As part of my Introduction to Miami class, we were required to read the Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir written by J. D. Vance. Even though it was a ‘mandatory’ read, I enjoyed Vance’s intermingled story of his childhood and his analysis of the biggest problems plaguing his community. It is both a tale of tragic undoing and personal triumph, of sub-cultural devastation and unique opportunities.
Yet, even while maintaining a strong sense of personal narrative, I certainly have some critiques for Vance’s style of narration. Specifically, his propagation of hillbilly stereotypes in the whole of Appalachia.
What I liked the most about this book was his matter-of-fact tone and his ability to look past his mom and family’s sometimes disappointing behavior and understand the aspects of their less fortunate childhoods that lead them to act in that way; his mom’s substance abuse wasn’t wholly the result of her erratic adulthood (although she was at least partially to blame). To paraphrase Vance: he felt anger for the present that she chose, but sympathy for the childhood she couldn’t help.
J.D. Vance really delves deep into the almost total isolation of his culture, and explained the differences between ignorance, lack of opportunities, and lack of the tools necessary to profit from those opportunities. But, instead of limiting this to his own experience, he carries it forward and suggests in a ‘preachy’ way that this is the same for all of people like this.
Furthermore, I feel like in some ways, Vance, though proclaiming his own humility, seemed to be a little arrogant. He often deprecated himself by saying he had accomplished nothing, then a few pages later, went on to highlight how much he had done as a Yale student, in the marines, etc. I feel like some parts of ignorance were a little exaggerated; like the fact that he didn’t know he had to wear a suit to an interview, yet he had already spent years in college and in the marines. Also, the fact that after spending so much time being educated, he still felt like it was acceptable to jump out of his car and attempt to attack someone at an intersection after they cut him off.
Even though in some ways this is a ‘problem’ memoir that faces a lot of backlash for its over-simplifying and often insulting portrayal of Appalachian culture, I would still recommend this read whether you are from a similar past or not. I still believe that we could learn from Vance’s words so long as we don’t take his words as truth for an entire subgroup of today’s American society.
Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? What were your thoughts on the book? Comment below!