Themes of Self-Sabotage Within Hillbilly Elegy

In J.D Vance’s wildly-popular 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance recounts his childhood experience of Appalachian poverty and makes a sociological argument against government handouts. Speaking from personal exposure to Appalachian poverty, drug-abuse, and crime, Vance expresses his frustration with what he sees as a culture of indolence among Appalachia’s nonworking poor. Vance’s argument that unemployment benefits disincentivize hard work and hinder upward social mobility is clearly conservative. But it is not built upon the common conservative “bad-seed” narrative, which demonizes the unemployed individual and presents their faults as innate. Instead, he paints a compassionate and nuanced picture of hillbilly culture, thoughtfully analyzing the community’s collective tendency towards social decay and helplessness. Though Vance calls for agency in his fellow hillbillies and tactfully presents himself as a success story of ambition, he also recognizes — through both analysis and anecdote — the certain inevitability of hardship that comes from a cultural tradition of poverty. Using pathos-driven tones of compassion that are often associated with liberal rhetoric to make a conservative argument against handouts for the unemployed, Vance speaks in a language that is uniquely-intelligible to both republicans and democrats — a triumph for a hillbilly whose outsider-status always came from the way he spoke.

Vance uses personal anecdotes about the self-sabotaging unemployed as evidence against the liberal argument that lack of opportunities causes poverty, but builds these stories into larger cultural analysis, combatting the conservative view that poverty is an issue of individual character. Vance first introduces the theme of self-induced unemployment with a character, universally-named, “Bob.” Lazy, disrespectful, and chronically late to his good-paying job, only to react with outrage when he gets fired, “Bob” is shining example of what Vance sees as the problem with hillbilly culture: white working class men desperate to “blame their problems on society or the government” (194). Vance compounds this original this original anecdote with many similar ones throughout, using these narratives to develop the reader’s frustration at these men, allowing him to effectively assert that their “status in life is directly attributable to the choices [they’ve] made,” not a result of lacking opportunity (194). However, the novel never comes across as a personal vendetta against these individual men, because each time Vance presents the story of a lazy neighbor “content to live off the doll,” he quickly harkens back to the problems of the community at large (139). Growing up, Vance argues, in a culture of “almost spiritual…cynicism” it is easy feel as though “you were born with the problem hanging around your neck” (8). This cynicism gives hillbillies the sense that they have no shot at upward mobility and their “cultural movement” to blame others prevents them from “asking the tough questions about themselves” which might allow them to move up. In Vance’s chain of logic, this cynicism creates joblessness and joblessness creates poverty (194). The main fallacy in this argument, of course, is the idea that to have a job necessarily means overcoming poverty. This certainly isn’t universally true, but Vance isn’t talking about the universal. He’s talking about hillbillies and, by his own account, Appalachia has many “good-paying jobs..with steady raises” (like the one Bob lost) (6). White, straight, mostly male, and with solid opportunities to climb out of poverty, these Hillbillies have all the cards in the book. The problem, Vance claims, is that they aren’t playing them.

As Vance builds his argument about Appalachia’s nearly-inescapable, cultural cycle of poverty and learned-helplessness, it’s main sticking point becomes, ironically, himself. If Vance managed to escape and better himself, then it must be the individual character flaws of the other hillbillies that prevented them from doing the same. In order to evade this logical extension and continue his cultural analysis, Vance highlights his own luck, citing his “Mamaw” and the military as his saviors, providing him “an environment that forced him to ask the tough questions about himself” (194). Vance states early on that “despite all the environmental pressures from [his] neighborhood and community, [he] got a different message at home…and that saved [him](60).” Encouraged by Mamaw to get a job “to learn the value of a dollar” and to focus on his grades, Vance received thoroughly un-hillbilly messages at home, making his ultimate saving-grace not some extraordinary ability to escape hillbilly culture, but the fact that he was never entirely immersed in it to begin with (138). Vance then uses his own fortunes to discuss the misfortunes of others, conceding that “not everyone can rely on the saving graces of a crazy hillbilly”(243). Never given the tools like parental supervision of “peace and quiet at home” to succeed in school or taught the wherewithal to hold down a job, most hillbillies then fall victim to the “learned helplessness” that Mamaw and the marines instilled in Vance. Furthermore, by placing nucleus of both success and failure firmly within the home, Vance undermines the idea that prosperity hinges upon social programs (163). One of those “resilient children.. [Vance] prospered despite an unstable home because of the social support of a loving adult,” not because of governmental influence(149). Ironically, by crediting the “saving graces” in his own story, Vance highlights the lack of support within hillbilly culture.

Compassionately recounting his poor upbringing in rural Appalachia, J.D Vance dismantles the liberal notion that unemployment is caused by a lack of opportunity while also rejecting the conservative sentiment that it is an issue of individual character. Instead, Vance blames hillbilly culture, his culture. Vance critically describes how hillbillies, the people he loves, sabotage their own opportunities because they feel trapped in the black hole that is Appalachia and are inclined to blame their problems on anyone else: immigrants, the government, society at large. In doing so, he makes an effective case as to why government-based social programs aren’t the answer. One could argue, of course, that this is a shortcoming of Vance’s argument because, though it dismisses the current solution, it fails to provide a new one. However, in Vance’s case, he need not provide a solution, because, by creating one of the first dialogues about hillbilly culture and its resonance throughout America, he is advancing the conversation, a triumph in and of itself.

