[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 But there are also so many other books to read on the subject, ones that don’t borrow from outdated sociological trends like the “culture of poverty.”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