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.