Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

Vance_review_20190903J.D. Vance.[1]2018. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: Harper.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the middle of the Second World War in 1944 a group of world leaders met in Breton Woods, New Hampshire to craft a monetary agreement that would come into effect after the war. In the agreement, the United States pegged the dollar to gold at a price of $26 per ounce. That agreement came to an end in 1971 when the United States announced that it could no longer defend the value of the dollar with gold. From that point forward, the rock-solid U.S. economy has been in transition.

Many people that took the opportunity to educate themselves and invest their money wisely during those prosperous years after the war pulled themselves out of poverty; others did not. In this latter case, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy sees “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Ironically, he sees his own struggle with dysfunctionality paralleling that of other minority groups in America that have not moved ahead in spite of ample opportunity.


Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of one man who defied a legacy of isolation, poverty, and a dysfunctional family culture to become educated and gainfully employed. Of his background, Vance writes:

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree … Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”(3)

In his description, Vance goes on to cite social isolation:

“Our religion has changed—built around churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well. Many of us have dropped out of the labor force or have chosen not to relocate for better opportunities. Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.”(4-5)

Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the changes that churches have undergone to reinforce this dysfunctional culture. He does, however, emphasize the oasis offered by his grandparents—in spite of their own obvious dysfunctions—that allowed him to graduate from high school and the encouragement they gave to his higher education (e.g. 253).

Detailed Dysfunction

Vance calls his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw, terminology used exclusively by his hillbilly community (23). Mamaw and Papaw grew up in Jackson, Kentucky but moved to Middletown, Ohio for fairly sketchy reasons—Bonnie was 16 and pregnant and James feared that her family would shoot him. Ohio offered the opportunity to find industrial work at Armco and join the middle class. Ironically, the pregnancy that prompted the move died in infancy (26-27).

Vance‘s mother was a nurse whose life was torn between an addiction and a never-ending rotation of men. Once he realized early in high school that the instability in his home life would never change, he moved in with his grandmother. He writes:

“Mamaw [a pistol-packing hillbilly] would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her.”(243)

Protected by his lunatic grandmother, Vance found stability in his high school years that allowed him to focus on his studies. He later joined the Marines which “taught me how to live like an adult”and enabled him to apply for Ohio State (174-77).

Ironically, he kept his relationship with his grandmother a secret, even from his close friends, because child protective services would not have honored this relationship and would probably have placed him in foster-care. He writes:

“Part of the problem is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role.”(243)

This outsize role arises because even in dysfunctional families there is often someone willing to look out for a child at risk and function as a surrogate parent.


J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a young man who grew up in hillbilly family and found his way to Ohio State University and Yale Law school despite all odds against him. The craziness of his life and family make this an interesting read. At the time of publication in 2016 the media made this book a cult classic because it seemed—quite unfairly—to epitomize the typical Donald Trump voter in a manner like “Joe Six-pack”or the “Silent Majority”used to describe poor white voters, forgotten by the media and mainstream politicians between elections. Nevertheless, Hillbilly Elegyis likely to become and remain a classic study of cultural dysfunction.


Vance Chronicles White Poverty in America

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