Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis And Between The World And Me. The Views On American Dream
Memoirs are a great medium for learning the in-depth details and story that occurred throughout someone’s long and storied life. This is most certainly the case for the two memoirs written by J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates. J.D. Vance wrote his memoir titled “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” regarding his life events in Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio about how they molded him into the person he soon became. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his memoir titled “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his son to outline his life as an African American man growing up in the city of Baltimore, Maryland and becoming a man in New York City or as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes it as the ‘Mecca’. These two memoirs written by J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates are remarkably similar and completely different in so many ways. “Between the World and Me” is about an African American man who struggles to shed his old ways after growing up in the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland and “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” outlines the life of a poor and working class white man who overcame all odds to make a life for himself. Although these two memoirs seem to detail two vastly different backgrounds, they clash in a way that really unifies both marginalized classes in the United States today. According to the Democracy Journal, a writer named “Rob Dreher said that the book ‘Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them a voice and presence in the public square. (Crabbe-Field)” Taking a deep dive into both memoirs written by J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates, they show the importance or lack thereof of religion, both of their difficult experiences as children in their respective early childhood communities, and exactly how their concept of the American Dream differs from one another.
To say both J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a challenging childhood would be a vast understatement to describe the obstacles that both men overcame. Coates’s childhood consisted of growing up in downtown Baltimore, Maryland where he struggled and fought just to stay alive. In Erica Scott’s article A Class Divided she states that “Coates grew up in urban Baltimore in the 1980’s where ‘To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,’ Coates writes, ‘was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all guns fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.’ (Scott)” This for one is not an ideal situation nor any place for a child to grow up and prosper. This type of place is a breeding ground for unmoral and illicit activity and shows the youth who live there many of the wrong ways to succeed throughout life. Coates’s childhood is comparable to Vance’s in the way that Erica Scott explains in her article that, “Both men were forced to learn the law of the streets at an early age” (Scott). Vance himself describes his childhood life at home as Ta-Nehisi Coates might by saying, “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery” (Vance). Coates and Vance both struggled to live normal childhoods; however, Vance’s childhood was never plagued with racial injustice like Coates’s most certainly was. As an African American youth in the city of Baltimore, Maryland in the 1980’s, Coates struggles with racial injustice unlike Vance who grew up in the more prominently white cities of Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio. Michelle Alexander who wrote an article about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir “Between the World and Me” had this to say about race regarding Coates, “Coates’s letter to his son seems to be written on the opposite side of the same coin. Rather than urging his son to awaken to his own power, Coates emphasizes over and over the apparent permanence of racial injustice in America, the foolishness of believing that one person can make a change” (Alexander). Although race is a large portion of the conversation in Coates’s memoir, Vance’s own memoir does not feature race in the same light as Coates’s, if none at all. This is shown in Erica Scott’s article when she states that, “Vance seems only to mention race to justify its absence: ‘I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism’” (Scott). These are some of the many ways Vance’s and Coates’s memoirs are similar and differ when it comes to their childhood and how race played a role in it.
Religious beliefs are common across the United States in all facets of cultural backgrounds and are even more common around the world. Religion is a concept that you must learn to understand and one that you must choose for yourself. These beliefs can impact someone whether they know it or not. In the instances of J.D. Vance and Ta-Nehisi Coates, religion was a large catalyst in both their lives, whether it was present or not. Coates is not a religious man and knows that it sets him apart from others in his own community. On the other hand, Vance and his family embraced the Christian faith in their own way when he was younger, and it showed throughout his memoir. In a blog written by Anton L. Vander Zee she writes that, “From his upbringing until his adult life, Coates has and continues to dismiss religion,” and adds a quote from Coates’s “Between the World and Me” that states, “I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries… And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side… My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent towards chaos then concluded in a box” (Vander Zee). Differing from Coates’s stance on religion, Vance had his own unique view about faith that stemmed from his family, mainly his grandmother Mamaw. When discussing Vance’s early adoption of religion Vander Zee explains in her blog that, “Vance grew up with religion central to his and his families beliefs. His mother figure, his biological grandmother Mamaw, read the Bible nightly but rejected any ideas of the institutional church. The outsider hillbilly mentality that Vance describes throughout his memoir pervades even his early faith” (Vander Zee). Both Coates and Vance share an unorthodox view of religion. Coates believes that if there is a God, that he is not on his side nor ever was. While Vance is attracted to the belief instilled in him by his Mamaw that follows an unorganized religious view. Vance and Coates both do not follow the norms of religion in any way, which makes them more alike than most might think.
The idea of the American Dream is the foundation on which the United States of America was built. This idea has many meanings for the people who live in America. In the memoirs written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and J.D. Vance they share their own views on the American Dream that seem to differ from one another. Coates’s thoughts on the American Dream are that there is a danger in the belief of the American Dream, especially for people of color (Alexander). Coates’s cynical view of the American Dream stems from his belief that it is unobtainable for him and people like him because as Coates states in his memoir the American Dream “has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (Coates). The Dream to Coates is like a trap for African Americans and other people of color who strive for an unreachable goal. On the contrary, Vance’s view of the American Dream is much more positive and inspirational. He believes that no matter your situation or place in society, the American Dream is an attainable goal that should be pursued. Erica Scott describes his view of the Dream by stating, “J.D. Vance very much believes in the American Dream, even if “his people” do not. To Vance, this Dream is difficult for poor kids to access, but not unattainable” (Scott). Vance’s and Coates’s beliefs of the American Dream do not have much room for agreement. However, they both share a common belief that the only way one will get themselves out of a bad situation is by willing themselves to push through adversity no matter the obstacles.
In conclusion, “Between the World and Me” written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” share many similarities in their belief of religion, their views of the American Dream, and their hardships as children in their communities. However, Vance’s and Coates’s memoirs contrast each other just as much as they share similarities. Both Coates and Vance shared difficulties in their childhood and throughout their communities which were stricken with drug addiction and poverty. Although, their own personal childhood experiences differ from one another making their outlook completely different. Coates’s views on religion is that he does not care for it and dismisses the whole notion of religious belief. Vance’s religious background is deeply rooted in his family; however, it is an unconventional way of belief. Their beliefs of religion contrast each other but are oddly similar in the fact that they do not follow the conventional mold. The American Dream is a topic that I believe Vance and Coates disagree the most. Coates believes there is a danger in pursuing the American Dream, while Vance believes whole heartedly that the American Dream is the backbone of America. With these differing and similar views, we see as the reader how one’s beliefs can be morphed by one’s upbringing and surroundings.
- Alexander, Michelle. “Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between the World and Me’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Aug. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/books/review/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me.html.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2017.
- Crabbe-Field, Sophia. “A Hillbilly Left?” Democracy Journal, 3 Jan. 2017, democracyjournal.org/magazine/43/a-hillbilly-left/.
- Scott, Erica. “A Class Divided.” Stanford Politics, Stanford Politics, 7 Oct. 2017, stanfordpolitics.org/2017/05/31/class-divided/.
- Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Large Print Press, a Part of Gale, a Cengage Company, 2018.
- Vander Zee, Anton L. “Religion and the Shaping of Identity.” The Self as Story, blogs.cofc.edu/autobiography/2019/03/12/religion-and-the-shaping-of-identity/.
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