Some books stand alone, while others are almost impossible to assess outside the political and cultural debates of their time. In June 2016, a few months before the US election, a young Silicon Valley investment manager published a workmanlike memoir, which has become a No 1 New York Times bestseller. JD Vance had grown up poor in rust-belt Ohio, in a family that was, by his account, highly dysfunctional. His book describes how he transcended severe disadvantages to attend Yale law school and go on to a lucrative career. It follows the broad arc of the survivor story, a genre that has a special place in the US’s conversation with itself. Class mobility in America is stagnant and Vance is a statistical outlier. He should not have made it out of Middletown, Ohio. That he did, he ascribes to luck, character and the relative stability provided by his grandmother, known as “Mamaw”.
“Mamaw” and “Papaw” were descended from whites who settled the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the depression, Appalachian migrants streamed out of the mountains into the factories of the north. The Vances were part of a second postwar wave that brought them to Middletown, a place that had grown up around a giant steel mill. Papaw (despite being a violent alcoholic) had had a good life as a worker for the American Rolling Mill Company, but the business – and the town that depended on it – plummeted as heavy industry moved to east Asia. By the time Vance was growing up, the days of company social outings and gold-plated pensions were long gone.
Vance’s father was absent. His mother was an erratic and neglectful parent, with alcohol and substance abuse problems. Vance was forced to accommodate himself to a series of stepfathers, until he found a sanctuary with Mamaw, staying with her until he left Middletown to join the marines. After service in Iraq and undergraduate studies at Ohio State, his Yale law acceptance opened the door to the higher strata of American society.
Late in the book he makes a list of “things I didn’t know when I got to Yale law school”, including “that you needed to wear a suit to a job interview” and “finance was an industry that people worked in”. He completes the outsider picture with a vignette of himself spitting out a glass of sparkling water at an important interview dinner, having never suspected that such a drink existed. He also positions himself as a medical or psychological “survivor” of his past, suffering bouts of aggression and withdrawal that cause problems in his marriage. Unwilling to see a therapist, he diagnoses himself as having an overactivated fight-or-flight response, a stress reaction to the chaotic, violent circumstances of his childhood.
Vance makes excursions into more academic, less personal kinds of writing, combining his story with a sketchy ethnography of the “surprisingly cohesive culture” of his “hillbilly” people. He designates himself as “Scots-Irish”, taking care to distinguish the people of “Greater Appalachia” from “the WASPS of the north-east”. This is a hugely loaded distinction, a claim of outlaw whiteness that has been politically mobilised in the victory of Donald Trump’s revanchist identity politics. Vance’s wife’s background is not described in the book, but she has the Hindu name Usha, which suggests an unacknowledged layer of complexity to this identification.
Vance considers the hillbilly culture toxic, and sincerely wishes to fix its many problems. As a teenager he worked as a cashier in a grocery store and observed the shopping habits of his neighbours, the poor who were “animated” by “frenetic stress” as they bought frozen ready meals, and the methodical rich who bought fresh produce and were allowed to run up large tabs. Vance writes that he “hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damn tab.” His resentment of welfare recipients is longer lasting. Some of his food stamp customers were gaming the system, reselling soda for cash and carrying luxury items such as mobile phones. “I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.”
Our lives matter to Vance, and this “our” is the key to why his book has been such a runaway success. It dropped into a national shouting match that has pitted a hazily defined entity called “the white working class” against an equally hazy “coastal elite” as the Sunni and Shia of the American political scene. The commentariat were at a loss as to explain the ballooning support for Trump, a candidate so transparently unqualified for the job that his candidacy seemed more like a prank than a serious bid for the White House. Vance, articulate and authentically Appalachian, became a regular face on the cable news circuit, a sort of ethnographic native informant about the “other America”.
Vance, unsurprisingly, is a Republican. His mentors at Yale were David Frum, the Bush-era speechwriter, and Amy Chua, the law professor and “tiger mother”. He is a principal at Mithril Capital, working closely with its co-founder, the libertarian billionaire and Trump adviser Peter Thiel. His book contains many stories of lurid “white trash” abjection, often tied to the corrupting influence of government. “Every two weeks I’d get a small pay-check and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.”
As more than one reviewer has pointed out, Vance’s stories of hillbilly pathology are peculiarly reminiscent of the “welfare queen” stories deployed against black people during the Reagan years to justify his assault on the social safety net. He is comfortable with explanations of white pathology that rely on psychology and “culture”, but not on structural economic inequality. On culture: “We spend our way into the poor house … Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one person in the family uses drugs … ” On psychology: “There is a lack of agency here, a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.” He calls his own state prior to entering the Marine Corps “learned helplessness”.
Since Trump’s victory, Vance’s book has taken on a different significance, at least among the bloodied and disoriented liberal centre-left commentators who sought his counsel during the campaign. In those circles it has suddenly become received wisdom that the Democratic party lost because it took insufficient notice of the concerns of the white working class, and concentrated too much on so-called “identity politics”, the representation and definition of LGBTQ people and people of colour. In a widely discussed New York Times article, Mark Lilla called for “post-identity liberalism”, a politics focused on Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) and in which “identity” concerns were handled “quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale”. For some commentators, this suggested that Vance’s people were to be appeased by sending minorities to the back of the bus.
There has been considerable pushback against this view, not least among those who wonder why supposedly good new “identity politics” (let us go forth and understand these dispossessed whites!) is a cure for the bad old identity politics that supposedly caused Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The notion that it’s up to elite liberals to make an either-or choice – the agenda of the white working class against the agenda of the minorities – is nonsensical and patronising. Economic distress in the US does not respect racial boundaries. The losers under Barack Obama haven’t just been older white blue-collar workers in the rust belt, but urban millennials exploited in the gig economy. Police violence, environmental justice and access to health care have little to do with pronouns. Readers looking to understand the class fault lines within white America will be enlightened by Vance’s narrative of class mobility, but as a guide to the new political terrain Hillbilly Elegy is uneven, and frustratingly silent about the writer’s real commitments.
• Hillbilly Elegy is published by William Collins. To order a copy for £12.29 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian