Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by someone from a poor white family in the middle of America, who ‘got out’ and made a success of themselves (going to a prestigious university and ending up at a venture capital firm. It became a bestseller in the US and has been widely viewed as ‘explaining’ why Trump won the election, or at least detailing the conditions and factors behind that political movement. I’m not sure it does that (I’d suggest reading the magnificent The Unwinding for a comprehensive look at what is happening in America and why Trump has risen to power), but it is a well-written, compelling and articulate view into people’s lives that often remain undocumented and little understood.
The content is shocking in places: the levels of violence, domestic conflict, alcoholism and drug use combine into a potent mix which only requires a spark to set light to. Families are dysfunctional and in a state of constant reinvention and uncertainty: new partners arrive and leave in the book with troubling regularity. And underpinning both is the decline of more traditional industrial jobs and the associated lack of opportunity.
But Vance also talks continually about the hillbilly culture and code – in which fierce loyalty mixes with an equally fierce mistrust of authorities (including politicians) – and which he dates back to much earlier times and generations. He also notes how this is changing between generations: “Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
There is little clear reasoning given as to why he makes it while others don’t, beyond a few swipes at others’ laziness – views that aren’t surprising given his experience and his political mentors (David Frum, Peter Thiel etc). More clear is that his grandmother Mamaw, along with his sister Lindsey, gave him the consistency and solidity that was hugely lacking elsewhere. And even his mother, plagued by addictions and terrible choices, places a strong emphasis on education and learning. It is wise, perhaps, for Vance not to draw much wider lessons from his own experience – it is, after all, just one experience amongst many; and, as the saying goes, data beats opinion every time.
For me, the most insightful and affecting part of the book was towards the end in which Vance realised not only the class divide he was having to bridge in these new social networks (there is an interesting sidebar on social capital, networks and careers here) but also that he hadn’t left his past behind. Although he was physically and financially and career-wise in a completely different sphere, he was (and probably is) stil carrying some of the psychological baggage from his upbringing in all its chaos and persistent anxiety. In this it reminded me slightly of Lynsey Hanley’s excellent book Estates in which she details not only the physical walls (of the estate) that have to be scaled to move out and on, but also the psychological walls in people’s minds that last much longer and are arguably more difficult to climb over.
So don’t read it for an explanation of the Trump phenomenon, but do read it for a searing insight into the reality of white working class lives in the middle of America…and to question, as I have been doing, how these problems can possibly be tackled: which feels, as with the changes to hillbilly culture, like it will take generations to transform.