19 September 2016

The Hillbilly Elegy Take Two

I recently read "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance.

The Story Of My Life From The Other Side Of The Tracks

It hits home. 

Vance grew up in the same county in Ohio (Butler), that I did. My wife likes to talk about them as "my people", but as she knows full well, even though they lived nearby, they aren't my people.

Vance was born around the time that I started junior high school, which is when I first encountered his people.  

Oxford, Ohio, down the road from Middletown and just a few miles from the Indiana border, was recently rated the best college town in the nation and also as number one for commitment to undergraduate education.

Ohio's plurality employer was not Armco Steel (Middletown's major employer which was in its waning days at the time), but Miami University, a "public ivy" with 16,000 students, almost all undergraduates, with more founding chapters of fraternities and sororities than any other university in the nation, and a generally conservative, affluent, disproportionately white, class conscious student body that values quality of life as much as academics.  In the 1980s and early 1990s there weren't even many Asian American students on campus, although now there are many.  Almost everyone we knew was affiliated with the college, the school district, a governmental agency, or the hospital.  The local elementary school served only residents of the city proper. 

But, our school district, Talawanda, was the geographically largest district in the state.  In addition to the square mile and larger Oxford township, it served a host of small towns full of people with Appalachian and Southern roots with owners of small and medium sized farms between them.

Junior high school is when the kids from the "outlying areas" who had attended local rural elementary schools were integrated with the city kids in a single junior high school in the middle of the City of Oxford that served the entire district, a district so large that some students from the outlying areas would spend an hour on the bus to school and another hour on the bus going home, each day.

The cultural divide was stark.

The city kids, despite the small size of the town, because it was a college town, were urbane, northerners, had parents who supported the schools and believed in the value of the education they were receiving, and were middle class or upper middle class.  Most of my friends had a family member in the university phone directory. The city kids had a variety of faiths, mainline Christians, members of historically black churches, Unitarians, a few Catholics and as many Jews. The city kids were white, every manner of Asian, black and Hispanic.  But, almost none had Appalachian or Southern white working class roots. Nobody from the city was Pentecostal and Baptists were also very rare.

In elementary school, we had thought were we plenty wild and rowdy.

But, by the standards set by the kids from the outlying areas, we were all well behaved, privileged, ladies and gentlemen who believed in the system. (The kids from the university run K-8 "laboratory school" who joined us a couple of years later because there were no private high schools within forty-five minutes drive didn't know how to function in a rigid public school bureaucracy, but were good hearted for the most part.) Our fights were light hearted and waged fists. Their's were serious, culture of honor duels waged by boys who picked fights intended to prove their manhood, and inflict serious damage, often with some sort of weapon (although almost never firearms in junior high school). We knew how to make model rockets. They knew how to make pipe bombs. One girl from their side of the tracks in my school at the time was pregnant at age thirteen.

I didn't realize it at the time, but the kids from the outlying areas actually belongs to two distinct cultures with many superficial similarities, rather than the one it had seemed to be at the time because both had similar musical tastes, similar clothes, the same bus routes, a shared animosity towards city kids, and similar versions of not quite standard upper middle class English.

Many were the peers of Vance's much older brother - "white trash" who worked blue collar jobs for low wages, lived in mobile homes ("trailers") or small houses in ill repair in the outlying areas, who had poor work habits, violent tempers, mean dogs, a vague, mostly unchurched Christianity, a propensity to drink to much, little respect for the educational process from parents or children, and a wealth of resentment and racial animosity.

The rest were career farmers who had owned their land for generations. They were relatively more affluent (basically middle class), observantly Evangelical Christian, more industrious, less volatile, taciturn, and socially as well as politically conservative. They made the Future Farmers of America and the Future Homemakers of America the biggest clubs in school, participated in 4-H, football and cheer squads, took vocational agricultural classes on topics from growing crops to welding to balancing books, drove pickup trucks and muscle cars to school, and made more money than anyone else in school working adult jobs at adult pay during summers, vacations and other free time on family farms. They rode horses and raised prize pigs and pumpkins.

Most wouldn't be going to college, so these were their glory days and while their parents resented what they saw as a school district catering to city kids, they also treasured their children's high school feats that would get their kids in the papers.

Vance's peers were my enemies for the two years of junior high school and three years of high school I shared with them (I spent my junior year abroad).

Vance's peers were the band of brothers who beat up my friend and I as we walked home on the railroad tracks. The main bully who targeted his rage at me later ended up in federal prison for stealing Social Security checks from mailboxes and trying to use them. His family's primary occupation for half a dozen brothers, the adults and other hangers on was a Christmas tree farm in season, and cutting down unwanted trees and branches the rest of the year.

