American elegy

Martin McClellan

November 29, 2016
Hillbilly Elegy is the first book in our new reading club Reading Through It, where we come together in partnership with The Seattle Weekly, and Third Place Books in Seward Park, to discuss how to move forward in Trump's America. Join us, Wednesday December 7th, and 7pm. All are welcome. You can RSVP on Facebook.

There are two kinds of poor people, JD Vance informs us. The first is the righteous poor — people who killed the cow to tan the leather to cobble the boots to add the straps by which to pull themselves up. His grandparents, for example. They were imperfect, but struggled, and their sense of self-reliance and gumption redeemed their (wholly excusable) lesser points. Namely, that they were "scary hillbillies" whose lineage traced back to the infamous Hatfields.

The other is type of poor person is the good-for-nothing, welfare-abusing, no-direction, lazy ungrateful poor. They don't pull themselves up, they lie about their income to buy cellphones with welfare dollars, and hustle penny-stakes by reselling those illicit items not covered by the moral authority of food stamps. They'd rather hustle than work. They watch big TVs and isolate themselves from good Americans of good standing who, by nature of their ethical centers, only want to rise.

Here are your two poor Americas. Now, reader of Hillbilly Elegy, which do you have empathy for?

My grandmother was born in England, so Vance, who was born and raised in Ohio, calling himself a hillbilly is analogous to me calling myself a Brit. British culture indeed infused my family: my mother is a shameless Anglophile, from her tea habit to the scores of Agatha Christie books on her shelf. But my mom is about as British in habit or nature as Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. On her father's side, after all, we can trace our line, indirectly, back to the Mayflower.

But culture is what we decide to inhabit, under the abstract pressure of "authenticity". My, perhaps more accurate, historical culture is California Republicanism, from both sides of my family. My maternal grandfather was a glass salesman with memberships to the Playboy Club. He had a jovial entertaining air, and knew how to show clients a good time. He also did all the cooking at home, and was, at times, primary care-giver for his three daughters.

My paternal grandparents were civic leaders, my grandfather was the first mayor of Carlsbad, California, where the airport is named for one of my uncles. They did not build vast fortunes, nor did they expect to. They were modest people who struggled at times, but built something as American as Vance's maternal grandparents (of his paternal grandparents, the book offers no mention). But they believed in commerce as a driver of culture. They believed in family, entertaining, and cultivating long meaningful friendships. They believed in civics, and civics was run by serious men in association: Republicans.

They come to mind when reading Vance because I wonder how much of their culture I carry, here in Seattle. What are my expectations for my life, compared to theirs, and at what point in my life did I decide that liberalism was a better match for the world I want to live in than conservatism? No doubt I was influenced by my parents, who were decidedly liberal. No doubt, I was influenced by my generation (X) and its dada-esque/punk reaction to sixties Baby Boomer libertines. But at some point, I made a choice to break away with the ethos or teachings of my grandparents. At some point I decided to become immersed in the modern world's problems, instead of replaying the echoes of the past.

Maybe, because Appalachia hillbillies were a conquered people kept impoverished through deliberate economic means, their culture holds fast harder than I can even imagine. But regardless, it was a choice for Vance to embrace it. It was an identity he was stepping into when he relates affectionately to his hillbilly roots. It's an identity he doubled-down on writing this book. It's an identity as easy to market as a red baseball cap, since we all know its particular flavor.

The word "hill" we understand; "billy" is a Scottish term, meaning fellow, or mate. The OED attributes the first use in print to a two lines from a 1773 poem, called "Hallow Fair" by Robert Fergusson:

Here chapmen billies take their stand,
An' shaw their bonny wallies.

Which describes a November fair, where "chapmen billies", or fellows with stalls at the market, "shaw their bonny wallies" — sell their best goods. It's appropriate that the word billy made its way across the Atlantic with the poor settlers who came from Scotland and Ireland and settled in the mountains of Appalachia.

