This is a timely look at the viability of the American Dream. It is an autobiographical account of one hillbilly’s transition from a “broken home” childhood in a lower-working-class family, into a graduate of Yale Law School. I place “broken family” in inverted coma’s because the book challenges the glib labels that are placed on people and experiences. If this book does one thing it takes you into the complexity and contradictions of life amongst the poor white communities of the United States.
This is an insiders’ take on what it is like to live in a family where fierce loyalty and random neglect coexist. Where love and hate are two sides of an indivisible coin. Where parental violence is commonplace and serial relationships are the norm. Where a mother will demand a urine sample of her young son in order that she can pass a random drug test at work.
The author paints a picture which captures the ambiguity of the strengths of hillbilly life with its strong commitment to family and national loyalty. It describes how these strengths carried to extreme convert family loyalty into blood feuds and patriotism into a deep distrust of outsiders. Whilst the book is very much focused on the detail of the lives of individuals it is set against the economic backdrop of the migration of hillbillies from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. The context is one where poor white Americans leave areas of decline to escape poverty and look for a new life in the industrial heartland of America being built just after the last war. This economically driven dislocation had its costs and casualties although the question is raised to what extent these were caused by the dislocation or were inherent in the codes of honour and double think of some existing aspects hillbilly life in the Appalachians.
Despite the fact his mother had a succession of partners and an addiction to prescription drugs, and despite the fact that she would occasionally threaten serious violence to her son and daughter, the author recognises that he was lucky in having a maternal grandmother and grandfather (Mamaw and Papaw) and a sister that provided points of stability, a permanent refuge and unconditional love.
Reading the book you feel the author would certainly have struggled had it not been for the unsentimental but solid support of his grandparents. He recalls how Pawpaw would spend hours helping him with his maths and taught him that, “…lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same. The former could be remedied with a little patience and a lot of hard work. And the latter? Well I guess you’re up shit creek without a paddle”. His Mamaw would always open her home and heart to him when he needed respite from his mother, even when she was in her seventies.
This is the same Pawpaw who had spent a large part of his early married life drinking and fighting with his wife Mamaw who herself was reputed to have killed a man. These are rough diamonds, at times, very rough. There is no sentimentality in this book, but there is an underlying theme of redemption. No one is all evil. People do good things even if most of their life they do the wrong thing. And most of the time when they do the wrong thing it is without either malice or forethought, and mostly to their own detriment. But to understand all is not to excuse all. Whilst the author records Pawpaw recognises the extent to which he as failed his daughter in the past and is therefore in some sense responsible for her shortcomings as a mother this does not absolve her of all responsibility.
The ambiguity of reality is everywhere in this book. His mother, who he had, at best, a tempestuous relationship with, reinforced within him the view that education was important, taking him to the library and getting him a library card. She may not have nurtured it and created the best environment for it to flourish but she inculcated the benefits of learning into what was clearly a receptive mind.
A real strength of the book is the balanced and clear focus on the stresses and strains of life in poor families. Families where aspiration is a job not a career, where education is girlie, where arguments replace discussion and where fights replace arguments. Where the most innocuous of slights can become the subject of blood feud and where contradictory beliefs can be held, and fought for, without apparent hypocrisy.
The book has been picked up in the US by many on the right who claim it shows that individuals need to accept responsibility for their own failings. The author may well be a patriot, he may well vote republican, he may still cling to the American Dream, but he has a clear view that the Dream is something that is getting harder and harder and that for folks from his background tantamount to impossible. Whilst he does argue strongly for personal responsibility, he also recognises the social, economic and psychological forces that weigh down upon and shape peoples actions. He does not offer easy solutions. He raises difficult questions and does so with an empathy and personal understanding for those that face the dilemmas of poverty.
His focus is on the cultural and personal issues, which undermine the Dream. This might be seen as a rerun of the “culture of poverty” thesis, which focuses responsibility for poverty on the communities that are poor. They are trapped in a culture of their own making which keeps them in poverty. I think his view is more subtle than this. I think he sees the interplay between the loss of employment in the rust belt and the decline into drugs and alcohol abuse and all that goes with that.
What he does do is wrestle with where one draws the line on personal responsibility. Whilst he recognises that not everyone has a Mamaw or a Pawpaw in their life he does not accept the view that people are simply the product of their environment and cannot be held to account personally for their decisions.
There is a touch of the Ayn Rand rugged individualism about his position. At one point he talks about the fact that his Mamaw could not leave bicycles locked up out on the porch for fear they would be stolen, or that someone had to sell his mothers house because he could not rely on his neighbours not to wreck it, or that his Mamaw was afraid to answer the door to a neighbour who pestered her for money for drugs. He goes on to say, “These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them and only we can fix them.”
Whilst some of us think there are things which governments and corporations do which directly contribute to these problems, it is a mechanical mind that thinks this is not tempered and mediated through real individuals making real choices which carry moral responsibility. Clearly, there are massive differences in the life chances of individuals and the author speaks very eloquently about the different environment, nay world, that “the rich” inhabit, a world full of social capital, and an understanding how to use it. But he also never loses sight of individual choice.
What is indisputable is that the author provides an intimate and clear-sighted view of what it is like to grow up in a family which has little money and a lot of uncertainty in the richest country in the world. He also describes the intimate stresses and strains of moving from a lower working class background to a solid middle class future. The constant fear of being “found out”, of discovering at university that a mistake had been made and your entry grades confused with someone else’s. If you have any experience of that transition the authenticity of the book will shine through.
Early in the book he says he recognises that he is a “hill person”. He goes on to say “So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well.” This is certainly true and I suspect is part of the explanation for the popularity of Trump. I recommend this as an interesting and timely take on the life experience of poor white Americans.
JD Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. William Collins 2016