Rebel Yale: Reading and Feeling “Hillbilly Elegy”




I.

THE END OF THE YEAR is the time critics draw up best-of lists, but it is also a time to tally the verdicts of the marketplace: the biggest movie, the hottest toy, the most viral tweet. And in 2017, Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance’s memoir about escaping the drug-depressed rust belt and landing at Yale Law School, was the second best-selling nonfiction book at Amazon. Hillbilly Elegy finished just behind Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, a blog-driven self-help book, and just ahead of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s volume of popular astronomy. But where both Manson and Tyson had enormous built-in audiences and huge platforms for promotion, Vance was a novice from nowhere. Was.

For Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was actually published in June 2016. By the end of 2017, Vance was a seasoned veteran, holding forth on cable news and at the Brookings Institution, half-heartedly denying his political aspirations. And now, Mitch McConnell has reportedly contacted Vance about a bid for the 2018 Senate seat now occupied by Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Without a sizable social media presence, without a successful movie or TV series to drive sales (unlike #1 overall Wonder and #7 The Handmaid’s Tale), Vance’s book had made its way in the world anyway; Vance was no longer a wide-eyed novice just happy to be published. The runaway success of Hillbilly Elegy means that it is now firmly established as the single most popular attempt to understand the “cultural crisis” underlying Trump’s victory. Rather than urging Americans to read it, as so many of its first reviewers did, we now need to examine why we’ve bothered and what we’ve taken from it.

Hillbilly Elegy climbed to number one on the New York Times best-seller list two months after it was published. Quickly touted as a prescient explanation of the Trump phenomenon, it floated around the top five for the rest of that year. But instead of slowly drifting down the sales charts, Hillbilly Elegy has shown remarkable staying power. This is partly because everyone seems to be assigning it. In 2017, administrators at more than a dozen colleges and universities chose it as the summer reading of choice for their incoming students. A judge in Orange County, North Carolina, demands book reports from white college students brought up on drug charges as part of their community service. And in one of his op-eds for The New York Times, David Brooks tells his readers that it is “essential reading for this moment in history.” In the year and a half since its publication, Hillbilly Elegy has become part of the American curricula, both official and not. No one is recommending it because it is the best-written memoir of its era; they’re recommending it because it is the genteel way to peer into Trump territory. Vance is our authentic voice from that realm.

Robert Thomson — CEO of News Corp, which owns Vance’s publisher HarperCollins and which is one half of Rupert Murdoch’s now-divided media empire — attributed the book’s success to its ability to “resonate beyond the traditional elites.” But Hillbilly Elegy’s sales figures were buoyed by its widespread acceptance on university campuses, where “traditional elites” are born. Indeed, its selection as summer reading, good for about another 10,000 copies a week, helped shoot the book back up to number one in 2017. Hillbilly Elegy’s presence on student bookshelves is but one sign that Thomson has it wrong. Hillbilly Elegy isn’t so much “resonating beyond traditional elites,” as justifying elitism under Trump.

We can begin to understand the book’s subtle plug for elitism when we consider the appeal on college campuses for a book about “hillbillies” and “rednecks.” “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” says Vance. “I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which assigned Hillbilly Elegy to its 6,610 first-year students, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that she hoped to “generate a lively conversation about a set of important issues.” Perhaps Vance could explain why Wisconsin went red? Perhaps, Blank continued, Hillbilly Elegy would inspire students to “think more about the social and political issues raised in the book.” What are these issues? Blank demurs. Our reading of Hillbilly Elegy’s life in the Trump era is that it succeeds because Vance demurs too, and in rather a particular way. It is precisely his refusal to speak directly about “issues” that makes J. D. Vance the new pundit for white people, and that makes Hillbilly Elegy so widely appealing.

