U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Hillbilly Elegy (Guest Post by Holly Genovese)

[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of six guest posts by Holly Genovese, which will be appearing every other Sunday. — Ben Alpers]

I, admittedly late to the game, recently read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I knew it had a “culture of poverty” tone to it and refused to buy it even after more and more people suggested I read it. But finally, my advisor let me borrow his copy. And I couldn’t help but thinking, why are people reading this book? So many people have told me they are reading it so they can understand the rise of Trump (which perpetuates dangerous and class-based myths that Trump was elected solely because of lower-income white voters). But there are also so many other books to read on the subject, ones that don’t borrow from outdated sociological trends like the “culture of poverty.” Vance attributes qualities of his family, qualities he identifies as “hillbilly” like alcoholism, violence, accents, and early pregnancy, to those who traveled from Appalachia to the Midwest on the hillbilly highway.

Vance’s use of the term “hillbilly” is problematic. Of course, the word was developed to describe people from Appalachia, but he uses the term to describe only those from Appalachia. He, of course, is considered a “hillbilly” because he spent his summers there. Vance then ascribes traits like anger, alcoholism, violence, and instability to “hillbilly” culture. More than that he ascribes it to a “culture of poverty” rather than side effects to poverty. To Vance, these traits are those of hillbillies, which doesn’t include low-income residents of cities, of the rural Northeast, of the real deep South. Many of the negatives that Vance ascribes to hillbillies aren’t unique to a monolithic “hillbilly” culture as Vance portrays it.

Vance repeatedly mentions the trope of “the welfare queen.” Vance had many intellectual influences, including his grandmother who he claimed “saved him” but the two that stick out to me are William Julius Wilson and Charles Murray. Vance’s intellectual lineage is rooted in ideas about welfare contributing to poverty and poverty as a cultural vice, rather than a systemic injustice. Vance’s argument is premised on widely controversial and discredited scholarship, yet has made the New York Times bestseller list. It has been lauded, by liberals and conservatives alike, as an explanation for the rise of Trump, an explanation that blames his election on the cultural values of lower-income white voters (who are not responsible for Trump’s election).

Interestingly Vance says “Wilson’s book spoke to me. I wanted to write him a letter and tell him that he had described my home perfectly. That is resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia-he was writing about black people in inner cities. The same was true of Charles Murray’s seminal Losing Ground, another book about black folks that could have been written about hillbillies-which addressed the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” (144). In attempting to include “hillbillies” in narratives about the culture of poverty, he inadvertently made comparisons between “hillbillies” and “inner city culture” that many conservatives would find disconcerting. Even still, Vance has perpetuated dangerous myths about America’s poor by repackaging them in a memoir with a catchy headline and a well-timed theme. In that vein, I would like to suggest books to read instead of Hillbilly Elegy (please include more in the comments).

Books to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy:

All Over But the Shoutin’  by Rick Bragg

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Two or Three Things I Know Before by Dorothy Allison

North Toward Home by Willie Morris

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenburg

Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness by Matt Wray

Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz

The Populist Vision by Charles Postel

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hoschild

17 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. An excellent deconstruction! I’ve been convinced by arguments like yours not to assign Hillbilly Elegy to my U.S. survey students. But I’m still looking for something of this sort — to pair with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” in a discussion of contemporary race and culture — so I wanted to ask if you know of anything in article form that you consider thoughtful. (This is for the students; I’ve read and enjoyed several of the books you list above.)

  2. This is pretty ridiculous, and why people rightly dismiss academics as a bunch of ideological fanatics. I’m going to say that the guy who grew up amongst hillbillies knows a lot more about that world than the indignant ideological enforcer who’s upset that the author resorted to ideologically incorrect thoughtcrime.

    Maybe the idea of getting angry and refusing to read books whose views upset you is a reason why academics so spectacularly misunderstand the world and its inhabitants?

    • What a snotty comment — arrogance isn’t the sole purview of academics, obviously, since you’ve swept in here out of nowhere to spout off about people and things you don’t know. In fact, your stereotype of academics as out of touch elites is, well, a stereotype, and your assumption that Holly Genovese fits your stereotype simply because she is (rightly!) critical of a book that gets it wrong — well that’s just petty of you.

      Some of us were raised by hillbillies, or rednecks, or Okies. Some of us grew up on food stamps and federally subsidized lunches and government cheese. Some of us had parents who dropped out of high school, who worked blue collar jobs, who went down to the unemployment office to look for work or pick up their check. In fact, some of us did that too. Some of us grew up in fundamentalist churches and Republican households (they don’t necessarily go together, historically, but they have tracked together since the 1970s). Some of us grew up around addicts or junkies headed in and out of rehab, in and out of jail.

      And not just despite those kinds of experiences, but because of all those experiences, some of us are pretty well attuned to how well (or poorly) writers talk about the ways that class and culture intersect.

      The Vance book is objectively Not Good. There are better books that talk about class poverty and culture and love and pride and shame. Holly has recommended a few above. I hope you’ll take the time to read a couple of them. Then we could have a real conversation.

      Otherwise, it’s just you swooping in and making foolish and ill-informed assumptions about people you don’t know and books you haven’t read.

