Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. VanceFrom a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
Hillbilly Elegy | Notes & Reflections
Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addresses frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Most of the people live in the mountains surrounding Kentucky Highway 15, in trailer parks, in government-subsidized housing, in small farmhouses, and in mountain homesteads like the one that served as the backdrop for the fondest memories of my childhood. It was that latter practice that made me aware of something special about Jackson and its people. And we respect our dead. My grandparents left Jackson in the late s and raised their family in Middletown, Ohio, where I later grew up. But until I was twelve, I spent my summers and much of the rest of my time back in Jackson.
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HarperCollins, I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us. What is more surprising is that, as surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites.
Hillbilly Elegy by J. He begins the Prologue by stating that the existence of this memoir is somewhat absurd.
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According to surveys, Vance says, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America, with higher rates of pessimism than even Latino immigrants and black Americans, who face statistically higher barriers to economic success. For Vance, this is due to the rampant social isolation in the region, giving the example of churches that appeal to the emotions instead of offering social support to the community. The couple often missed work and routinely took long bathroom breaks indicating that they were playing hooky to escape the hard work. Vance closes his introduction by clarifying that this book is not an academic study, but a family memoir. As a child, Vance memorized his home address even as it changed frequently, but he remembers always distinguishing that address from his sense of home. Jackson, as Vance describes it, was coal country and full of deeply selfless, respectful people.