Although Vance’s mother moved constantly for reasons he could never understand as a child, he always memorized his address in case he got lost. But he felt that his true home always remained the same: Jackson, Kentucky, a small town in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky. Vance spent every summer until he was twelve in Jackson, a community he learned was very cohesive. When a hearse would pass on the street, everybody would stop. Vance once asked his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, why this was the case, and she responded, “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we respect our dead.”
When Mamaw told Vance that they were “hill people,” he received his first inclination that his family and community adhered to a strong, cohesive group identity. Because loyalty and honor are the strongholds of the hillbilly identity, it makes perfect sense that “hill people” “respect” their dead—just as they stand by one another on an everyday basis, they stand by one another in death. This ultimately underlined for J.D. just how important these values are in Appalachia.
In the 1940s, Mamaw moved with her husband—Vance’s Papaw—from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, leaving behind the Blantons, her large family, which was well-respected in Jackson. Vance remembers traveling from Middletown as a child to visit Mamaw’s mother and uncles, thankful for the retreat from Ohio, where he grew up. “In Jackson, I was the grandson of the toughest woman anyone knew and the most skilled auto mechanic in town,” he writes. “In Ohio, I was the abandoned son of a man I hardly knew and a woman I wished I didn’t.” Whereas at home men flitted in and out of his life—briefly and disastrously dating or marrying his mother—in Kentucky he was part of a tight-knit family, admiring people like Uncle Teaberry, a mean old great-uncle who he both feared and admired, and Uncle Pet, a man who fully embodied hillbilly loyalty and honor.
Vance makes it perfectly evident that Jackson, Kentucky stood for everything he wished he had in his daily life in Ohio. In his description of the town and his relatives who lived in it, hillbilly virtues come to life. This gives readers an indication—by way of negation—that his childhood in Middletown sorely lacked stability and left the young Vance very little with which he could identify.
Vance’s great-uncles used to tell him stories when he visited Jackson. One story, for example, spoke of a truck driver called Big Red. When Big Red was delivering a shipment and told Uncle Pet, “Off-load this now, you son of a bitch,” Pet responded, “When you say that, you’re calling my dear old mother a bitch, so I’d kindly ask you speak more carefully.” Big Red refused to take back what he said, instead repeating the insult. Uncle Pet dragged the man from his truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw over his body. Big Red almost bled to death, but was rushed to the hospital and survived. Because he was, like Uncle Pet, “an Appalachian man,” he refused to press charges. After all, “he knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.”
Despite the fact that Jackson represented a positive familial influence on Vance’s life, it’s also clear that it embodied certain unfortunate aspects about hillbilly culture. Indeed, the hillbilly investment in loyalty and honor often leads to violence. Worse, this violence is condoned by the culture, as evidenced by the fact that Big Red didn’t press charges against Uncle Pet because he “knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.” There are, it seems, no consequences for violent behavior, so long as the violence itself reinforces hillbilly values.
Another family story goes as follows: when Mamaw was twelve, she walked outside and saw two men trying to steal the Blantons’ cow, so she went inside, grabbed a rifle, and started shooting. One of the men collapsed after a bullet hit him in the leg. The other fled, jumping into the truck and screeching away. By the time Uncle Pet came outside to see what was going on, Mamaw was standing over the thief with the rifle aimed at his head. Uncle Pet stopped his younger sister, but Vance is convinced she would have pulled the trigger because “she loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.” Despite the vice these stories conveyed, Vance loved listening to them because they communicated a sense of “hillbilly justice” that placed him and his family firmly on “the right side” of “classic good-versus-evil” tales.
Once again, storytelling bolsters the hillbilly identity and imbues it with violent overtones. It’s interesting that Vance saw these tales as placing his family members on the “right side” of each dispute, even though they were the ones to escalate each situation by quickly resorting to violence. This clearly didn’t matter to the young J.D., and, as such, violence was framed as a means by which somebody could enforce “hillbilly justice.” Rather than framing fighting as something to avoid, his family framed it as a way of doing the right thing.
Vance explains that Appalachia has taken a turn for the worse in terms of poverty and drug abuse. In recent trips to Jackson, he has noticed an increase in decrepit buildings, and statistics tell him of prescription drug epidemics and failing public school systems. These unfortunate circumstances have led Appalachians to embrace a closed-off attitude; they detest any form of national attention placed on the community’s plight, and insist on “avoiding” their problems by “pretending better truths exist.” And Vance writes that these problems aren’t limited to Jackson or even to Appalachia, due to large-scale migrations from the region to states like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. “If the problems start in Jackson,” he writes, “it is not entirely clear where they end.”
Yet again, Vance expresses uncertainty regarding the nature of the problems plaguing his community. The fact that it is “not entirely clear” where these problems end makes it harder to address them in the first place. This kind of ambiguity ultimately enables working-class hillbillies to simply accept their circumstances, allowing themselves to pretend “better truths exist.” Vance, though, is unsatisfied by this complacent attitude, and it is this dissatisfaction that drives his quest in Hillbilly Elegy to examine the specific nature of the working class’s problems.