Attainability (or Unattainability) of the American Dream in Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance, in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, uses his own experiences living in rural Kentucky and industrial Ohio to paint a picture of the problems facing the poor white class—and its accompanying “Hillbilly” culture— which dominates American Appalachia. Recounting his experiences from childhood, to his time in the marines, to his college education, Vance sympathetically portrays the struggles of many who share his class and culture. However, he also portrays himself as a paragon of an upwardly mobile American, sustaining the idea of the American Dream. In doing both simultaneously, Vance argues that the condition of poor white “hillbillies” is due to economic disadvantages, but compounded by a destructive culture. In this arena his argument succeeds, as he sufficiently demonstrates throughout his own life’s narrative an awareness of the negative cultural effects he overcame. However, he fails to account for the factors and resources to help achieve that awareness which others in his class lack.

Vance introduces his memoir with the notion of pessimism, establishing the foundation for his argument that hillbilly culture has created a hereditary and debilitating mindset. It is this mindset, he argues, that should be primarily blamed for the condition of poor whites. Noting that “working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America,” above even those groups who are “clearly more destitute,” he vaguely “suggests that something else is going on” (4). He then illustrates this mindset in his childhood as a hillbilly. Describing his childhood as “a world of truly irrational behavior,” he implies that the poor are to blame for their own financial and social struggles (146). However, he admits that there are members of his class and culture who “struggled but did so successfully,” defining such success as “ intact families. . . peaceful homes, many children . . . believing they’ll claim their own American Dream” (149). In defining it as such, he equates the earliest success not to the achievement of the American Dream, but only the belief that they may eventually obtain it. This definition substantiates his claim that pessimism is the root cause of limiting social mobility, not a lack of ability to achieve it.

For Vance, Mamaw serves a bridge between the world of total helplessness and the world of so-called successful struggle. He credits her as the reason “[he] never saw only the worst of what [their] community offered,” as a quiet, peaceful place allowing him to focus on his schoolwork and personal relationships (149). She acts as an essentially different paradigm for what a hillbilly is, encouraging him to think positively about his future, which Vance admits “[his] neighbor kids couldn’t couldn’t say the same” (149). This haven which his grandmother offers, however, creates a paradox within his argument; he admits to his own luck in having a source of hope in Mamaw, yet he still maintains that his own life is not extraordinary, that he is a universal example of what white working-class men (at the very least) may achieve without the pessimism that characterizes them.

The distinction Vance makes between hillbillies as children and as adults serves as an important facet of his argument; as children, they are victims plagued their by culture, but at some ill-defined point along to path to adulthood they become the perpetrators of the same issues which plague the next generation. Vance’s transformation takes place primarily as a marine, where his “learned helplessness” from home turned into “learned willfulness” (163). Even his diet reflected his divergence from his hillbilly roots as he becomes this adult. During his marine service is also when Mamaw dies (yet another tie to his Appalachian life cut loose). Though he presents himself as a sort of reformed hillbilly, one who has not allowed pessimism to get the better of him, he accounts for the “demons of the life [he] left behind” which haunt him in his adult life. When describing the issues in his relationship with Usha, he blames a vague malady, “whatever it was that had, for generations, caused those in my family to hurt those whom they loved” (225). The solution then to deal with “the demons of [his] youth” was self-awareness and an “[understanding of his past and knowing that he wasn’t doomed” (229). Ultimately, he applies this personal learning experience to argue that only through such self-awareness can a pessimistic hillbilly avoid the cycle of poverty, for which, he believes, hillbilly culture itself is responsible.

Vance successfully fulfills his goal of demonstrating the psychological impact of poverty on the poor and their children and successfully portrays himself as a paragon of a hillbilly who has overcome the obstacles of his class. However, he fails to demonstrate that his experience is not extraordinary. In admitting his own luck, and admitting the advantages he had which others did not, he provides no way for those members of his class to achieve the American Dream which he claims is so attainable. Though he tries to prove the possibility of upward mobility for poor hillbillies, he does little more than advocate awareness for their own circumstances, without offering the means to defeat the pessimism that suppresses them unless those circumstances already favor their success.

The Allure of Humility: J.D. Vance’s Sympathetic Perspective

In his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance tells of how he advanced from a hillbilly to a relatively wealthy author. From a family and culture of drug abuse and instability, Vance made his way to one of the country’s most elite law schools and built a much more stable and sustainable life for himself. Vance uses his own success story as a paradigm for the attainability of upward social mobility–the American Dream–and this strategy relies heavily on his ability to relate to his audience, which he achieves through his humility. Throughout his memoir, Vance argues that the two greatest barriers to achieving the American Dream are an outsider culture that snub working-class individuals making their way up the class ladder and self-doubt. J. D. Vance’s humble tone keeps him from appearing arrogant or traitor to his hillbilly heritage and makes him more effective as he fosters in his readers the same hyper-awareness of poverty that he believes is the key to upwards social mobility.

