Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. D. Vance

J.D. Vance was born in the Appalachian region of Ohio in the mid-1980s. The grandson of what he calls “hillbilly” grandparents, he grew up witnessing his mother’s drug addiction and restless lifestyle. Because of this, his grandparents played a large role in his life, teaching him the “hillbilly” values they themselves learned growing up in eastern Kentucky. Despite the environment he grew up in, which set a precedent for drug use and domestic abuse, Vance managed to escape the poverty of his youth. He enrolled in the Marines after graduating high school and eventually served the United States in the Iraq War. Upon returning, he attended Ohio State University and, later, Yale Law School. He then proceeded to work as a venture capitalist before founding a nonprofit called Our Ohio Renewal, which focuses on the state’s opioid problem. In addition to his role at Our Ohio Renewal, he now regularly appears on CNN.
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Historical Context of Hillbilly Elegy

Many readers come to Hillbilly Elegy hoping it will help them understand the events of the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump won the favor of white working-class voters—a fact that significantly contributed to his victory. But Vance’s book focuses more on his own life and on the problems the hillbilly community faces than on the reasons white poor people gravitated toward Trump. When he does evoke politics, it is most often to explain his suspicion that federal policy reform will be able to effectively address Appalachia’s problems, which he believes deserve to be treated on a smaller, more social level. At the same time, Vance quickly mentions the fact that the older generation of hillbillies were traditionally democrats because they believed the Democratic party fought for the “working man”; however, he does not spend time analyzing Appalachia’s shift from the Democratic to Republican parties. Although Vance doesn’t concern himself with political history, he does outline some key points of the United States’s economic history. In particular, he tracks the prominence of Armco, a steel manufacturing company in Middletown, Ohio. Armco opened its doors in 1900 and began recruiting workers in nearby regions, including Jackson, Kentucky. Vance uses Armco as an example of something that attracted people to the “industrial Midwest” from Appalachia. There were, he writes, “two major waves” of this migration, one after World War I “when returning veterans found it nearly impossible to find work in the not-yet-industrialized mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee,” and another in the 1940s and ’50s. By the time Vance was a child, Armco employed a significant amount of Middletown’s population. As a result, many high school students assumed they could stay in their hometown and find gainful employment, an attitude that has become perhaps too unrealistic in contemporary times, when America is still recovering from the Great Recession of 2008, which significantly slowed down the country’s manufacturing output. In addition to young people’s unfounded optimism that they’ll be able to secure a job at Armco, Vance laments that this attitude keeps Middletown’s youth from aspiring toward true upward mobility.

Other Books Related to Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy examines a population of the United States that is often overlooked in mainstream culture: poor white people in rural areas. The scope of its investigation ranges from the first half of the 20th century to 2016, but because it is also about J.D. Vance’s upbringing, it spends most of its efforts considering the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s. But the contemporary interest in the origins of “hillbilly” poverty goes beyond Vance’s personal life, a fact made clear by books like Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, which was also published in 2016. In White Trash, Isenberg puts more emphasis on studying history to understand the class divides in America, going all the way back to the 17th century to explain the current perception of hillbillies in the United States. Another thematically related book is Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. To write her account of rural poverty, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California. Whereas Vance focuses on general attitudes rather than on politics, Hochschild seeks to understand how and why the working-class has so strongly migrated from the left to the right of the political spectrum. As such, it’s easy to see that all three of these books approaches the same interest in hillbilly culture with a different focus: one is autobiographical, one is historical, and another is pointedly political.
Key Facts about Hillbilly Elegy
  • Full Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
  • When Published: June 28, 2016
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Non-fiction
  • Genre: Memoir, Autobiographical Ethnography
  • Setting: Middletown, Ohio and the greater Appalachian region
  • Climax: Because Hillbilly Elegy follows the shape of J.D. Vance’s life, there isn’t one climax that stands out in particular. Rather, the book consists of many smaller moments of tension, often revolving around his mother’s drug use and the domestic violence he witnessed as a child.
  • Antagonist: The cyclical nature of Appalachian poverty, which leads many working-class Americans to refuse responsibility for their own shortcomings, an attitude that makes it easier for them to continue thoughtlessly abusing drugs and fighting with one another.
  • Point of View: First-person narration from Vance’s perspective.

Extra Credit for Hillbilly Elegy

Film. Ron Howard, the director of A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code (among other films) is set to direct a movie version of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.