Having grown up in a working class Ohio town primarily populated by emigrants from the hills of Eastern Kentucky, J.D. Vance makes an effort in Hillbilly Elegy to clarify what it means to be a “hillbilly.” Including himself in this demographic, he explains that hillbillies are white Americans of Scots-Irish descent for whom “poverty is the family tradition.” For generations, they have been uneducated laborers fiercely dedicated to their own communities and traditions and remarkably resistant to change. And despite the poverty and social isolation they live in, hillbillies are proud of their culture. Throughout the memoir, Vance both celebrates and laments this pride. On the one hand, he praises the fact that his Appalachian working class community values loyalty and honor above all else. On the other hand, he shows that these same values often cause the community to remain trapped in a constant state of poverty and dependency. Moving between these two viewpoints, he is able to offer an account of the hillbilly identity that balances an insider’s familiarity and compassion with an outsider’s more objective critical assessment.
Family history is deeply important to the hillbilly identity. Vance spends much of Hillbilly Elegy’s first chapter describing his relatives, reaching all the way back to his great-great-grandparents. He explains that as a young child he was obsessed with his great-uncles, whom he characterizes as “the gatekeepers to the family’s oral tradition.” Whenever Vance visited Jackson, Kentucky—where his family is from—he listened to these great-uncles (the “Blanton men”) as they told stories about themselves and their relatives. And although the stories were often violent and inappropriate for a child, Vance reveled in the family lore; “Some people may conclude that I come from a clan of lunatics. But the stories made me feel like hillbilly royalty, because these were classic good-versus-evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something—defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw [meaning grandma], were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.”
The stories that Vance’s great-uncles told him largely revolve around the idea of honor and retribution. When, for example, a man named Big Red insulted the mother of Vance’s Uncle Pet, Pet beat him unconscious and cut him with an electric saw. The man survived this attack and didn’t press charges because he “knew what it meant to insult a man’s mother.” This, in turn, became a family legend that signified the importance of defending the clan’s honor. In this way, Vance shows that the idea of loyalty is deeply sown throughout hillbilly culture, as it is passed down from generation to generation. And although the stories themselves may speak of unseemly events, Vance frames the purpose of each tale as pure and as “in service of” morality.
Despite the strong hillbilly inclination toward family loyalty, many of Vance’s adult role models gravely mistreated one another. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, had fierce fighting matches, often with violent results. Sometimes this became readily apparent to their children (one of whom was J.D’s mother), as when Papaw came home drunk one night after Mamaw had warned him not to and she doused him in gasoline and lit him on fire. After this, Papaw eventually stopped drinking and they reconciled with one another—but it was too late, for the results had already taken a toll on J.D’s mother, who grew into an abusive woman unable to live a drug-free life with her children and rotating cast of romantic partners. In this way, Vance portrays the downside of hillbilly culture—violence, anger, hopeless addiction—as cyclical. Though the hillbilly identity brings with it certain positive values like honor and loyalty, it also perpetuates catastrophic ways of living and relating to other people. Furthermore, even its strong commitment to loyalty sometimes proves detrimental, often leading to unnecessary violence and confrontation, as was the case when Uncle Pet took an electric saw to Big Red.
Vance is able to praise the qualities of the hillbilly identity while also observing its faults because he is what he calls a “cultural emigrant.” Having experienced the life of a disenfranchised member of the working class and the life of a successful graduate of Yale Law School, he is a member of two worlds whose behavioral codes do not always align. Violence and combative behavior, for example, were encouraged in his childhood because they reinforced the strongholds of the hillbilly identity: honor and loyalty. As a “cultural emigrant” to the affluent middleclass, though, Vance found that these traits actually did more harm than good. Vance gives several examples of negotiating these differences, including his attempts to break out of the pattern of violent relationships he saw growing up and learn to relate to his wife through healthy disagreements. He also discusses a time when a driver cut him off and his instinct was to get out of the car and demand an apology or fight—however, even though he interpreted this driver’s actions as an insult to his honor that he had to address, in his new middle class life Vance realized he no longer needed to defend his honor to win the respect of his loved ones. Thus, Vance’s experience navigating between two cultures allows him to debunk the idea that hillbillies are “a bunch of slobbering morons” while also illustrating the negative elements of hillbilly life.
