White Trash, Hillbillies, and Middle-Class Stereotypes

During election years white people who do not have bachelor’s degrees (the increasingly common definition of “the working class”) become both a somewhat exotic who-knew-they-were-here-and-in-such-large-numbers object of discussion and a target for freewheeling social psychologizing. Thus, it is more than a little refreshing to see two books attempt to tackle the more exotic side of Donald Trump’s beloved “the poorly educated.” White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by LSU historian Nancy Isenberg, is a progressive-leaning account of the disdain shifting groups of white workers and vagrants have suffered throughout U.S. history. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by Silicon Valley executive J.D. Vance, is a politically conservative account of Vance’s rearing by a drug-and-alcohol-addicted mother, rough but loving grandparents, a wonderful sister, a reliable aunt, and the U.S. Marines. Hillbilly Elegy is by far the better book.

I found White Trash disappointing primarily because it pays almost no attention to actual trashy white people, nor is it anything like a “history of class in America.” Instead, it traces how certain groups of whites have been disdained and blamed across 400 years by a variety of “better classes” from plantation and factory owners to politicians and TV producers. Much of the early history is interesting and insightful. The concept of trash, for example, comes from the English who saw most of their emigrants to the colonies as “waste” and “refuse” whose leaving would help purify the motherland. I particularly liked the chapters on the democratizing classism of Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson, very different class visions but historically complementary. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive history of upper- and middle-class prejudice against low-income, poorly educated whites – that is, a history of classism, not a history of class or of the actually existing people in the “white trash” class – then you will find this book rewarding. But if you want some insight into the roots of trashy white people you know and love (and sometimes hate or at least need to avoid for a while), then J.D. Vance’s Elegy is the book for you.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

The core of this memoir is Vance’s mother, her string of husbands and boyfriends who were Vance’s stepfathers-in-residence, along with his grandmother and grandfather whose constant fighting when his mother was a child undoubtedly had something to do with his mother’s inconstancy in every part of her life, especially as a parent. Vance’s evolving reflections on these and many other members of his extended family in Ohio and Kentucky are complexly developed with a straightforward clarity, both from the point of view of a child trying to make sense of it all at the time and from the perspective of a Yale Law School graduate who is trying to figure out how he succeeded in liberating himself from “a family and culture in crisis.”

Vance gives the bulk of the credit to his grandmother and grandfather, who actually did most of his rearing. One of the joys of the book is how Vance shows people changing through the different stages of their lives, sometimes dramatically and often for the best, and this ultimately is the source of hope Vance finds by the end of the book. The violent fighting between Vance’s “Mamaw” and “Papaw” that his mother had grown up with, for example, had stopped by the time they were looking after Vance. He heard second-hand all the stories of shouting, throwing things, physical fighting, and the time Mamaw set Papaw on fire in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him, but he witnessed little of their discord himself. Besides being his primary source of unconditional love, they came to be savvy moral guides for Vance and much of the rest of the family. Vance, now 31, eventually learned to reject some of this guidance – especially the hillbilly honor culture that so readily leads to physical, verbal, and relational violence – but he shows how complexly situational their moral thinking became in concrete situations they helped him negotiate. At the time he finished the book, his mother was still “using,” and when he holds her responsible for the life she has lived and the horrible mother she was for him and his sister, he does so in the vague but not vain hope that she might one day achieve the sobriety she has been chasing and abandoning all of her adult life. After all, Mamaw and Papaw went from attempted murder to loving parental grandparents and steady moral beacons.

Hillbilly Elegy has become a bit of a cause celebre among traditional (now mostly anti-Trump) conservatives like The Weekly Standard and David Brooks for its polemical “it’s-their-own-damned-fault” conclusions about the white working class. But Vance’s sweeping generalizations take up very little of the book. They pretty much simply recycle many of the “white trash” stereotypes that Nancy Isenberg shows have a 400-year history predating the existence of the USA, but they are also wildly inconsistent with Vance’s unsparing but affectionate portraits of his family members.

Toward the end of the book Vance uses the royal “we” to excoriate the culture of both hillbillies and the white working class as a whole:

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse . . . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess . . . We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. . . . . We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness. . . . . These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.