What are the administrators who assign this book hoping that students will get out of Hillbilly Elegy? To find the answer to this question we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that administrators assign books solely to enlighten students. Teaching students, one hopes, plays some role, but summer reading choices are also made with an eye toward students’ tuition-paying parents and, more importantly, toward the college’s own overseers — chancellors, boards of regents, and, in the case of public institutions, state legislators. A summer reading choice is evidence of what administrators think will burnish the appeal of higher education. This matters in Trump’s moment — when state universities in Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin (to name some) are under assault. In spite of its author’s erudition, Hillbilly Elegy delivers resentment for collegiate elitism, but in the palatable guise of what David Brooks praised as its folksy “working-class honor code.” Administrators are throwing red state politicians a bone by assigning Hillbilly Elegy. As summer reading, that is, Hillbilly Elegy sells higher learning by affirming beliefs that fuel its demise.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me was another popular choice for 2017 college summer reading, and a quick comparison of which institutions chose Hillbilly Elegy and which chose Coates’s literary epistle about growing up black makes the political motives that shaped these lists clear. Both books were chosen by a mix of public and private institutions, large and small, with a combined enrollment of more than 100,000. Both were chosen at schools where between 30 percent and 40 percent of the students receive Pell Grants, a rough proxy for the number of poorer students. But the most notable difference in the table is political: no public institution with a Democratic governor chose Vance; only one public institution with a Republican governor chose Coates (the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga). Hillbilly Elegy is the kind of book you want parents and politicians to know students are reading to persuade white, Midwestern Republicans to feel good about releasing funds to support higher education. If you are running a flagship state university campus like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and your Republican governor and legislature have come after funding and tenure, you are more than happy to choose Vance’s book.

But why Hillbilly Elegy in particular? If Republican legislators want to know that tax dollars are being spent teaching their citizenry about poor white people, why Vance’s book and not, say, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, or Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, both published at the same time? If the idea were simply to enlighten college kids, any number of books could have been chosen. The difference comes down to the kind of book one is reading when one reads Hillbilly Elegy. It is the kind of book that eschews argument — one that in fact asks us to avoid analysis, so that we can better feel. “I want people to understand how upward mobility actually feels,” Vance writes.

 

II.

Lawrence Summers, Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006, thinks that Vance succeeds in making readers feel upward mobility. Summers kicked off 2017 by tweeting his praise for Hillbilly Elegy: “Reading about @hillbillyelegy is not the same as reading it. Anyone wanting to understand Trump’s rise or American inequality should read it.” Summers is speaking to a particular kind of reader here, a reader who has time for executive summaries of books but not the books themselves (you can find a dozen of these summaries for Hillbilly Elegy on Amazon) — and he is making a plea for actually reading this one. Reading it will allow you to experience something, and within that experience there is an understanding more powerful than what Summers describes in another tweet as “economic and statistical analysis” of the sort offered by White Trash. Summers’s Hillbilly Elegy tweet was not viral — under 500 likes, under 200 retweets — but it was an important signal. Vance picked it up. Eighteen minutes later, he gratefully quote-tweeted Summers, adding: “I guess it will only encourage those who think I’m an evil neoliberal shill. At any rate, thanks!”

Late in the book, Vance confesses not to being a neoliberal shill but rather to being a “modern conservative.” Yet almost nowhere does he offer opinions about the concrete policies that motivate this political stance, not even on ones that might affect the population he purports to represent. Instead, he wants to give us what he describes as “the real story of my life.” And what makes his story real is the feeling. Vance’s narrative is full of rough moments from his past that help us experience those. There are deaths and drug overdoses; there is divorce and violence. There is the gut-wrenching account of the time his mother, high and raging, speeds wildly down the highway threatening to kill them both in a car crash. When she pulls over, J. D. escapes to a house on the side of the road where a woman calls the cops. The scene is wretched. You feel terrible for this little boy. His mother is hauled off to jail, and he waits alone in the back of a cruiser. His older sister eventually shows up, and he collapses, crying, into her loving arms. What Hillbilly Elegy lacks in policy, it more than makes up for in feeling.

But feeling in Hillbilly Elegy works in the service of “economic and statistical analysis,” whether Vance admits it or not. Young J. D. ends up lying in court about the scene on the highway so he won’t be put into foster care, and thereafter he is allowed to live with Mamaw, his imperfect, funny, reliable — and most of all lovable — grandmother. She’s a lifelong Democrat, but when Section 8 recipients move in next door, this beloved gun-toting granny says, “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood. […] I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.” We already love Mamaw when Vance drops this badly rendered dialogue into the narrative. It is Mamaw’s house to which the young J. D. can escape when his mother gets out of control and starts using again; Mamaw’s house that provides safe haven when he can no longer stay with his snake-handling biological father; Mamaw’s house that feels like home. But Mamaw’s house is also where the young J. D. — and, via his feelings, the reader — learns that welfare is, to employ one of her unvarnished terms, bullshit. It isn’t clear from Vance what ought to be done about Section 8 housing vouchers, but surely the amplification of feelings like those J. D. assigns to Mamaw came into justifying the recent proposal by Housing and Urban Development secretary Dr. Ben Carson to cut them by six billion dollars.