Vance’s portrayal of the hillbilly identity is insightful and culturally sensitive because he approaches the concept with an open mind. He insists that his success in life is largely due to the support of his hillbilly grandparents and their fierce loyalty and dedication, declaring that “hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth.” But he doesn’t allow this faith in his cultural identity to blind him to his community’s shortcomings. “Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms children?” he asks. He himself is certainly “tough enough” to look in the mirror, a courage he clearly hopes other hillbillies will adopt. Unfortunately, this kind of self-reflection doesn’t appear to be a hillbilly strength. In the memoir’s introduction, Vance quotes an article about Appalachia’s working class that portrays hillbillies as resistant to change; “In traveling across America, the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country.” By illustrating how important it is that hillbillies assess the way they perpetuate harmful practices, Vance implies that his community must finally open themselves up to change, perhaps for the first time. They must look in the “mirror” and consider the side effects of their cultural identity.
The Hillbilly Identity ThemeTracker
The Hillbilly Identity Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy
This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.
Despite their virtues, or perhaps because of them, the Blanton men were full of vice. A few of them left a trail of neglected children, cheated wives, or both. And I didn’t even know them that well: I saw them only at large family reunions or during the holidays. Still, I loved and worshipped them.
For starters, a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase—“too big for your britches”—to describe those who think they’re better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly. This pattern was common among Appalachian migrants: More than nine in ten would make visits “home” during the course of their lives, and more than one in ten visited about once a month. My grandparents returned to Jackson often, sometimes on consecutive weekends, despite the fact that the trip in the 1950s required about twenty hours of driving. Economic mobility came with a lot of pressures, and it came with a lot of new responsibilities.
Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland.
As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. The owners of Dillman’s were old-fashioned, so they allowed people with good credit to run grocery tabs, some of which surpassed a thousand dollars. I knew that if any of my relatives walked in and ran up a bill of over a thousand dollars, they’d be asked to pay immediately. I hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab.
I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.
The problems of our community hit close to home. Mom’s struggles weren’t some isolated incident. They were replicated, replayed, and relived by many of the people who, like us, had moved hundreds of miles in search of a better life. There was no end in sight. Mamaw had thought she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty—emotional, if not financial—had followed her.
We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.
The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession.
As a culture, we had no heroes. Certainly not any politician—Barack Obama was then the most admired man in America (and likely still is), but even when the country was enraptured by his rise, most Middletonians viewed him suspiciously. George W. Bush had few fans in 2008. Many loved Bill Clinton, but many more saw him as the symbol of American moral decay, and Ronald Reagan was long dead. We loved the military but had no George S. Patton figure in the modern army. I doubt my neighbors could even name a high-ranking military officer. The space program, long a source of pride, had gone the way of the dodo, and with it the celebrity astronauts. Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream—a steady wage.
We do know that working-class Americans aren’t just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they’re also more likely to fall off even after they’ve reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem. One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.
Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has its downsides. The term necessarily implies a sort of movement—to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something. And you can’t always control the parts of your old life from which you drift.
In my own head, I was better than my past. I was strong. I left town as soon as I could, served my country in the Marines, excelled at Ohio State, and made it to the country’s top law school. I had no demons, no character flaws, no problems. But that just wasn’t true. The things I wanted most in the entire world—a happy partner and a happy home—required constant mental focus. My self-image was bitterness masquerading as arrogance. A few weeks into my second year of law school, I hadn’t spoken to Mom in many months, longer than at any point in my life. I realized that of all the emotions I felt toward my mother—love, pity, forgiveness, anger, hatred, and dozens of others—I had never tried sympathy. I had never tried to understand my mom.