Hillbilly Elitism

The American hillbilly isn’t suffering from a deficient culture. He’s just poor.

Dry Fork, Kentucky. Michael Vines / Flickr

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis comes highly recommended: National Review executive editor Reihan Salam, Silicon Valley scion Peter Thiel, and “tiger mother” Amy Chua all wrote glowing jacket blurbs. Positive reviews have since appeared across the conservative press, in Salam’s National Review — where Vance regularly contributes — the American Conservative, and the Weekly Standard. David Brooks hailed Hillbilly Elegy in a New York Times op-ed that calls for a “better form of nationalism.”

The outpouring of right-wing support shouldn’t be surprising. Vance, after all, is one of them, and Hillbilly Elegy staunchly defends the up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale that capitalism has always used to win support from the underclasses.

But of course, the book is not aimed at that underclass (few books are), but rather a middle- and upper-class readership more than happy to learn that white American poverty has nothing to do with them or with any structural problems in American economy and society and everything to do with poor folks’ inherent vices.

The White Ghetto

The timing of Vance’s book is interesting, considering that it appeared on the heels of the National Review’s recent attacks on the rural white underclass. Kevin Williamson’s 2014 exploration of poverty in Owsley County, Kentucky — which sits next to Breathitt County, Vance’s birthplace and is one of Hillbilly Elegy’s primary settings — was a kind of coming out of the closet for the magazine’s disdain for this class and its supposed self-imposed degradation.

The magazine’s sudden viciousness toward a population once cheered as the “Reagan Democrats” comes after the white working class flocked to Donald Trump’s revanchist sado-nationalism. Observers like Jeet Heer have clearly linked the National Review’s disdain to the white poor to their fear that Trump is taking over American conservatism, a development they are none too pleased about.

Subsequently, Vance has been pressed into service, doing the rounds of radio and television trying to explain Trump’s appeal to “hillbilly” Americans like himself. With or without Trump, National Review conservatives have decided to display their previously hidden disgust for retrograde whites.

On its face, Elegy’s portrait starkly contrasts with Williamson’s overtly vicious attack. But Vance shares the view that poor whites are bound by their regressive culture. Read Hillbilly Elegy and you will find that “American Dream” is one of Vance’s favorite phrases, although it is rarely explained and readers are left to decide for themselves what the phrase entails. Vance’s publisher calls the book a “multi-generational journey from Appalachia to Yale Law School — two worlds that couldn’t be farther apart.”

By highlighting the distance between the two, Vance can better advance the book’s thesis: that his accomplishments came from hard work and the traditional values instilled in him by a relatively normative family situation provided by his “hillbilly” grandparents (in contrast to his dissolute, substance-abusing parents). Vance’s personal story permits him to claim the term hillbilly, then scold his fellow hillbillies for their cultural and moral failings.

Blaming Everyone But Themselves

“Hillbilly” is a word most Americans are familiar with, with a history going back at least as far as the Gilded Age. In Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, historian Anthony Harkins explains, hillbilly is just one of “dozens of similar labels  . . .  and ideological and graphic constructs of poor and working-class southern whites coined by middle- and upper-class commentators, northern and southern.”

Epithets like this allowed a “non-rural, middle-class, white, American audience” to “imagine a romanticized past, while simultaneously enabling the same audience to  . . .  caricatur[e] the negative aspects of premodern, uncivilized society.” Meanwhile, white rural people “reappropriated” the term and others like it (e.g., redneck, brush ape, poor white trash, cracker) “as badges of class and racial identity and pride.”

The term’s popularity survived the era of multiculturalism, Harkins explains, because “[t]he hillbilly’s whiteness  . . .  allowed the image to serve as a seemingly apolitical site” where “[white] producers could portray images of poverty, ignorance, and backwardness without raising cries of bigotry and racism from civil rights advocates and the black and minority communities.”

