book review

Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance
reviewed by T. J. Nelson

book review

Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance
Reviewed by T.J. Nelson

I t's an indication of how much America has changed that the way of life depicted in J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy now seems exotic and interesting to so many people. To me his reminiscences of growing up poor in small town Ohio seem perfectly ordinary and unexciting. He wasn't really poor. He didn't spend hours shivering outside in the cold to avoid being abused. He didn't have to shovel coal or steal food like some of the kids I grew up with. And he even had a street address, unlike those of us whose address just ended with RD#1. To someone like me who thought Punxsutawney PA was an exciting bustling Southern city, J.D. Vance would be a typical rich city slicker.

Where we were, on the northern edge of the Appalachians, it was too cold for the luxury of a fancy Southern twang. The only ones who ever said “Well, Doggies!” were the kids who heard it on TV. But we did have hillbillies, or as we called them, poor people. They had their own dialect, and we all understood it.

The Appalachian dialect (or what might be called ‘Ivronics’) is interesting—Scots-Irish are one of our oldest ethnic groups, and they've been geographically isolated. They've dropped the imperfect and past tense: He run off and never come back. They've added new auxiliary verbs: He take my dog and done killed him. And sometimes they make everything plural, as if keenly aware of the multiverse, or they use conditionals instead of past tense, as if the past were uncertain: Vance's paw weren't no Jed Clampett.

But J.D.'s story isn't about language or poverty. It's certainly not about race. It's about downward and upward mobility, about how easy it is to get the former, and how our cultural upbringing creates invisible barriers to the latter, and how everyone thinks those barriers are structural and racial but they're really about an attitude and a behavior pattern that Vance, or anyone else, has to learn in order to become successful.

Vance calls himself a hillbilly, not because he lived in a trailer with a broken air conditioner hanging out the window, or because he spent his days drinkin' beer and shootin' at stuff while his dog ran around loose and barked all day and night, but because his unfamiliarity with upper-class behavior patterns made him like a catfish out of mud when he tried to enter ritzy Yale society.

The term hillbilly implies rural or farm dweller. But all that cussin' reveals the truth: to my ear it marks him as a city slicker. Maybe the poor cussed more way down south in Ohio, but where I lived nobody ever cussed, not even the plumber. Vance writes of his Mamaw:

Mamaw began to shut herself off from the outside world. Neighborhood kids warned the mailman to avoid the ‘evil witch’ of McKinley Street. When the mailman ignored their advice, he met a large woman with an extra-long menthol cigarette hanging out of her mouth who told him to stay the fuck off of her property.

Yep, them there's city slickers talkin'... er, sorry, a big piece of grass got stuck in my mouth. I meant yes, that's an urban speech pattern.

The most priceless possessions of hillbillies are their sense of right and wrong and their close-knit ties. But an unraveling culture loses its virtue first: their religion and their economy are shrinking, and now they cuss and take drugs. Thanks to the government and the economy, their family structure is breaking down. As they adopt more city mannerisms, they change from hillbillies into what we used to call white trash. But there's nothing unique about their plight. Rich urbanites should know: this is their future, too.

Kevin Williamson wrote a review of Hillbilly Elegy in this month's Commentary where he pretty much echoes the idea first expressed in his NRO column that poor white communities deserve to die because their industry is gone and because they have a drug problem, but mainly because they support Donald Trump.

Maybe they have a rule there that every article has to bash Trump. But what Vance is talking about is not economic poverty or politics but a culture clash. All behavior is communication. For Vance to succeed, he had to learn the language. Just as important, he had to overcome his learned helplessness.

Williamson writes:

Imagine these people living on minimum wage or welfare. Imagine them living in a black ghetto in Detroit rather than a white ghetto in Ohio.

As they say on the Internet, whoosh!

We talk about poor whites because it's one of the few things we're still allowed to talk about honestly. If KW had substituted black for white in his infamous article, his magazine would'a' dropped him faster than a crawdad in a chilly skinny-dippin' pond that clamped itself onto your willie, and he'd'a finded hisself a-writin' his articles next to a guy named Derb in a rundown unpainted shack with a lawn overgrown with weeds and his rusty Buick up on cinder blocks next to a big pile of coal in his dirt driveway.

He goes on to say:

The decline of the Scots-Irish communities whose submersion in atavistic hinterland folkways keeps them in poverty even when they are not, strictly speaking, poor. ... despite Vance's best efforts, [it contains] very little to support a case for hope.

To that I must keep my mouth shut, lest my old Granny hear me, come back from the grave, drag me by the earlobe out to the sink, and make me wash my mouth out with soap. Vance's message is that there's a cultural language that has to be learned, and if your relatives don't teach you you have to learn it yourself. That means anybody can. And IQ don't have nothin' ta do with it.

Last edited nov 04, 2016 7:49 am

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Hillbilly Elegy
by J. D. Vance

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