Hillbilly Elegy Summary

J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

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Hillbilly Elegy Summary

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir by J.D. Vance. It details his Appalachian upbringing and the ways in which poor, working class culture is ostracized and in danger.

Vance was raised in Middleton, Ohio, and his ancestors were from Breathitt County, Kentucky. His family has a history of working in low paying, physical labor jobs, but these types of jobs have disappeared over the years. The ones still around often have worse working conditions than in the past. There is a sense of hopelessness in the area as a result.

Although Appalachian values include loyalty, family, and tradition, there is an underbelly of violence and verbal abuse. Vance takes a sympathetic but realistic look at the culture of these areas. He tells the story of his grandparents’ alcohol abuse, and of his mother’s history of drug addiction. She has a series of failed relationships that span back many years, and when his grandparents finally reconcile, he spends a lot of his childhood in their care. He credits his tough but loving grandmother for inspiring and pushing him to leave and attend university at Ohio State and eventually, Yale Law School, something that became a game changer for the trajectory of his life.

As he tells his personal history, he levies a large amount of blame for the misfortune of Appalachian areas on the people living there. He blames hillbilly culture for the ways that people stay put and are never encouraged to get out and make something of themselves. He questions whether this tendency is the responsibility of the inhabitants themselves, or whether they are allowing their societies to fall into decline.

He blames economic insecurity as well, though to a lesser extent. Vance is an insider to the culture and as such can discuss and criticize the culture’s behavior without seeming harsh. He recounts stories from working as a cashier watching people on welfare talking on expensive cell phones while he could not afford one.

These stories form a commentary on the lack of work ethic rampant in many of the communities as Vance sees it. Other stories tell about someone quitting a job because the hours were not exactly what this person wanted or liked, only to complain on social media later about the “Obama economy.” He also remembers a man who would skip work once a week even though his girlfriend was pregnant.

The book gained major recognition after an interview with The American Conservative and has since met with strong, mixed reviews, often divided along party lines.

One theme of the book is the role of self-determination in our fortunes. Vance was encouraged by his grandmother to make something of himself, and he was able to leave to attend Ohio State. He later attended Yale University, something that might seem impossible for a child from Appalachia. Others could change their situation if they were more aware of their choices and their ability to change.

He challenges and affirms a fatalistic view of life. He understands that the people of Appalachia have come to view their situation as an inevitable conclusion of life. This is a form of learned helplessness that keeps people in their station and continually searching for something entertaining to break the monotony of life. They are in pain and feel forgotten by society, and so turn to alcohol and drugs to assuage that pain.

It’s a tough love look at the culture of Appalachia, and Vance falls squarely on the side of personal responsibility. He is convinced that the way people interact with each other and with their held traditions encourages social decay where a society or culture slowly degenerates until it disappears altogether.

Vance is a staunch conservative and takes a dimmer view of poverty than liberals. Poverty is not a structural problem for him but one of personal responsibility. His experiences with those gaming the system to receive nice things that Vance could not afford while he was working speaks in a large part to why the South and Appalachia moved so quickly from staunch Democrat to staunch Republican.

When Vance leaves Ohio State, he is full of joy and hope for the future. His neighbors who have stayed behind are less enthusiastic about the future. The future is uncertain for them and cynicism is rampant. The media tells lies. The government tells lies. The military is fighting two useless wars now. It is difficult for the community as a whole to recover from this kind of cynicism in order to find a solution for their problems.

Vance is hoping to start a conversation about what he sees as a forgotten society in the US. He believes that by starting the conversation about prevailing attitudes about and among the white working class poor, he can begin to change the way we view our policies on poverty and help a few more people to make it out.