For over a century, hillbilly has been used liberally but has likely never been applied to a nonwhite person. It not only denotes whiteness, but also implicitly acknowledges an intra-racial hierarchy (in which, it goes without saying, hillbillies are on the bottom, thanks to their rejection of bourgeois modes of behavior) within it.

Vance spells out his thesis in the introduction: conditions beyond their control brought economic hard times to white Americans, but their preexistent “hillbilly culture” dictates that they react to “bad circumstances in the worst way possible.”

“There is a lack of agency here,” Vance writes, “a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” Whites, especially young adult males, react to economic crisis with violence or substance abuse rather than escaping their “socially isolated” environment to, say, Yale Law School as Vance did through the support of his always hardworking, always colorful, grandparents.

The story follows the Horatio Alger template, extolling the virtues of “hillbilly culture” while simultaneously scolding it for its flaws. Vance exploits what Christopher Lasch once called the “confessional style” of writing, but for the opposite effect. Lasch lambasted the confessionalist for seeking “not to provide an objective account of a representative piece of reality but to seduce others into giving him their attention, acclaim, or sympathy.”

In contrast, Vance asserts not only that he objectively recounts his own biography, but also that it epitomizes the white working-class experience. If faced with empirical evidence that suggests his experience is more exception than rule, he can always fall back on the position that Hillbilly Elegy is simply his own personal “journey” — a brilliant, infuriating paradox for anyone looking to criticize him for what they might be interpret as his arguments about “hillbillies” as a group.

Vance and his family call themselves hillbillies by virtue of their residency in “Greater Appalachia” — a term he borrows, without attribution, from Colin Woodard’s “Eleven Nations” theory (though he does support his point with a quote from Hank Williams, Jr). Vance uses “hillbilly ” uncritically to describe the people in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio, and — following Woodward — takes the whiteness of his subjects as a given. He dismisses the usefulness of a discussion about race early on: “I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.”

This is five pages after establishing that “hillbilly culture” is a product of its residents’ “Scots-Irish” ethnicity, a strain for whom “poverty is the family tradition” and the “intense sense of loyalty” and “a fierce dedication to family and country” are leavened with xenophobia and a proclivity toward fighting. Vance sets aside the region’s economic trials and tribulations — to say nothing of the Indian wars or slavery — arguing that this ethnicity fundamentally shaped the area.

He cites a 2012 Discover article for his grossly ahistorical description of Scots-Irish tendencies, but his general assessment echoes Jim Webb’s Born Fighting as well as the work of historians David Hackett Fischer, Forrest McDonald, and Grady McWhiney. The latter two each served as directors of the white nationalist League of the South, an organization that continues to embrace the “Celtic thesis” of white southern society.

This piece of Vance’s analysis smacks of racial determinism, even if “culture” replaces biology in his account. Moreover, his argument falls prey to the same circular logic as the theory’s other proponents. In their contribution to Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction, Euan Hague and Edward Sebesta describe Celtic (or Scots-Irish) culture as a packet of elements “available for reinterpretation and appropriation based on whatever meaning is useful.”

Elements that do not meet the required vision of a Celtic culture can be omitted, whereas others — such as the propensity for violence — can be heralded. That a certain behavior (e.g., violence) is taken as evidence of an individual acting on their Celtic culture thus becomes self-fulfilling: a person exhibiting Celtic behavior is Celtic because the behavior they are exhibiting is Celtic. Not only does this assume a homogenous Celtic culture, but it also suggests that individuals are beholden to their culture when acting in the world.

But Vance now works in Silicon Valley, where neo-Confederate sympathies are considered gauche, so it’s unlikely that this explanation accounts for his use of Webb, McDonald, and McWhiney. Rather, Scots-Irish, hillbilly, and even the term “culture” serve as shorthand that make for a much simpler story than one that explores the contingencies of Appalachian poverty.