Vance’s current life as a wealthy author distances him in a crucial way from the very people he tries to represent. Vance, however, is quick to insist on his similarity to the other “hillbillies.” He claims that he has “accomplished nothing great in [his] life,” immediately dismantling any of his readers’ preconceptions of him as arrogant or snobbish because of his new distance from the white working class (1). Vance denies any distance from the white working class and instead speaks of his “intense sense of loyalty” to the “cultural tradition” of hillbillies (3). Living with and writing to a wide array of people, some of whom undoubtedly think lowly of hillbillies, identifying with the people that “Americans call hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash” and redefining these people as his “neighbors, friends, and family” (3). By openly identifying with a demographic that much of his audience clearly does not think very highly of, Vance shows a humility that makes him appear more genuine to his audience. He also shows his own personal ties to his topic while at the same time adding a little diversity of opinion and remaining receptive to the views of those people outside of his cultural bubble. His ability to keep those personal ties to the hillbilly community while at the same time accounting for a counter-argument shows a humility and a relatability that endears him to his audience, a crucial component to an argument largely reliant on Vance’s ability to engage his audience on a personal level.

After establishing this trust, Vance then goes on to tell his own success story. Although he tells of his academic successes, he takes much more care to highlight the times when he or another member of his family “ha[s] a massive blind spot in the way that [they] perceiv[e] the world” (122). This blindness, along with feelings of self-doubt, effectively characterize Vance’s initial relationship with his education and are, according to Vance, the most difficult obstacle white working class children fail to achieve their own versions of the American Dream. Vance introduces the topic through his own experiences at Yale which “plant a seed of doubt in my mind about whether [he] belonged” (202). While he attends Yale, he struggles to define himself as either “a Yale Law student, or […] a Middletown kid with hillbilly grandparents” (205). He initially and instinctively thinks of the two as mutually exclusive. The moment in a supermarket when he feels as though he must choose between the two and the ensuing self-doubt “highlights the inner conflict inspired by rapid upward mobility” (206). There is, according to Vance an “outsider attitude” present in both working working- and middle-to-upper class that not only makes working-class Americans “less likely to climb the economic ladder” but also “more likely to fall off even after they’ve reached the top” (206). Vance open and unassuming tone when he speaks of these feelings makes his argument seem more relevant and like ess of an abstraction to his readers. These feelings of being an outsider discernibly impede a working-class student’s academic and, later, financial success, blocking off their path to upwards social mobility.

Another significant barrier to the path to upwards social mobility for white working class families is a lack of awareness that closes off opportunities to advance one’s career and financial standing. Although J. D. Vance must axiomatically be hyper-aware of the effects of poverty and of the process of academic and financial advancement of his life, he too exhibits this lack of awareness in his younger days. He experiences this lack of awareness at several points in his academic life. At Yale, for example, when he considers applying to The Yale Law Journal, “the entire process was a black box, and no one [he] [knows] ha[s] the key” (216). He also implies that this “information gap” (217) is cyclical, as parents scorn their children’s opportunities at prestigious universities because they believed their children could get “a fine, cheap, education at the community college” (147). Unfortunately for these unaware parents and students “the irony is that for poor people like us, an education at Notre Dame is both cheaper and fairer” (147). white working class families remain oblivious to these opportunities because none of the people in their lives are familiar with them. And even when they do have access to these opportunities, white working class students in particular “ha[ve] no idea what to do with [them]” (217). Therefore, despite the American Dream ideal, there is “a broken connection between the world [white working class Americans] see and the values [they] preach” (147). The reality of navigating the difficulties of upwards social mobility alone–as many working-class individuals must if they hope to advance their financial lot–is difficult because individual, internal issues, particularly lack of awareness and an ingrained, cultural, elitist attitude that is uncomfortable with upwards class mobility. Again, Vance employs a humble tone when he remembers to give credit to his professor Amy who helps him “clos[e] the information gap”(217). This makes his readers much more receptive and makes his rendition of his experience sound more like a cultural criticism than a narration of his own experiences.

J. D. Vance’s exploration of some of the issues preventing white working class Americans (or hillbillies) from upward social mobility do not, however, implicitly declare the American Dream unattainable. After all, Vance himself manages to grow from instability and poverty to a comfortably wealthy life. Vance’s argument is simply that these issues are internal and individual. As a conservative, Vance does not believe that these cultural issues fall under the government’s jurisdiction and his portrayal of the “outsider culture” and the “information gap” support his views. With a humility that softens his unpolished reality, J. D. Vance manages to present the “outsider culture” and the “information gap” as issues that the individual must surmount on his or her own in order to achieve their own individual, personal American Dream, just as Vance himself does.