Hillybilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a family biography that chronicles the author’s life from a childhood in Kentucky and Ohio to, eventually, a successful career spanning military service with the United States Marines, College and Princeton Law School.
A Book Explaining the Popularity of Donald Trump?
More importantly, perhaps, and partly why the book has become a New York Times bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy also promises a “passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of poor, white Americans“. As such it s often cited as an insight explaining why 2016 presidential nominee Donald J. Trump remains popular in spite of scandals and controversy.
Now, along comes Mr. Vance, offering a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.
Reading the book however, the emphasis is clearly on the personal analysis of a culture in crisis. It is a biography after all. The underlying theme is Vance’s recurring contrast of his success against the statistical improbability of his life’s story. Despite his own success, his main argument clearly is that the majority of people from his “Hillbilly”-background are stuck on a road to unemployment, dysfunctional family, substance abuse and more. In a nutshell, Vance argues, that “hillbilly”-culture traps people in a fatalistic mindset (“learned helplessness”) that nothing can be done to change your dismal lot in life while squarely blaming others – government, immigrants, “the elite” – for all of life’s problems.
A Fascinating Life, Unsatisfying Political Analysis
Hillbilly Elegy reads very well as a biography of a noteworthy life – from childhood in a dysfunctional family to Princeton and Silicon Valley success. The writing is crisp and polished and the anecdotes from J.D. Vance’s life in Kentucky and (mainly) Ohio fascinating. In that sense, Hillbilly Elegy is a captivating page turner.
The bridge to a socio-economic and cultural analysis of white poverty in America seemed less convincing too me. Not because it is necessarily wrong – even if the NYT did a plausible critique of the main argument – but because it wasn’t presented as a full-fledged analysis or argument to be engaged with on scholarly terms.
The author’s life story is garnished with statistics and academic concepts that throw the occassional economic or sociological light on his personal experiences such as episodes of domestic and/or substance abuse in his family. However, I felt they never truly come together as a coherent theory on why this particular segment of American society, which the author was born into, appears systemically trapped in poverty, with the author himself being a notable exception. The author attributes his own success primarily to the substitute for a somewhat functional family provided by his grandmother and, to a lesser degree, the transformative experience of joining the US Marines.
Indeed, Vance often compares the endemic problems handicapping most people from a “hillbilly”-background with other slices of the US population. Among these are comparisons with Mormons in America’s South-West, notably Utah, or African-Americans.
In places like Utah, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts, the American Dream was doing fine / as good or better than any other place in the world. It was the South, the Rust Belt, and Appalachia where poor kids really struggled. […] I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah – with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families – wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.
Yet by drawing these comparisons, J.D. Vance raises (but never answers) why other segments of US society pursued different political trajectories from similar circumstances, or similar political trajectories from different circumstances. For all comparisons, his core argument that poverty is largely cultural defies comparisons or classifications, because the cultural specifics are unique to each group, specifically in this book the poor white Americans of the Rust Belt the author was born into. And similarly, Vance sees little to no scope for addressing the root causes of endemic poverty, say through government or charitable efforts, because they cannot, in his view, change the underlying culture. Hillbilly Elegy thus also offers no ideas or thoughts on how things could be changed for the better for Kentucky’s and Ohio’s poor white communities.
An Interesting Read with an Open End
In short, Hillbilly Elegy offers a well-written account of an interesting life story, embedded in statistics and sociological concept given context to the author’s personal experience. Somewhat unsatisfying however, the book ultimately “just ends”. The author moved away from the society of his childhood into different social and economic circles, becoming (as he notes) increasingly distant from his origins. The less personal, more academic context surrounding his life’s story similarly ends without a conclusion or hypothesis to cap it off.
Hillbilly Elegy is an excellent read, but, as is perhaps the way with life’s stories, lacks a conclusion.