After all, the children and grandchildren of Scottish and Irish immigrants live all over the United States; they have married descendants of other nationalities; they are as likely to be rich as they are to be poor. In eastern Kentucky, however, locals of all ethnicities are subject to a continuity of poverty that goes back to the nineteenth century.

And the problems experienced by Greater Appalachia’s residents extend nationwide. To be sure, places with unusually low wages and nonexistent or failing infrastructure — places like Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio — experience them more intensely.

Thomas Frank has called this the “gradual Appalachification of much of the United States”: a leveling of wages and expectations in places distant from Vance’s current home in San Francisco — the most gentrified city in the United States — but certainly not confined to white Americans in the Ohio River Valley. Vance’s view of poverty has profound racial and geographic limits that curtail his ability to understand it.

Even if he truly believes that Appalachian poverty is somehow exceptional, he did not delve into the wealth of scholarship on the subject. Sociologists Dwight Billings and Kathleen Blee’s meticulously researched study of Clay County, Kentucky, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia, demonstrates that elite families dominated local industry and politics, laying the groundwork for a permanent low-wage economy before the Civil War.

Likewise, historian John R. Burch’s Owsley County, Kentucky, and the Perpetuation of Poverty comes to similar conclusions about the very county Williamson lampooned. (No great defender of the welfare state himself, Burch also shows how local elites used New Deal and Great Society programs to their own venal purposes.)

Unlike in Hillbilly Elegy, in these two books, concrete human action — particularly wealthy whites’ mastery over local politics — explains the grinding poverty that is universally associated with eastern Kentucky. In turn, the “hillbillies” suffer under hegemonic and market conditions beyond their control, not the diktats of ancestral origin.

Of course neither Williamson nor Vance consider these authors, perhaps because they argue that eastern Kentucky residents’ greatest mistake isn’t wallowing in poverty — as Vance suggests — but following the lead of economic elites.

Instead, Hillbilly Elegy invites us to return to the “culture of poverty” theory popularized by Michael Harrington, Oscar Lewis, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1950s and 1960s. Moynihan, especially, was accused of crafting his proposals around innately racist preconceptions about black families involving single mothers, child abandonment, drug use, and other forms of wantonness that Vance also details in his personal narrative.

By virtue of their whiteness, the images of hydrocodone-addicted “rednecks” become, in the words of Harkins, set apart from politics. Like all other Americans, Vance’s subjects are categorized by their productivity as workers. The author is worried that they aren’t as productive workers as they could be.

Vance’s is an argument that conservatives like Kevin Williamson can get behind because capitalism requires its mudsill. Liberals might also be interested too, since they don’t consider “hillbillies” their political allies and, in cities like Knoxville, Tennessee, they do not properly clean up their yards when academics move to their neighborhood (or so I have been told by more than one liberal colleague).

Vance’s solutions reflect his somewhat milquetoast right-center political commitments. He suggests school vouchers “administered in a way that doesn’t segregate the poor into little enclaves,” so that poor kids can learn to imitate their wealthier classmates. Citing the “outsize role” the extended hillbilly family plays, he also proposes that social services loosen regulations on foster parentage so that grandparents, aunts, and uncles can help endangered children. “Our country’s social services weren’t made for hillbilly families,” he writes.

It’s a somewhat eccentric but fairly harmless idea. But at no point does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement.

Such suggestions would interfere with Vance’s aims in writing Hillbilly Elegy. The book is primarily a work of self-congratulation, a literary victory lap, and a vindication of a minimalist safety net. Little surprise that David Brooks is such a fan.

Condescension overpowers the love Vance expresses for his family and the “crazy hillbillies” back home. His book ultimately illustrates the oxymoron capitalism and its defenders require: any hard-working individual can rise to the top, but, at any given time, far more individuals must remain on the bottom.

Hillbilly Elegy is misnamed. Elegies are poems dedicated to the dead. The American hillbilly isn’t dead; he’s just poor. The book should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly — he wants to make him a good worker.