The anecdote about Section 8 builds toward a rhetorical climax at the book’s midpoint, when Vance breaks with the memoirist’s “I” and begins memorializing the “culture in crisis” as a whole. He shifts into jeremiad, and adopts the voice of all hillbillies: “we spend our way into the poorhouse”; “we purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy”; “we don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents”; “we choose not to work, when we should be looking for jobs”; “we eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner.” It is in this “we” that the law professor Jedediah Purdy finds the “love and hate” Vance feels with “the helplessness of so many emotions about home and family.” Purdy feels these feelings in his review of Hillbilly Elegy (which he analyzes in the New Republic alongside Strangers in Their Own Land), and he thinks that we should too. Purdy is also a graduate of Yale Law, and like Vance he trades on his Appalachian heritage (“there is no vine that Purdy cannot identify,” his New York Times Magazine biographer does not fail to mention). Indeed, he might be described as Vance’s liberal hillbilly twin. But what Purdy and others miss by immersing in J. D.’s feelings is precisely Vance’s political message: no economy, no matter how broken and unequal, can be blamed for such quotidian fecklessness. No policy can fix a broken culture. It’s time to put down the Big Mac and grab hold of those bootstraps. As Vance puts it at the beginning of this American dream memoir, he has done nothing “extraordinary.” So what’s wrong with all those other hillbillies? In suggesting that his own success in Silicon Valley was a matter of refusing cinnamon rolls, Vance is giving us a basis in feeling for the devastating policy Ben Carson wants to enact. People are poor because they deserve to be. And there it is: Trump-era elitism defined.

There is one moment where Vance weighs in on a policy matter, a single instance in Hillbilly Elegy where he is explicit about how he wants government to work. It comes as J. D. is making his way through Ohio State as quickly as possible. To pay the bills (and, he does not add, amplify his political credentials), he is working in the office of Cincinnati-area Republican State Senator Bob Schuler. Toward the end of his stint, the Senate takes up the problem of payday lenders. First deregulated in 1995, they routinely charged 400 percent interest and kept their customers in long cycles of debt. In 2005, the legislature attempted to rein things in by limiting loan amounts and capping rates at 36 percent, and Schuler opposed this modest bill. Vance touts his former boss’s good heart, moving seamlessly between feeling and policy: “[P]ayday lenders could solve important financial problems” for folks with bad credit who wanted “to take a girl out to dinner” or who “needed a book for school.” In reality, payday loans are not used for these things. They are used to make rent or car payments, to cover medical expenses or other emergencies. But that’s the trick. Feelings accumulate anecdotes, and anecdotes shade silently into policy. From the inarguable base of feeling about “home and family,” Vance advocates policies that harm poor people, and he can do it in their name because he is one of them — he can tell us how they “feel.”

Vance doesn’t tell the rest of the legislative story, but it is a story that reflects well on no one. The bill stalled in the Ohio House because the majority leader, Democrat Joyce Beatty, instructed the caucus to block it. The Cleveland Plain Dealer then revealed that Beatty’s husband was a registered lobbyist for CheckSmart, one of the largest payday lenders in the state. At once, the block disappeared and the Short-Term Loan Act sailed through. And then nothing happened. All the lenders that might have been covered by the act reclassified themselves and went on lending at outrageous rates. As Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote when the court approved this loophole in 2014: “It was as if the STLA did not exist. Not a single lender in Ohio is subject to the law. How is this possible? How can the General Assembly set out to regulate a controversial industry and achieve absolutely nothing?” This is an awful story about the ways regulatory capture and cockroach capitalism screw poor people. It is also a story about how, through stupidity or canniness, the noble ideas of the regulatory state are rendered moot — that is, this could easily be spun as a conservative lesson about the wastefulness of regulation.

What does Vance think about it all? Who knows? Well, we do. But he doesn’t tell us. Instead, by spinning a tale of college romance and insisting that, in his case, the “few dollars interest” he spent on a payday loan spared him a $50 overdraft charge, Vance is able to portray payday lenders as the good guys. Given that payday lenders are, alongside cable companies, airlines, and big banks, some of the most hated corporations in the United States, Vance’s refusal to score easy points by denouncing their predatory interest rates, deceptive documentation, and ludicrous fees speaks volumes. When he says they shouldn’t be brought to heel, we should trust that he really means it. Reading about Hillbilly Elegy is not the same as reading it.