These generalizations fit Vance’s mother, some her boyfriends, and a handful of people he observes in various working-class jobs he has had, but they do not fit his own accounts of most of the people in his family. Even the drunks and those who are much too quick to throw a punch (women as well as men) work hard when they can get steady work – Papaw, for example, was a lifer at Armco Steel in Middletown. And as far as we can tell, his sister and her husband, his aunts and uncles, his biological father, and most of the people he sketches seem to live creatively within their modest means.

J.D. Vance’s heartening struggle to “overcome” his “modest background” by achieving professional middle-class status and income is artfully rendered in Hillbilly Elegy, but his generalizations about hillbillies and the white working class are not just hasty and overdone. They reflect the kinds of prejudiced stereotypes he learned in college and law school and in the world he inhabits today. The fact that they are so spectacularly out of sync with the actual people he portrays is testimony to the power of those stereotypes, common among well-educated liberals as well as conservatives. Fortunately, Vance has not yet overcome all his trashy white background when telling nuanced stories about the complicated people who inhabit his life and memory. I’m hoping he never will.


  • ToniGilpin October 5, 2016

    This is great, Jack. I haven’t yet read either book but have read several commentaries on both, from right and left, and have been made uneasy by those critiques but wasn’t sure why. I had thought after reading a few dismissals of Vance’s book from the left that I wouldn’t bother with it but now I will pick it up. What you suggest about the virtues of his book reminds me of a quote I have on my desk from Harriette Arnow, someone else who told nuanced stories about the complicated people referred to as “white trash.” She said: “I memorized some verses from Corinthians. ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ And some versions read ‘love.’ I substituted ‘sincerity’ and used it as a text for writing…That’s a good text for anyone. Or leave it as it is. Because usually we love or have charity for the people of whom we write, for our characters.” So anyone who writes about people — historians included — needs to have that love (even for the figures we despise, paradoxically) to tell the story right, I would argue. So in your view Vance has that, even if he lacks the proper perspective, and so that makes him worth reading. Thanks for the review!

    • Dwight Billings December 10, 2016

      Toni: “worth reading”? Don’t bother. The book is a travesty.

  • Dwight Billings December 10, 2016

    Dwight Billings

    J.D. Vance
    is a thirty-one year old graduate of Yale Law School and a principal in a
    Silicon Valley investment firm. He is also a political conservative and a
    self-described “hillbilly.” Vance was haphazardly raised by an unstable and
    abusive, drug and alcohol-addicted single-mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust
    Belt town “hemorrhaging jobs and hope.” His childhood was full of emotional trauma
    and economic insecurity. Vance says he wrote Hillbilly Elegy to explain how he overcame the obstacles of his
    childhood and the surrounding despair of his community. He attributes his success
    to his severe but loving hillbilly grandparents who preached the value of hard
    work and the American Dream of upward mobility as well as to an empowering
    stint in the Marine Corps. His other purpose for writing in these troubled
    economic times is to deliver a jeremiad to the white working class, especially
    those of Scots-Irish descent with ties to Appalachia. Here he speaks like the
    stern but loving father-figure he never had. It is one thing to write a
    personal memoir but quite something else—something exceedingly audacious—to
    presume to write the “memoir” of a culture.

    Vance notes
    that “Noble-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial
    Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites” but more
    important, he contends, is “what goes on in the lives of real people when the
    economy goes south.” There is nothing wrong with that question, of course, but
    his answer points in the wrong direction. The real problem, he says, is about people
    “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst possible way. It’s about a culture
    that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

