Vance writes that Mamaw and Papaw’s presence in his life was the best thing to ever happen to him. He then gives a brief overview of their personal histories. As a teenager, Papaw lived next to the Blantons with his grandfather, spending much of his time running around with the wild Blanton men (Vance’s great-uncles). It wasn’t long before he and Mamaw became involved romantically, and in 1946 Mamaw got pregnant at the age of 13. Papaw was 16 at the time. Fearful that the Blanton men would defend their little sister’s honor by harming Papaw, and hoping Ohio would provide them with better economic prospects, the young couple fled Jackson, but their child died within a week of having been born. Still, they stayed in Middletown, Ohio, where Papaw got a job at Armco, a steel company “that aggressively recruited in eastern Kentucky coal country” by promising hillbillies a better life.
In this summary of Mamaw and Papaw’s history, Vance considers both the economic and cultural factors that contributed to the young couple’s move to Ohio. On the one hand, they fled Jackson to escape the possible wrath of “hillbilly justice” meted out by the Blanton men. On the other hand, they left for more tangible economic reasons, since Kentucky coal country could only provide them with so much. This combination of economic and cultural considerations is a dynamic that runs throughout Hillbilly Elegy, as many working-class people experience financial burdens while also navigating the values their culture promotes.
Vance notes that Armco’s promise of a better life was, for the most part, true. He considers the two major waves of hillbilly migration from Appalachia to “the industrial powerhouse economies in the Midwest,” explaining that the first influx came after World War I, when veterans couldn’t find work in their rural communities due to the fact that these towns hadn’t been industrialized. Mamaw and Papaw, Vance points out, were part of the second wave of hillbilly migration, which occurred in the 1940s and ’50s. As such, they found themselves in a community of hillbillies despite the fact that they had left Kentucky. Still, though, they were estranged from their relatives back home, who resented them for getting “too big for [their] britches” by leaving behind “the stock they came from.” To combat this sentiment, they visited home often.
Hillbilly isolation in the Midwest is an important phenomenon to consider because it exacerbates the extent to which working-class people in these regions have difficulty moving beyond the boundaries of their own culture. Not only is it challenging to rise out of poverty, but the hillbilly values of loyalty and honor inspire a sense of guilt in anybody who manages to attain a semblance of upward mobility. As such, hillbillies are inhibited from climbing the socioeconomic ladder for fear of being thought of as traitors.
While Mamaw and Papaw’s relatives resented them for abandoning their home, their new neighbors “viewed them suspiciously.” To these middle-class Midwesterners, hillbillies represented an entirely different—and rather disagreeable—lifestyle, and they were unhappy to see their town flooded by such newcomers. Vance references a book called Appalachian Odyssey, which points out that “the disturbing aspect of hillbillies [to Midwesterners] was their racialness. Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit.” Furthermore, many hillbilly values were ill-suited for a place like Middletown, which was comprised of nuclear families who valued privacy. Hillbillies, on the other hand, were accustomed to barging into each other’s houses and involving themselves in each other’s affairs.
Vance builds upon the notion of hillbilly isolation, this time demonstrating that Appalachian emigrants are not only viewed as having betrayed their own culture, but are also actively kept out of the new communities to which they flock. Again, this makes upward mobility seemingly impossible, an attitude that further promotes cynicism within the working class when it comes to the prospect of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. By outlining this, Vance also emphasizes the cultural differences between hillbillies and middle-class populations. This encourages readers to consider the origins of this cultural clash rather than simply viewing the hillbillies as unfit for “civilized” life. In turn, he promotes an open-minded approach that prizes empathy and understanding.
Despite how hard it was to integrate into Middletown, Mamaw and Papaw slowly started to get used to their new life. In 1951 they had their first boy, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy. For a while they achieved something like domestic bliss, but things didn’t always work out well, usually due to their poor conflict-management skills. Once, when a young Jimmy was asked to leave a store after touching an expensive toy, Mamaw and Papaw barged in and cursed out the clerk before tearing items off the shelves and threatening to kill the employee. While Papaw was off at work, Mamaw felt isolated and alone, discontent with the middle-class expectation that she invest herself in “sewing circles” and “picnics.”
Mamaw and Papaw’s explosive rage at the store clerk once again demonstrates the unfortunate effect of hillbilly loyalty, which can so often lead to violence. It also emphasizes the divide they felt between themselves and the community they were suddenly expected to take part in. Unfortunately, because of their unstable home life, they were even at odds with themselves, leaving the family with no true means of support. They found themselves unable to fit into Middletown and equally unable to rely upon one another.
Although Mamaw and Papaw felt isolated from their culture, Middletown’s values aligned with their belief in hard work and the American dream, a conviction that politically manifested itself in a staunch support of the Democratic party, which they believed represented “the working people.” Mamaw used to tell Vance, “Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can do anything you want to.” Vance notes that this attitude was well-founded in the 1950s, when Mamaw’s generation suddenly catapulted from poverty to economic stability. But he also remarks that wealth didn’t necessarily change the hillbilly lifestyle; “[…] their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated,” he writes. Mamaw and Papaw escaped Kentucky to give their kids more opportunities to succeed—opportunities they expected their children to use to continue climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Unfortunately, Vance says, it didn’t always work that way.
Mamaw’s insistence that Vance not believe the deck was stacked against him illustrates her wise belief that members of the working class must have faith in themselves and that they must believe they are capable of overcoming difficult obstacles. In other words, she was promoting the idea of personal agency. The problem with the older generation’s expectation that their children rise above them, though, was that they themselves were the only models of success that their children could reference. As such, it was nearly impossible to imagine other modes of upward mobility, so the community’s growth stagnated after the productive economic surge in the 1950s.