J.D. Vance begins his memoir by confessing that he still finds it absurd that anybody would want to buy his book. He writes that he’s thirty-one and hasn’t accomplished anything truly fantastic or extraordinary in his life. Yes, he graduated from Yale Law School—something he never could have imagined as a boy—but many people graduate from Yale every year. Vance tells readers that he isn’t a politician or the innovative founder of a billion-dollar company, so he didn’t write Hillbilly Elegy because of his accomplishments. Rather, he wrote the book to help people “understand what happens in the lives of the poor.” Having grown up poor in an Ohio town in America’s Rust Belt, his prospects were “grim.” Nonetheless, he found a way to beat the odds and, because of that, now wants to show the world “how upward mobility really feels.”
Vance establishes early in his introduction his interest in exploring both the path of upward mobility and what happens after somebody migrates from one socioeconomic class to another. By calling his prospects as a young boy “grim,” he recognizes the cynicism people often feel when faced with the idea of rising out of poverty and shows that even he—who ended up being successful—was not immune to this kind of pessimism. Furthermore, his desire to help outsiders “understand what happens in the lives of the poor” indicates his belief that America’s class divide is first and foremost a social problem that can be addressed with open communication and empathy.
Vance briefly outlines the demographic history of America’s white working class. He makes clear that racial categories are unhelpful when it comes to understanding the kind of poverty he comes from, saying that, though he is white, he doesn’t identify with “the WASPs of the Northeast.” Rather, he comes from “the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.” For these people, he writes, “poverty is the family tradition,” and they have incredibly strong cultural values, which outside observers have characterized as “persistent” and “unchanging.” Loyalty is one of these values, an intense “cultural tradition” that sometimes goes too far, causing hillbillies—as Vance calls them—to distrust outsiders or different ways of thinking.
The fact that Vance traces the hillbilly identity back to his community’s roots illustrates his belief that one must fully consider a group of people in order to understand them. It’s too easy, he suggests, to simply put people into convenient categories based on race or economic standing—instead, one ought to investigate a community’s origins in the hopes of discovering the things that contribute to its group identity. Ironically, the hillbilly distrust of outsiders makes it difficult to do this, ultimately isolating them from the greater U.S. population.
The first Scots-Irish immigrants to live in the United States arrived in the 18th century and found themselves drawn to the Appalachian Mountains, which run from Alabama to parts of New York state. Although this region is quite large, Vance remarks that “the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive.” Unfortunately, though, the region is currently plagued by “low social mobility,” “poverty, “divorce,” and “drug addiction.” As a result, the white working class has developed a deep sense of pessimism, a cynicism that studies have shown surpasses that of any other group in America. While Vance agrees that “reality permits some degree of cynicism,” he believes something else is going on—something about the hillbilly attitude is fueling this pessimism in an unproductive manner.
Once again, Vance demonstrates the importance of turning to history to understand present-day trends. In doing so, though, he finds a disconnect between the “cohesive” community of Greater Appalachia and the problems of low social mobility, poverty, divorce, and drug addiction that afflict modern-day “hillbillies.” This serves as the basis of his investigation into hillbilly culture, prompting him to explore his own personal history in conjunction with what’s going on in the community at large.
The summer before he attended Yale Law School, Vance took a job at a local floor tile distributing company, where he hauled heavy materials with eleven other employees. The work was exhausting, but he needed the money before moving to New Haven, and the pay and benefits were good. A few months after he started, a nineteen-year-old boy came looking for a job to support his pregnant girlfriend. The manager not only hired him, but also gave his girlfriend an administrative position. But it wasn’t long before the girlfriend regularly stopped attending work. She was eventually fired. The boy stayed on, though he himself skipped work at least once a week and took four bathroom breaks per day, often for more than thirty minutes at a time. When he too was fired, he was incensed, yelling at his manager: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?”
In telling this story about this boy and his pregnant girlfriend, Vance shows the lack of personal agency that he recognizes as a characteristic quality in the hillbilly community. The boy’s question, “How could you do this to me?” reveals a mindset unwilling to admit fault. Rather than accepting that he had squandered his own opportunities, the boy decided to project blame onto his surrounding environment and onto the immediate structures of power around him. This ultimately robbed him of any form of agency, framing the situation as something that acts upon him rather than as something he has the power to control.
This nineteen-year-old imminent father was no anomaly: two other people were fired from or quit their jobs at the tile factory during the short time Vance worked there. Vance believes stories like these indicate that something troubling is going on in working-class America. While economists worry that the industrial Midwest is in decline due to the fact that manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, Vance points out that there is another problem afoot in Appalachia. He writes that Hillbilly Elegy is about “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible,” a book that reveals “a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” His time in the tile business showed him that young hillbillies are not taking responsibility for their situations, preferring instead to blame their misfortune on other people or on abstract structures of power.
Again, Vance portrays the problems of the working class as rooted in bad attitudes that enable people to avoid assuming responsibility for their own actions. At the same time, though, he acknowledges that circumstances aren’t ideal for them, and that upward mobility and personal agency aren’t easy to attain. However, while this might be the case, the easiest thing to address and change is the hillbilly attitude regarding these circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. Unfortunately, though, Vance’s fellow hillbillies appear unwilling to do so, instead preferring to respond to their unfavorable situations in what he sees as “the worst way possible.”
Vance reiterates that Hillbilly Elegy is a book that draws upon his own experiences. He isn’t an academic, he writes, nor is he unbiased. Although his memoir takes into account certain statistics and generalizations, he primarily relies on his own experiences to assemble an image of working-class America. He writes that he has tried to remain as true as possible to reality and that, though many of the characters contained in his book are extremely flawed—addicted to drugs and violent—he loves them because they’re “just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way.”
By emphasizing the fact that the story he’s about to tell is real, Vance intensifies the emotional impact of his tale while also revealing his potential weaknesses as a narrator: because he lived with these characters, he is naturally biased. After all, he himself identifies as a hillbilly. This is an important thing to acknowledge in the introduction of an ethnographic memoir like Hillbilly Elegy because it allows the book to be what it should be—a subjective (albeit informed) account rather than an objective study.