    • Hey Max, I’ll note that Holly actually chose to read the book IN SPITE OF a desire to a avoid it. – TL

    • Max, in order to “gr[o]w up amongst hillbillies” “hillbilly” would need to have some objective reality beyond just the word applied to a diverse slew of people (which is part of the point Genovese was trying to make). Having grown up on a tobacco farm in southern Appalachia,, and then going on to have other experiences, I discovered that “hillbilly” (like so many other labels and epithets) is very much in the eye of the beholder. There is no “that world”; the white rural working class experience is multi-faceted, and certainly not uniform throughout the uplands (let alone the rest of rural America). For that matter, you know nothing about Genovese’s background, and can’t determine that her own life is so far removed from “that world.”
      Vance, on the other hand, seems to think the word represents some objective reality or ontology- one that just so happens to fit his own experience. That’s what some of us academic hillbillies call solipsism. It’s not so much a matter of “ideologically incorrect thoughtcrime,” as it is veering too far away from the factual realities at hand. Genovese has simply responded (much more gently than I did in my own review, I might add) with care and logic on a subject she happens to know a lot about. That’s what academics are supposed to do, despite anti-intellectual attempts to throw up culture war bulwarks. There’s no fanaticism here. Maybe on your end, but not here.

  3. I can’t help but notice that most people (including Holly) posted under their real names. The only one who did not left a really obnoxious comment that made a lot of assumptions about a woman he did not know. Make of that what you will.

    • @Jessica Parr:
      I can’t help but notice that most people (including Holly) posted under their real names. The only one who did not left a really obnoxious comment….

      I agree that Max’s comment was obnoxious, but why do assume that Max is not his real name?

      You have no way of knowing whether Max is that commenter’s real first name or not, unless you’re somehow clairvoyant.

      p.s. I comment here under my real name — my real first name, that is.

  4. This has been my favorite post by Holly Genovese, this type of deconstructive analysis is essential for attending to the politics of mythologies in the history of US culture. The books suggestion list is the icing on the cake, kudos!

  5. Thanks Holly for the review and many alternative reads! I’ll read the book as reminder of the “culture of poverty” screed, now resuscitated for the new century, and so I can say I read it and critique it without guilt. But…I’ll borrow it from my library, not buy it! An interesting note to that…the Napa library system, that includes 20 libraries, has 25 copies of Hillbilly Elegy and 5 copies of White Trash. All 25 copies of Elegy are out with 52 holds. Of the 5 copies of White Trash only 3 are out with no holds. This undoubtedly is the result of the benefits of being on NYT bestseller list but also, I think, a reason to read the book and to be prepared to specifically refute its thesis. I would encourage people to ask their libraries to buy these books, that Holly has suggested, as an attempt to counter this widely held bias.

  6. Thank you for the post Holly. Very thoughtful indeed.

    I am a grad student in Hong Kong and I know little about US politics. I actually learn of Hillbilly Elegy from my history professor’s facebook, who shared Vance’s interview with The American Conservative months before the election. (link at the end)

    I have yet to read his book because all the copies are out and on holds (yes even in Hong Kong U), but Vance seems to understand the problem with the “culture of poverty”, and he agrees with Ta-Nehisi Coates that “culture” is an excuse to end conversation and place the blame on ethnic minorities. I doubt Vance would agree that “welfare contributing to poverty and poverty as a cultural vice”. In his own words, “(Problems associated with poverty) are not totally immune to policy interventions. Neither are they entirely addressable by government.” Perhaps it is different in the book?

    I think these are the books that we should assign to student with care. Agree with him or not, given the book’s popularity, it is always better to discuss and debate rather than to ignore.

    link for the interview: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/trump-us-politics-poor-whites/

  7. “[some recent] books to read instead of Hillbilly Elegy”:

    • Desmond, Matthew. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown Publishers, 2016).
    • Hatcher, Daniel L. The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens (New York University Press, 2016).
    • Lens, Vicki. Poor Justice: How the Poor Fare in the Courts (Oxford University Press, 2016)
    • Pugh, Allison J. The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity (Oxford University Press, 2015).

  8. I recently stumbled on a non-renewable copy of Hillbilly Elegy at a local library (an unlikely occurrence, since it’s apparently never on the shelf for long) and have started it (40 pp in). It’s well-written and somewhat engrossing, which may help account for its best-sellerdom, though the timing no doubt was crucial.

    Just now I skipped ahead to the section where he mentions W.J. Wilson and Charles Murray. A couple of pages later there’s a passage (p.148) where he suggests that there are two different hillbilly ‘cultures’ — one emphasizing hard work etc., as embodied by his grandparents, and the other marked by the negative traits mentioned in the post (and other negative traits).

    While I don’t agree with Vance’s politics and would not defend ‘culturalist’ explanations of poverty as opposed to structural ones, it appears, at least from the mentioned passage, that he makes a two-cultures argument: i.e., there’s a positive and a negative “set of mores” (his phrase) in the group he’s writing about. This is arguably a more nuanced view than “it’s all the fault of one singular ‘culture of poverty'”. To be clear, I’m not defending the book; just thought I’d note this.

  9. Thank you for this post!!! I have, like Genovese resisted reading _Hillbilly Elegy_ because I imagined it to be as horrible as she states it is. _All Over But the Shoutin’_ is amazing!

    • I recently finished Hillbilly Elegy.

      The book has its problems, to be sure, and I don’t like the author’s politics, but I don’t think it’s horrible. A fair amount of it is autobiography not always directly connected to the book’s ‘message’, which is a bit of a jumble anyway. The heroes of the book, and the people to whom he dedicates it, are his late grandparents, and he does a draw a fairly vivid portrait of them.

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