It’s taken me a couple weeks to sit down and write this review. In part, I have no ability to be objective about Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. Not only did it stir up things from my own childhood, but the realities that it exposes require wrestling and pondering. As a memoir, it is not a particularly difficult read. It can be a little slow, but the narrative is fairly sequential and it has a low cast of characters to track.
At a bookclub discussion of this book, one person noted how often J. D. Vance (the author) pointed out the lack of optimism among working class white people.
There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.
Since I have been reading memoirs and research regarding the experiences of people of color in America, I attribute the difference in attitude to expectation. People of color have rarely, if ever, thought that the “American Dream” was for them. In fact, they were often explicitly told that it was not. Working-class whites, on the other hand, were both told that it was for them, that they were part of the dominant culture, and were assured that, even if they struggled, at least they were not people of color.
The narrative that working-class whites hear now is different, but the historical expectation remains alive.
What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
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? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
Hillbilly Elegy is a book of two components- one part is Vance’s sociological work on the white working-class and his interpretation of that research. The other part of the book is Vance’s narrative of his own life- time spent in rural Kentucky and suburban Ohio, his mother’s struggle with addictions, his grandparents’ efforts to raise him and his sister, the effects of the United States Marine Corps on his social understanding, his conflicted feelings about his Ivy League graduate school experience, and his struggle to understand the attitudes of the class in which he was raised.
The academic aspect of the book keeps the memoir part from becoming too maudlin, but Vance’s history may be a lot for some readers to swallow. One person in our book club was somewhat dismissive of the book because she could NOT relate to Vance’s story. “No one grows up like that,” she asserted.
Au contraire! Not only could I relate to some of the aspects of Vance’s awareness of poverty or struggle in growing up, but others in the club shared their experience or the experiences of others that they knew. This underscores that our national conversation has to learn to encompass racial differences AND class differences in order to realize that our national story has never been a single narrative, but is rather a chorus. Harmony has not yet been achieved in that chorus and the tones are too discordant to even be jazz at this stage.
If a significant portion of middle to upper class white people have held that position socially for at least two or three generations, the struggles that Vance describes are unfathomable. Worse yet, the story (that you can’t get ahead, so don’t try) is incomprehensible and so those who subscribe to it are dismissed. Thus, those who are ahead get further ahead and those who are behind… get angry.
Worse still, the current political climate creates a kind of sanctification of manufacturing jobs as the ideal. This implies that job satisfaction in a service industry or manual labor is less holy or less of a desirable vocation, despite the necessity of these jobs for a functional economy. Vance sees this trend and laments it, but does not offer potential solutions to the troubles he sees in the story his old neighbors and contemporaries are telling themselves, nor in the national narrative that is being told about them.
Hillbilly Elegy starts the conversation we have to have in this country. The conversation about race (which MUST happen) needs to be paired with one about class. We cannot ignore one for the other. And it is possible to talk about two things at the same time. We just have to want to do it.