The OED also lists the first use of "hill-billie", and it's from 1900 in, strangely, the New York Medical Journal:

In short, a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

If this isn't the coining of the term, it's certainly the first noted use of it. It came into common use quickly, in the early twentieth century, but took special socio-economic meaning during the depression, when the face of poverty was numerated across many poor white stereotypes, as the Wikipedia entry for white trash so ably describes:

In common usage, "White trash" overlaps in meaning with "cracker" (regarding Georgia and Florida), "hillbilly" (regarding Appalachia), "Okie" (regarding Oklahoma origins), and "redneck". The main difference is that "redneck," "cracker", "Okie", and "hillbilly" emphasize that a person is poor and uneducated and comes from the backwoods with little awareness of the modern world, while "White trash" emphasizes the person's moral failings.

Hillbilly music, aka country music, and later bluegrass when country started evolving, became popular, and many of the artists would play up their country roots, spreading the gospel of simple times and simple people. Performers like David "Stringbean" Akeman would dress up in the role of the country bumpkin rube, wearing his pants down around his thighs, playing clawhammer banjo, and singing tunes about fishing and hard times. Akeman was Earl Scruggs predecessor in Bill Monroe's band — they met playing semi-pro baseball, if you can believe it — and was tragically murdered with his wife by burglars in their Tennessee home in 1973.

Then, Hee Haw, Deliverance, and The Beverly Hillbillies came together to form a less perfect view of hillbilly life in the eyes of pop-culture, the kind of weird mix that's stayed with us through today.

But despite how far the term has come since 1900, with the exception of limiting the class to Alabama, that quote from the New York Medical Journal still holds pretty true to what Vance's idea of his grandparents meant.

I had affection for his grandparents. They are a certain American archetype — tough as nails, dedicated, driven, and hard working. They're independent, don't care what you think of them, and have a high standard of ethics to which they subscribe, cribbed from life-lessons, religion, and the general belief of how you treat people. There are many such stories in America, similar to the Scotch-Irish hillbillies Vance is enamored with. Many of the Scandinavian immigrants, for another white example, faced like struggles when they came to America. They, too, have histories of hard times, and how their mettle and personhood was forged in reaction to those hard times. But think about how many Mexican-American families could claim that same ethic, how many American Muslim families could?

As with many people in his book, you feel that you're missing the full story about his family. Vance's sister is so angelic that you feel the pulled punches — he obviously didn't want to tell stories on her. And the grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, seemed barely crazy in the stories on the page, when compared to the many times Vance tells us how feared they were. The characters didn't earn the reputations he assures us they carried, especially when weighed against the damage done to Vance's needy, troubled addict Mother.

But they certainly inhabited a certain American toughness that we love to eulogize (as if it's gone — it's not), and while some people find that most exemplified in stories, say, of Teddy Roosevelt's Hemingwayesque manliness, I like to think of his niece, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1958, the FBI asked her not to drive to Tennessee to attend a civil rights gathering. The KKK had threatened her life, and the FBI said she couldn't be protected. She drove herself, with a friend, a pistol on the seat between them, because she wanted to and no racist asshole was going to stop her. That's the kind of American spirit critics find missing in the younger generations. Our parents and grandparents worked so hard to give us easier lives, and then complained that those lives carved lesser gems than the pressures that forged the diamond-hard facets of their personhood.

Vance is a Yale-educated lawyer — he may have come from somewhere, but don't we have to ask at what point he left that place? Perhaps he left that place when he stepped into the Ivy League. The place he entered — the chapel of American exceptionalism and achievement — is available to us all, so we might hope. But it isn't, really. It's harder to reach for people of modest means, or non-white skin. And while Vance achieved access through hard work and grades in his undergraduate career on one hand (and, no doubt, from the novelty of a Marine in the stacks of applications), the very fact that he gained entrance points to his intelligence and ability.

My brother-in-law, who earned a PhD from Yale, fought some of the same battles Vance alludes to. He came from Montana, and would run into secluded East Coast academics who would say "Oh, I know someone in Idaho," as if the west were a small town and they all met at the diner. But, his advisor also, in an attempt to relate to him, read A River Runs Through It to have a point of common ground when he arrived. The environment was welcoming, and was less alienating about where he came from than the people back at home were when they tried to imagine his life in New Haven.

