Hillbilly Elegy

It’s the Culture, Stupid!—J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly is a derogatory term referring to the white working class living around the Appalachian mountains in the Southern-Western United States. Calling someone hillbilly is like calling Koreans reek of Kimchi and garlic, and like calling Japanese limped legs. You should never call someone hillbilly lest you want to be attacked.

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a name for Vance’s own memoir who sees himself as one of the hillbillies. It is a little self-belittling. You will understand why he named his book as such once you read it. That is, it is a sad song sung by the American white working class. Why is this? What kind of message does this book deliver to its readers?

Let’s suppose that you are born in one of the hillbilly families. Your life is like this. Your mom is unemployed, and drug-addicted, taking you in your third to ninth grades from one boyfriend of her to another for 7 years, breaking up with every single one of them once a year for average. Every time you meet one of them you are a little hopeful of making that guy your father, yet end up being disappointed in breakup of your mom. In the meantime, your emotional intimacy is being ruined as your mom keeps fighting with her boyfriend, screaming at each other, throwing stuff and hurting each other (150). Even before this, you were already hurt with the knowledge that your biological father had abandoned you to save some money for raising you. (Although this wound will be alleviated as you get to hear your dad side’s story.) Psychologists call experiences of children similar to this ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) (226). While ACE sounds abstruse, it is another expression for trauma. So you ended up being traumatized because of your parents, when they should be the one cultivating your self-esteem and filling you with all kinds of emotional resources which you will feed off of for the rest of your life.

This is not all. Your friends hanging out with you, and their parents are all similar to the foregoing. No one wants to go to college. No one has gone to college among the parents of your friends. There are so many of loafers like that who beat up their wives and abuse their children while drinking regularly to the level of being alcoholics. They are not even working 20 hours a week. Added to all of these is the Steel company which used to provide all kinds of support for your town has decided to leave the town, excusing itself from skyrocketing labor fees, forcing those who are capable of leaving to leave the town with the company. So the remaining people were the ones who were helpless either due to the lack of money, or to suffering from something else. If this is all you have seen and heard while growing up, what would you feel? What is your mindset like? You probably are filled with a sense of defeat.

But what is more serious is that your sense of defeat is not just about you, but about the town and its people living there, eating away at their hope and self-confidence, for they are not even sure that that is wrong now. So Vance describes the dominant emotional atmosphere among hillbillies “feelings that our choices don’t matter.” Translating this into psychological terms is “learned helplessness.” (163, 177) In brief, I cannot overcome this state of hopelessness no matter what I do. Those feelings become a town culture, a hillbilly culture. So you don’t need to make effort in doing something. Nothing will change. You are here for a while, and buried in the ground later. Make sure that you are aware that this is not a fiction. Vance is talking about the kind of reality that he has grown up in. It is such a sadly dramatic yet realistic reality.

Why this, then? One reason might be an inequality in income distribution. Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, speaks of this in his movie Inequality for All. According to Reich, back in 1978, the ordinary white class worker earned 48,000 dollars in average, while the top one percent earned 393,000 dollars. Fast forward the times, in 2010, the ordinary white class worker earns 33,000 dollars, compared to the whopping 1 million dollars for the top one percent. A sense of deprivation felt by the white class workers would have been enormous, given that we have to take into account the price hike here. In fact, they are constantly being pressured to sustain the kind of lifestyle which their parents generations enjoyed. They wonder why they can’t live their lives just like their parents. The truly unbelievable phenomenon happened in the last year’s Presidential election is deeply rooted in this sense of deprivation among the white working class folks.

So understanding their side of the story is a deep background for understanding what this book is talking about. On the surface, this book is a success story of how a rising young lawyer at age 34, a graduate of Yale Law school had overcome such a culture of helplessness and risen to situate himself as one of the most promising writers and potential senator in the format of memoir. Even so, if this is simply one more success story which is already so common out there, it never would have taken the fourth in Amazon’s the most read rank even after a year since its publication in June 2016. It would never have led ten thousand people leaving comments on it. Neither was it likely that it boasts of 5000 videos on it, to say nothing of more than 420,000 webpages dealing with it. Surely this book talks about something more than a personal success story. Vance, instead of focusing on how he has made it, shifts the readers’ interests into making and cultivating culture. It’s the culture, stupid!

