Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

January 3, 2017

Lauded by both right and left who have seized on Vance’s memoir as the key to Trump’s astonishing victory, Hillbilly Elegy has been called “The political book of the year” by the Sunday Times, while the Economist proclaimed, “You will not read a more important book about America.”

Vance’s family emerged from deep poverty in the Kentucky Appalachians to resettle in a small, working class town in the Midwest. His grandparents both held steady jobs, and their combined income placed them squarely in the middle class bracket. But the baggage of extreme poverty followed them, and addiction, divorce, and declining economic opportunity dragged his parents back down the ladder.

Vance writes movingly of life in poverty, how it affected his mindset and worldview, how impossibly far off the American Dream seemed, how it FELT. His personal story is interwoven with statistics and sociological analysis of the white working class poor.

In a recent interview (and it’s a good one—you can read the whole thing here), Vance was asked about the contempt that professionals and liberals have for working class whites, who are written off as ignorant, racist, sexist, and xenophobic—in seeming contradiction to the left's self-proclaimed values of tolerance and acceptance for people from all cultures and backgrounds and belief systems. He replies:


"I know exactly what you mean.  My grandma (Mamaw) recognized this instinctively.  She said that most people were probably prejudiced, but they had to be secretive about it.  'We'–meaning hillbillies–'are the only group of people you don’t have to be ashamed to look down upon…'   Humans appear to have some need to look down on someone; there’s just a basic tribalistic impulse in all of us.  And if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe.  By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe.  So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is. A lot of it is pure disconnect–many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class."

Hillbilly Elegy provides a partial answer to this last problem. Vance’s deeply personal story allows us an opportunity to know, albeit from a distance, a white working class family.

There’s an element of danger in this—the danger of using Vance’s book as a new ‘box’ to put poor people in. His story is just one of millions, all of them different. That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from this one story, two in particular that I saw. The first is that his story arouses compassion for a much maligned group of people. And secondly, his story illustrates how complicated the problem of poverty is.

The right tends to see poverty as a moral failing: people were lazy, they had children out of wedlock, they used poor judgment in spending their money. The left sees poverty as a systemic failure: the economy failed to produce enough jobs, the schools failed to educate students, the government failed to provide an adequate safety net. Vance understands that reality is not so one-sided, that public policy and individual agency are both critical pieces of an incredibly complicated puzzle.

I think that’s what I liked best about this book. Politics have become so divisive in our country; the right and left feel like they have no common ground. Vance shows us that we need each other, that neither side has the complete answer. If we want to solve the deepest problems of our nation, we’re going to have to work together. Too much to hope for? Maybe. Or maybe if enough people read this book, we’ll soften our views enough to listen to the other side and try. 

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