Lamenting J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance’s wildly successful memoir and first book, Hillbilly Elegy, has been on the New York Times best seller list for weeks with accolades far and wide. While Vance’s accomplishments at 31, including a law degree from Yale, are laudable, the social and cultural analysis of Appalachia and its people he puts forth lacks depth and historical perspective.

Before he was born, Vance’s family moved from the poverty of a coal county in southeastern Kentucky to a steel town, Middletown, OH. The odds were stacked against his success, considering his mostly absent father, a self-absorbed, addicted mother, a drunken grandfather, and a forceful, crude-speaking grandmother, not to mention the other “colorful” family members and neighbors that helped shape his childhood.

Distressingly, Vance’s broad-brush approach reinforces the same old, tired stereo-types that have dehumanized and plagued the people of our region for more than a century. Unfortunately, the nation appears hungry for this derogatory cliché; and because of Vance’s current acclaim, people outside our region will continue to believe that Appalachia consists primarily of no-good, drunken/drugged, violent, impoverished and uneducated hillbillies who, solely by their own accord, lack drive and ambition.

Throughout, Vance manages to reinforce this stereotype; I could almost hear the soundtrack from “Deliverance” twanging as I turned the pages. He overlooks the darker and largely untaught history of Appalachia and ignores the century-plus exploitation of the people of this region by (outside) extractive industries (especially coal). Industrialists excelled at abusing our people and the environment, including cheating many out of their land and natural resources.

Vance’s readers don’t learn about the brutality of heartless coal bosses who booted families from company-owned houses in the dead of winter, who paid miners in company scrip instead of dollars, or the miners’ struggle to unionize during the bloody Mine Wars of the 1920s. Additionally, there’s not a whiff about the politicians at all levels of government who have assisted the coal industry, in their near total domination of the people and the land.

Where coal became King, it was the only game in town with a captive workforce. Miners who tried to organize for better working conditions were met with intimidation, harassment, violence and even death. Fast-forward to 2017 where much of the overt abuse of mine workers and their families has ended, as the coal industry sharply declines. Nevertheless, coal companies still exert excessive control in this region.

It stands to reason that such long-term, abusive treatment plays a major role in shaping the lives and psyche of our people today. Residents of the coal regions clearly see how little they are valued. As they take an honest look at their communities, they know that they have been robbed—not only of their valuable land and natural resources, but also their dignity. Despite the “billion dollar” coal fields, these coal-bearing counties are still some of the poorest in the nation.

Additionally, with the onset of mountaintop removal strip mining of coal, we have witnessed not only the annihilation of mountain ranges, but also our home places and communities.

Mountaintop removal mining. Photo by Vivian Stockman, flyover courtesy of SouthWings.org

The lack of ambition and control Vance refers is not the fault of Appalachians. The years of systemic exploitation and heavy-handed control by the extractive industries, and the political establishment that kowtows to these industries, underlies the generational poverty, domestic violence, and current drug/alcohol addiction.

Incidentally, as a born and bred Appalachian (7th-generation), I’ve yet to encounter a single person like his near murderous Mamaw. Undoubtedly, horribly broken families like Vance’s do exist in Appalachia, but as they exist here, they also exist elsewhere.

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5 Comments

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  1. I read this entire book, even though it was painful. Your analysis is fantastic is exposing this horrible book for what it is. How in the heck has it become a bestseller? So depressing because, as you said, his portrayal of people in Appalachia is so negative and so mean.

    Perhaps one thing we overlook, which Vance expresses continually throughout his book, is how absolutely brilliant he is compared to almost everyone else. I guess we just don’t get it!!

  2. Great, and sad, analysis of this book which has become a favorite of conservatives.

    1. His book sounds like it could be compared to all the stories wrote about the Hatifield and McCoy feud . Wrote by outsiders from the Northeast who didn;t have a clue about what was really going on in the coal rich areas of Southern WV. and Eastern KY. Vance could be compared to those who bought in to the pig tale and stupid feuding Hillbillies; thats how they were portrayed by the outside media. Altina Waller and Thomas Dotson two writers who came latter and actually looked at the facts of the so called feud ; shined a light on what was really happening ; yep a land and mineral grab ; and the story continues .

  3. I don’t think it was intended to be the comprehensive history of Appalachia. It was one guys experience and some conclusions this YOUNG man made. His story is not everyone’s story. Roots was probably not everyone’s story either….still a story to be told.

    1. Hi E. You’re right that Vance’s book was not intended to be a comprehensive history of Appalachia and that wasn’t what I had implied. Indeed, he writes authentically about his own life and experiences. Yet because of his relative youth, his perspective lacks extremely significant historical factors that have contributed to the current unraveling of culture and social crises of which he speaks even in his own family. Again, I fear his retelling (especially in light of his acclaim), may reinforce the long-held, negative stereotypes of our people which makes room for greater dehumanization and exploitation.

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