The two cultural resources instilling in him an entitlement to confidence were living with Mamaw (Vance’s grandma), and his enlisting himself in the Marine Corps. Mamaw was as good as a savior to Vance. In the face of the hillbilly culture mushrooming helplessness and despair, Mamaw has taught Vance that the way out of this is education. Mamaw has hated both the broad society making fun of hillbillies and their taking in such sense of helplessness. After spending 7 hellish years seeing his mom’s revolving of boyfriends, Mamaw finally suggested to Vance to move in with her, and Vance stayed in Mamaw’s house from the 9th to the 12th grade, until he went on to college. Vance attributes his concentration on academic work to Mamaw’s creating a culture in which he was not distracted by anything other than his study. Instead, Mamaw told him that he should study, checking up on his homework, and getting mad at him in case he was getting lazy with his work. In other words, Mamaw was Vance’s way out of all these (151).

Seeing a new possibility for his own life through learning, Vance later face the second turning point, which was his enlisting in the Marine Corps. Studying hard in high school has paid off for Vance with an admission letter from Ohio State University, yet Vance had to think about paying for tuition. Accepting his cousin’s advice that being enlisted in the Marine Corps will help him pay for his own college education, Vance went on to serve in the Marine Corps before beginning his college career at Ohio State. This, however, has shown Vance a series of groundbreaking experiences in a new culture Vance has never heard of, in which he is forced to put emphasis on physical fitness, healthy diet, and regular life style (162). In a word, the culture Vance has learned in his Marine Corps career was that nothing is impossible if you work for it, the polar opposite of hillbilly culture. In his years at Ohio State, Vance works his butt off all the time, sleeping only 3-4 hours a day, which is common among Koreans by the way. Perhaps because of this, he was hospitalized for staph infection and mono.  However, Vance did not mind maintaining his work ethic since to him I would guess that his newly found sense of confidence and living it out tasted much better than goofing around and getting low grades, all of which led him to a spot at Yale Law.

Listening to Vance’s lifestory naturally leads people to pay attention to some of the tips for his success, Vance never fails to bring people’s attention to one word he thinks of most importantly: culture. Culture is the one word he constantly mentions all throughout the book (except for Mamaw, Papaw, and other family members’ names). The question Vance is posing here is why the hillbilly culture has become a symbol of helplessness, leaving all of us with a chance to think about the importance of making an alternative culture. In Vance’s opinion, both Republicans and Democrats have failed to bring the issue of culture on the table. Republicans tend to give an impression that all the matters is individual’s effort in pulling off amazing accomplishments, while Democrats are content with providing governmental support and changing policies, twisting the essence of the issue (127, 194). In other words, Vance strikes a blow to both Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the issues of education, poverty, and the way both approach the white working class.

But culture is never an easy one to understand. The Yale theologian Kathryn Tanner says in her book Theories of Culture that culture is the second most complicated term to understand right after nature. Culture is never to be fully grasped through reducing it to either individual or to communal dimensions. It is the way we do things around here, we relate to one another, presuppositions lying behind all of those, and everything else humans in specific groups carry out things. Culture is how individuals belong to communities, and how communities accept individuals as their members. One simple approach will never help in understanding culture. And this is what Vance is urging all of us to look at. How one specific culture ruins people, relationships, families, and communities. How coming up with an alternative culture will relieve the white working class, the urban black, and everyone else in similar struggles of their common problems. This is an important, heavy topic for all of us to think about.

As a Korean American immigrant, I could not help feeling uncomfortable with the uneasy overlap between Korean and American societies. After the Korean war, Korea has made itself over to what it is now solely because of the people’s willpower to get over its chronic poverty. Vance’s hardworking lifestyle is a common thing in Korea, which is also one of the dominant cultural narratives among Koreans. Yet we should remember that such narrative of hardworking and succeeding works only because people still had hope, which has been really the case. Nonetheless, the youth in Korea now can no longer subscribe to this particular narrative as their parent generation did, for they are losing hope of working hard and getting paid off for their effort. I see in this helpless a Korean version of hillbilly culture. Academic and media world are seconding to this growing helplessness. If this is accurate, then I think Vance is posing a question just as important to Koreans as it is to Americans.

Apart from such raising of an important issue, I had difficulty in setting aside an uneasy feeling after reading this book. Something feels off. I guess that is probably because Vance is still struggling with his problems. Vance openly confesses that he is still dealing with his childhood trauma, and additionally dealing with the inner conflict between the hillbilly culture he has been accustomed to and the new elite culture he is now part of. Considering that Vance is in his mid-thirties, I am hopeful that he should come up with a sequel later in his life, after he is able to handle and own all the problems he is currently struggling. I am rooting for him and his next book.


Below are books frequently bought together with Hillbilly Elegy at Amazon. If you install Kindle application and purchase the electronic version, you can read on your computer, smartphone or Kindle E-reader.