On “Hillbilly Elegy”

Photo courtesy of Roger May.

The bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy” left out a lot of hillbillies. Big thanks to the Chicago Tribune for giving me a chance to sing their praises with the below essay.

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I have a lot in common with J.D. Vance, author of the new memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” We both grew up dirt poor in hillbilly households. We both ended up at Ivy League schools — Yale for him, Harvard for me — and somehow we both made our way into America’s urban, professional class. While he and I are cut from the same cloth, we look at our kinfolk, blue-collar people in the Appalachian South, and see wildly different things.

In his best-selling book, Vance shines an unforgiving light on hillbilly culture, using his own family as examples. I’ll never forget the description of his uncle taking an electric saw to a man, nearly killing him because the fella called him a son of a b—-, or the scene in which his grandparents trash a pharmacy after a clerk chastised their boy. To Vance, as a child, this was normal behavior. To the rest of us, these people seem unhinged.

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4 Comments

  • Edgar Shaffer (Monterville, Randolph County, West Virginia)

    Just finished “Hillbilly Elegy.” I’m 74, born in Central Pennsylvania and have lived in rural Appalachia West Virginia for the past 50 years. Get away from the larger villages and towns, and Vance prints a fairly accurate picture of our culture, behavior and sense of fatalism. You must leave to get away, and I don’t mean to an Appalachian ghetto in Charlotte, Cleveland or even Middletown, Ohio. Most just stay, quit school and find menial work and live hand to mouth. It’s tragic but little can be done. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, deceased, former US Senator and Counselor to Pres. Nixon wrote of “benign neglect” for areas of Appalachia to encourage out migration till the population settles at a point of equation with work available. Many can’t tear themselves away from extended families even thought communication and transportation are good enough to visit often.

  • Virginia

    I really identified with Mr Vance’s book and his characters. One of the reasons I left and came back to WV several times was because I kept hoping there would be a spark of hope, a silver lining, renewed determination not to be used and abused. It never happened until the area I’m from was discovered by outsiders, northerners. Now, all the things I hoped to see happen for Morgantown, are happening. It is an exciting place to visit and I’m sure a good place to live. The natives, some of them, are happy about the changes, some are not. I’ll never live there again but I’m so pleased every time I visit. It will always be home to be and I get a kick out these positive changes because it is so spectacularly beautiful place. Good people too.

  • Katie Hoffman

    You treat Vance gently and respectfully, while pointing out the biggest flaw in his book: the author’s broad-brush approach to painting the whole region. Thank you for bringing to the fore the fact that Appalachia is a much more complex and nuanced place than it appears in Hillbilly Elegy.

  • Jill

    I enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy, but also had some concerns about it’s generalized conclusions. Check out Vance’s NPR interview (Fresh Air w/Terry Gross). He was measured and engaging. That said, I love your review and appreciate the more positive spin on Appalachian culture. Loved the shout out to little Berea!

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