His peers were the one's who showed up at school in family member's KKK robes and taunted the small number of black students and Jews, both of whom were "city people" mostly connected to the university, like me. The rest of us city kids took it personally because the black students and Jews were part of our "tribe" facing threats from outsiders from the outlying areas. Many of Vance's peers spent a lot of time in detention and in school suspensions. Many smoked and for a brief while we had a smoking lounge for students. They rarely did their homework. They drank cheap beer and liquor to get drunk, not nice parental wine and cocktails for the glamour of it.

One of those peers was my girlfriend for a couple of months, whom I took to homecoming. We often met up at her place, which was usually parent-free, in a trailer park just outside Oxford township and made out a lot.  But, we broke up, and by the next semester her family had moved on without warning to some other town for reasons unknown.

A Clash Of Civilizations

The Hillbilly Elegy is described as a "memoir" but it might as well be a participant-observer ethnography. It consciously recognizes that it is discussing the coherent whole of a particular culture or subculture (that depends upon whether you are talking to a lumper or a splitter). And, it isn't a healthy one.

My analysis of weak families among working class whites has avoided moral blame or a focus on parenting skills. Vance pulls no such punches.

Before we make it past the preface into chapter one, we are greeted with the fact that lots of Vance's peers cannot hold down a decent paying, unskilled job for any length of time because they lack the soft skills of punctuality, let alone showing up to work or doing a full day's work when they are there. They blame the failure that they bring on themselves on their employer.

He also describes at length the horrific job that the adults in his life do at keeping their own relationships in tact and their gross parenting failures that traumatize their children and force them to basically raise themselves and look elsewhere for role models.

His is a world where multiple dark childhood traumas and emotional disruptions, "Aces" is a technical psychological term for them, he says once he reaches his Yale Law days and realizes that his peers didn't have similar experiences, are the norm rather than the rare exception.

He explicitly draws the numerous comparisons between the self-destructive aspects of Hillbilly culture and those of African-American culture.

The only things that seem to work to remove people from their self-made squalor are those that self-consciously involve changing someone right down to the fundamental level of their cultural norms and habits - the U.S. Marine Corps for him. Religion for others like his birth father. And, later, a sympathetic professor mentor and a girlfriend who are receptive to keeping him on the right track despite his lack of social capital. But, he is also well aware of the poison and anti-intellectualism lurking in the kind of religion that sets his screwed up father on a happier, relatively straight and narrow path. My people don't love these institutions, but they seem to work better than the alternatives for the Hillbillies in crisis.

His grandparents do as well as they do, despite being dragged down by their own daughter's failures, by leaving the Kentucky hill country in the face of a teen pregnancy scandal for Southeast Ohio where his grandfather takes a factory job in a steel plant that intentionally hires friends and family of other Kentucky migrants from the same towns and valleys they did. They end up visiting often and their own community is a half-way house full of similar migrants, but they partially escape the vicious cycle.

Vance's world is a place where mere insulting worlds lead to vicious, psychotic violence that the victims don't report because they share a code of honor. It is a place of vigilante justice and feuds that belong in an earlier century. It is a place full of guns and drug addicts. It is a place of hungry children and welfare queens. It is a place where domestic violence is the norm and alcoholism is common place. It is a place where few people go to college, but some join the military. It is a place where duty and respect can be taken seriously, but betrayals and failure are common.

Even when his mom and stepdad de jour manage to bring in good money, they piss it away on senseless consumerism, destroy their marriage, screw up at their jobs, and provide poor parenting for their children.

Vance's book is an elegy for a Hillbilly culture that is slowly by surely dying and bringing as many of its practitioners down with it as it can mange. Whatever virtues its way of life served in the Scottish borderlands and Northern Ireland and the American Frontier back when that was Appalachia, have long since been rendered dysfunctional. The people in the culture he grew up in are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Their lack of discipline and respect for education, weakness for short term gratification, and their short tempers doom them at everything they try.

Those who are smart and lucky and have supportive adults in their childhood (not necessarily parents) and romantic partners from outside the culture in their lives to get them on the right track, can escape into the rest of the American middle class and prosper. Those who aren't so lucky are doomed to repeat the cycle.

Vance offers insights but no solutions. Indeed, he makes clear that mere economic opportunities alone aren't enough to keep his people from screwing things up. They need collective attitude adjustments and nobody has any insights on where they will come from.


Dave Barnes said...

"peers can hold down a decent paying"
should be peers can NOT hold down a decent paying

I do this all the time when typing

Dave Barnes said...

We could try changing the kid's parents.
I don't mean changing the insides of their current ones, but giving them new parents.
A modest proposal which I have seen no one suggest.

andrew said...


Changing the kids parents, via Social Services abuse and neglect proceedings and via generous grandparental custody in child custody matters, happens surprisingly often.

Dave Barnes said...

Not those minor changes.
I am talking about taking the kids from the poor parents and giving them to rich people who then would have the legal responsibility to raise them to strict success metrics.