Monday, February 20, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,  by J. D. Vance, is the book everyone is reading now post-Trump victory, to attempt to understand the forces that brought that man to the White House.

For people who know something about poverty in America, there is little to learn from Vance.  Children from dysfunctional families, raised around drugs, without a loving and fostering authority figure, fall into the same cycle of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, and unemployment as their parents.  This is the plight of the poor everywhere. Vance, in a sense, is lucky; his grandparents played a dominant role in raising him, giving him stability and love. This saved him. 

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of this memoir is Vance’s deep ambivalence of his culture. He knows that Appalachian Hillbilly culture lay at the root of some of the social problems he experienced .  He is harsh on his own people, while maintaining his compassion.  But at the same time, he is proud of his culture.  One section about Barack Obama is telling:

“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

In one place he presciently writes about the Appalachian distrust for government:

“This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society.  And it is becoming more mainstream.”

All of this may be true and should be read and discussed. But I must admit I come to this book with a great deal of preconceptions.  My ancestors came from Europe in the 1890s with nothing; and at least one side of the family was worn down by grinding poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.  Life was difficult, but their descendants have, by and large, left that culture behind.  Rather than ennoble a life that crippled them, they changed and adapted to the dynamic of New York City and were rewarded.

Vance's book shows that the Scotch-Irish culture, with its insularity and sense of victimization, is  a crippling agent.  My ancestors chucked their culture away to build a new one.  They had no choice.  And that adaptive sense, the idea that America demands flexibility in nearly all areas of life, I carry with me. That is what America demands of us, or we are left behind.

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