    It’s often said
    that you can’t judge a book by its cover but in this case you can. All you really
    need to know about Hillbilly Elegy can
    be learned from who has endorsed it on the back cover: Reihan Salam, Peter
    Thiel, and Amy Chua. Salam is the rightwing editor of the National Review. Thiel is the libertarian venture capitalist, hedge
    fund manager, and co-founder of PayPal who recently endorsed Donald Trump at
    the Republican National Convention. Amy Chua, Vance’s mentor in law school, is
    the author of a controversial, best-selling book advocating harsh childrearing
    practices, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger
    Mother. With her husband Jeb Rubenfeld, Chua also wrote The Triple Package which purports to
    explain why some ethnic/cultural groups are more successful than others because
    of a sense of superiority, impulse control, and motivating levels of
    insecurity. Having backers like these—and conservative columnist David Brooks
    who recently proclaimed in the New York
    Times that Hillbilly Elegy “is
    essential reading for this moment in history”—helps to explain the
    extraordinary but undeserved attention Vance’s book is getting.* Since Vance’s hillbilly losers are portrayed
    as the opposite of Chua and Rubenfeld’s winners, his endorsements also help to explain
    Vance’s bottom line: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that
    can fix these problems for us. . . These problems [drug addiction, teen pregnancy
    and illegitimacy, the lack of a work ethic, the inability to face the truth
    about one’s self, etc.] were not created by governments or corporations or
    anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” Vance’s fix, the usual
    neoliberal fix, is fix thyself. There is, of course, nothing new here. Hillbilly Elegy is the pejorative Moynihan
    report on the black family in white face. But its compelling and at times heart-rending
    memoiristic style, appearing when there is considerable interest in the anger
    and alienation of the white working class and its presumed support for Donald
    Trump, is likely fueling much of the book’s popular success. **

    A nostalgic
    image of an Appalachian barn on the side of a dirt road is on the book’s front
    cover. But Vance knows little about contemporary Appalachia—certainly not the region’s
    vibrant grassroots struggles to build a post-coal economy. He has only visited
    family members in eastern Kentucky or attended funerals there. His inventory of
    pathological Appalachian traits—violence, fatalism, learned helplessness,
    poverty as a “family tradition”—reads like a catalog of stereotypes Appalachian
    scholars have worked so long to dispel. (See works by Henry Shapiro and Anthony
    Harkins for the origins of these persistent stereotypes and how they have been
    deployed for more than a century.) Vance’s
    Appalachia is refracted thru the distorted lens of his own dysfunctional family
    experience. It makes as much sense as generalizing about Italian Americans from
    Tony Soprano.

    The real focus
    of Hillbilly Elegy, however, is not
    Appalachia but the experience of Appalachian out-migrants. This topic has been expertly
    documented by serious scholars such as Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Harry
    Schwarzweller, James Brown, and Garth Mangalam among others, but their research
    does not inform Hillbilly Elegy. Vance
    claims his authority to speak to and about this regional group on the basis of
    being a Scots-Irish descendant of Appalachia whose maternal grandparents migrated
    from the Kentucky Mountains to the Midwest for industrial work. They were
    rough, foul-mouthed, and violent. Vance describes his beloved grandmother—his “Mamaw”—as
    a “pistol-packing lunatic” who “came from a family that would shoot at your
    rather than argue with you” (p. 25). He claims that one of his Vance ancestors
    set off the Hatfield and McCoy feud and he seems to relish telling how his
    Mamaw once tried to kill his grandfather by setting him on fire with gasoline after
    he had passed out drunk. Nonetheless, his grandfather made a good living as a
    steelworker and he and his wife provided the “love and stability” Vance’s mother
    could never offer. Vance believes that their demands for hard work, discipline,
    and a love of America as the greatest country on earth enabled him to become, in
    my words, a little engine that could.

    I tell my
    students in Appalachian studies courses to beware of two intellectual
    tendencies in writings about any group—essentialism
    (“this is the essence of what they are like”) and universalism (“everyone in the group is like this”). Vance heaps on
    both. I also warn them not to ontologize their neuroses. I picked up this
    advice from Arthur Mizman’s psychoanalytical study of Max Weber which contended
    that Weber was guilty of trying to reconcile his childhood angst about the irreconcilable
    conflict between his pietistic mother and businessman father by writing The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
    Not to ontologize one’s personal and family neuroses by projecting them onto a culture
    or a regional group is good advice unless one is as brilliant a cultural
    analyst as Max Weber. J. D. Vance is no Max Weber.


    * On August
    7, 2016, Hillbilly Elegy ranked
    number nine on the New York Times list
    of hardcover, nonfiction best-selling books.

    ** For why
    Vance says he both loves and is terrified by Donald Trump, see Rod Dreher’s
    interview with him, “Trump: Tribune of Poor White People,” at

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