Appalachians.
Outsiders on the Mountain
J. D. Vance is not a hillbilly. And I don’t mean that in any negative or positive way, it is simply a fact of his circumstances. It is also a fact of mine. The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter how much of our families, his or mine, still live in the mountains. It doesn’t matter how much we talk to those family members in the mountains, and it doesn’t matter how often we visit the mountains. We are not people who are from the mountains, and we are not people who have to live with the mountains day in and day out.
Vance is correct, I believe, when he uses a particular interpretive tool on the people of Appalachia, which he applied to their view of Obama. The people of Appalachia have long been subject to judgments and rules being put on them from outsiders, they have long endured negative and often unfair stereotypes from outsiders, and this does seem to have resulted in a certain level of distrust in outsiders. Especially outsiders who try to speak for Appalachia. However, I fear Vance has not adequately recognized the degree to which he, personally, is an outsider.
An astute reader will note that Vance, throughout Elegy, speaks of hillbillies in the first person. It is never they, always we. One may notice that I have even done so a couple times in this very article; it’s a hard habit to shake. When you grow up, and you do see the impacts of mountain culture on your family and in your own behavior and outlook and vocabulary, and you notice how these things set you apart from other households who do not share a mountain connection, it’s easy to view yourself as being a hillbilly. It’s easy to latch onto that identity, especially when it occupies so much more of your experience of family than any other identity sources. And it’s easy to take pride in that heritage, and begin to look at things the way you believe hillbillies would. When you have spent your whole life calling the mountains some version of home (in my family, the mountains were, and are, “down home”), it’s very easy to think that really is your home.
But none of that changes the fact that the people of the mountains know that you don’t live in the mountains. None of that actually gives one the experience of living in the mountains, of having the good and bad of daily life in the mountains, of bearing the full weight of everyone else’s opinion of the mountains. We don’t carry the mountains around with us the way people who have lived there their whole lives do. For instance, while some words we say may reveal a vocabulary influenced by family ties to the mountains, neither of us will be identified as mountain people by our accent. Everything about us appears at a glance to be Midwestern, if I’m honest, and we can choose the degree to which we reveal our connection to Appalachia. Vance has chosen to profit off that connection, while I have not, so he makes it much more apparent than I do.
All of this means that neither Vance nor I are actually in a position to speak for Appalachia. This is why, back in the introduction, I provided a link to a book written by Appalachians in response to Elegy. This is why Vance was not forced to consider the impact of coal on the people he was observing the way he should have been able to consider the impact of steel. He didn’t live through the mines closing, or watch people spend every day trying to deal with a failing economy because of that. And neither did I. And, as outsiders, there was always only so many of those problems our cousins were going to show us. We were not privy to the experience of their daily lives, and we were not going to be privy to every effect of that experience.
Ultimately, the logic Vance uses in his analysis breaks down because he forgets that he is an observer of Appalachia, and not a resident. Frequency of observation is good for building up a more accurate picture, but no observer can be a faithful observer if they do not also note their degree of separation from the subject. In failing to recognize his actual relationship to the mountains, Vance runs his knowledge of Appalachia through the filter of his own life experiences; and in doing so, misleads a large number of readers into thinking he has given them deep insight into a culture they have never engaged. And that is the great failing of Hillbilly Elegy and the political commentary that relies on it. The book is a very profound, interesting, and I believe well-written memoir. But it is not up to the task of properly and fairly analyzing Appalachian culture, and should never have been taken as though it was.