Neither my brother, nor Vance, left behind their past when they walked onto the storied campus. But they did enter an exclusive club — perhaps not one quite as exclusive as Skull & Bones, say — but one that still anointed them with certain prestige. It's ludicrous: for all of the talk of Vance not knowing what fork to use at a fancy lunch, he certainly didn't hesitate to trade on his alma mater when it meant the most to his financial future. He took interviews with those firms, after all, with starting salaries high enough to pay off an Ivy League tuition burden within a few years. He didn't take his law degree to go fight for the rights of the underprivileged poor in Appalachia. Being uncomfortable with the privilege you are draped in on doesn't make the cloth any less luxurious.

But Vance, who has the temerity to suggest more than once that Yale Law was easier than he expected, seems unaware of the depths of his own intelligence and privilege, and how much those things, as much as the lessons about application of diligent effort learned from his scary hillbilly grandparents, paved the road for his success.

How can we have all this poverty, still? Where have the jobs gone? Where have the factories gone? Vance has been called to speak on news shows, for his insight into Trump's America, but his touches on politics in the book are slight, and his insight into what created the parched earth of the Ohio his grandparents knew is eye-rolling in its simplicity. I find his voice most reedy when grappling with why our country voted against its best interests.

In a CNN interview, Vance said Vance said:

"Trump talking to those construction workers — nobody else is really talking to construction workers any more, talking about their concerns and the places that they live, so it's not surprising that they support him."

But that's not really true, unless you slip "exclusively white" in before "construction workers." After all, that's what we're really talking about, right? Alienated white voters? How many black or Latino or Muslim construction workers voted for Trump? Some, no doubt, who feel the same economic hardships as their white fellows, but this casual shorthand just illustrates the kind of glib thinking Vance brings in his approach to policy. His assumptions are full of assumptions, and he never challenges a single stereotype, not even the one in his book title.

In fact, Vance has little to offer other than "hard work and application can give you opportunities, even if you come from poverty. Just look at me!" He offers no examination of the systemic issues that drove that poverty; no look at the policies that drove those factories away; no look at the changing economy, at the lack of union opportunities today. Unions that, although he never mentions them, except a passing mention to a pension, his Papaw surely relied on.

And what would this book look like if he were black? Would Sharecropper Elegy, or Great Migration Elegy, or Housing Covenant Elegy be more considerate of the people around the story? Would it take a less restricted view of poverty? What deeper lessen might we have learned, and would that writer have been asked by the televised media to bridge an understanding to to some rural voter that no pollster, pundit, or, so it would seem, candidate truly saw coming?

The reason he should have looked at those things — and why we should expect such examination from those we elevate to spokespeople — is that the only way to address these issues is to honestly examine and understand them, even when they say uncomfortable things about our individual politics. American liberals are throat-deep in coping with uncomfortable truths right now. Vance's words are extra facile in this darkness, because he had an opportunity to illuminate, and instead he chose to trade on hackneyed stereotypes that mar with the slightest nail scratch. He's just singing The Mountains of Tennesee on the stage of Carnegie Hall.

But I guess it all breaks down on what kind of poor you are. There are two, remember, and one is good and the other bad. When we make laws that benefit them, Vance suggests, they should be the kind of laws that allow for the godly good poor to get a decent job (the other kind don't like work and won't even wake up on time to take the good job they were handed on a silver platter). The problem is opportunity, not poverty. The problem is how easy handouts makes addicts. (Of a type, that is. The other kinds of addicts make themselves.)

And Vance, a likable sort whose natural brightness allowed him to do so well despite his rough upbringing, knows what is good for the poor. Listen to him — he is only a few generations removed from the hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where once his people suffered so greatly. Where people still suffer, without the mines that, before labor laws, kept them in debt to the company store in a life-long scam.

Oh, that home where those suffering people cast a ballot for the red hat! Where those people want to Make America Great Again! Where Vance might someday return, if only for yet another funeral of someone who left, but who wants so badly to be buried back home.

Books in this review:
  • Hillbilly Elegy
    by JD Vance
    June 28, 2016
    272 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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