Hillbilly Elegy


J. D. Vance

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Armco Symbol Icon

The idea of upward mobility in Hillbilly Elegy is often wrapped up in discussions of Armco, a steel manufacturing company in Middletown, Ohio. After World War I, many working-class whites in the United States’ Appalachian region found that there weren’t enough jobs in the coal mines to support their families. During this period, industrial manufacturing was doing remarkably well in America, a development that lured mass waves of “hillbillies” out of Appalachia and into the industrialized Midwest. Companies like Armco even actively recruited employees in the hills of Kentucky, promising workers and their dependents economic stability. As such, Armco came to stand for opportunity in the eyes of people like Vance’s grandfather, Papaw, who moved to Middletown with Mamaw to escape Kentucky and start a new life.

At Armco, Papaw received steady wages that far surpassed anything he could have earned back home. This catapulted him and Mamaw to financial stability and allowed them to raise their children without having to fret over economic concerns. But because people like Papaw saw Armco as the first rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they didn’t want their children or grandchildren to work in the factory with them. “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” Papaw once told J.D. However, because his generation had pursued blue collar work, it couldn’t model for its children what it might look like to pursue an intellectually-oriented career. As such, the younger generation of hillbillies in the industrial Midwest found itself trapped between two poles: they’d been told that working at Armco was beneath them, but they weren’t given the necessary tools to continue their parents’ trajectory of upward mobility. To make matters worse, the majority of industrial manufacturing eventually went overseas, and although Armco didn’t close its doors, it certainly stopped thriving.

A Middletonian high school teacher recently told Vance that many academically unsuccessful students with few job prospects assume that they will be able to get a job at Armco because they have relatives who work there. “It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at [Armco],” she told him. As such, Armco represents the disappointing cycle (or failure) of upward mobility that so many hillbilly families have experienced—at one point it symbolized opportunity and financial stability, but now it symbolizes hopelessness and complacency because of the younger generation’s unfounded expectation that it will grant them the same kind of chances it granted the older generation.

Armco Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy

The Hillbilly Elegy quotes below all refer to the symbol of Armco. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Chapter 4 Quotes

Even at Roosevelt Elementary—where, thanks to Middletown geography, most people’s parents lacked a college education—no one wanted to have a blue-collar career and its promise of a respectable middle-class life. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted.

Many kids seem to feel that way today. A few years ago I spoke with […] a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school, and when you try to talk to them about what they’re going to do, they talk about AK. “Oh, I can get a job at AK. My uncle works there.’ It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK.”

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker)
Related Symbols: Armco
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
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Armco Symbol Timeline in Hillbilly Elegy

The timeline below shows where the symbol Armco appears in Hillbilly Elegy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Vance notes that Armco’s promise of a better life was, for the most part, true. He considers the two... (full context)
Chapter 3
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Uncle Jimmy left the house when he turned eighteen and secured a job at Armco. This left his sisters in the middle of their parents’ domestic disputes. Aunt Wee dropped... (full context)
Chapter 4
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
To make matters worse, with manufacturing moving overseas, the worth of Armco steel plummeted, even when the company merged with Kawasaki, a Japanese motorcycle company that essentially... (full context)
Chapter 10
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...tried to visit home as often as possible. Things were going well for everybody, though Armco-Kawasaki steel—who had long paid for Mamaw’s health insurance—increased Mamaw’s insurance premiums to a price she... (full context)