 

III.

What is Hillbilly Elegy teaching students in Wisconsin and elsewhere? We might take as guidance the scene in which Vance describes a moment from his own college years, the only point in the narrative where J. D. sounds as angry as Mamaw was at the recipients of Section 8. It is a moment, as he explains in the preferred diction of educated liberals, that “speaks to” how “the Marine Corps changed my perspective.” He is sitting in a foreign policy class at Ohio State. “I listened,” Vance explains, as a “nineteen-year-old classmate with a hideous beard spouted off about the Iraq war”:

He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college. It showed, he argued, in the wanton way soldiers butchered and disrespected Iraqi civilians. It was an objectively terrible opinion — my friends from the Marine Corps spanned the political spectrum and held nearly every conceivable opinion about the war. Many of my Marine Corps friends were staunch liberals who had no love for our commander in chief — then George W. Bush — and felt that we had sacrificed too much for too little gain. But none of them had ever uttered such unreflective tripe.

The enemy is not Iraq. It’s not George W. Bush. When we feel what it’s like to be J. D., when we feel the esprit de corps among even men with different political positions, we understand that the enemy is undergraduates in American colleges with hideous beards. This student’s liberal attitude “speaks to” collegiate privilege, whether he is a Pell Grant recipient or not.

Over 100,000 casualties and $2.2 trillion spent: But Vance’s account of Iraq includes no casualty counts and no cost figures. Instead, he wants us to feel how good it felt for him to be there with the Marines, as he and his unit “provided security” and “hung out with the schoolkids, playing soccer and passing out candy and school supplies.” “One very shy boy approached me and held out his hand,” J. D. explains. “When I gave him a small eraser, his face briefly lit up with joy before he ran away to his family, holding his two-cent prize aloft in triumph. I have never seen such excitement on a child’s face.” The boy makes J. D. begin “to appreciate how lucky I was.”

The reader’s takeaway is in the framing. No matter the Iraqi casualties or the mendacious rationale for going to war in the first place, the Iraq War story is about playing soccer with Iraqi kids, becoming grateful, and learning from the Marine Corps “how to live like an adult” rather than like one of the “fuckers” next door. This is not a nice message, genteel as Vance’s narrative may seem. When Vance calls his fellow student’s comments “unreflective tripe” rather than “bullshit,” he speaks in a hifalutin discourse of feeling, a language palatable to the liberal elite. We feel with J. D. that the bearded state university student is the real elitist, guiltily agreeing at our own expense that Vance is a good guy. Turn your attention, he says, from wanton butchering in Mukaradeeb, Haditha, Balad — and toward this white boy’s American Dream. And Vance hits Ivy Leaguers with the same force: “I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so,” he says, “but because I felt it.”

Though Vance himself attended both a state university and an Ivy, in his narrative he remains a hillbilly. Or, rather, his narrative is about reclaiming a hillbilly-ness that was always his. Only at college does Vance begin “to think a bit more deeply about [his] own identity.” By way of explanation for his university-based embrace of the term “hillbilly,” Vance mentions that country star Hank Williams Jr. uses it too: “My family, from the hills of eastern Kentucky, describe themselves as hillbillies, but Hank Williams, Jr. — born in Louisiana and an Alabama resident — also identified himself as one in his rural white anthem, ‘A Country Boy Can Survive.’” The 1981 song to which Vance refers contains a verse about a rich New Yorker who ends up getting killed over $40 in a mugging. The moral of the story is that privileged rich urbanites can’t defend themselves, but a “a country boy can survive.” “My grandpa taught me how to live off the land,” croons Bocephus, “And his taught him to be a businessman.”

By comparing Hillbilly Elegy to this song, Vance both makes his readers feel culturally connected to Trump voters and produces an ethical loophole for himself. After Yale Law, Vance became successful working for billionaire and noted Trump supporter Peter Thiel in Silicon Valley. Vance is a rich businessman, yes, but unlike the New Yorker in Hank Jr.’s song — or like the bearded college kid uttering “tripe” at OSU — Vance’s money is all right. He is the venture capitalist who can survive. The emphasis on feelings distracts us, makes it seem like who Vance is — a hillbilly — is more important than what he became — an educated, wealthy, and very familiar version of a political conservative who advances policies that promote class inequity. [1] This, ultimately, is Hillbilly Elegy’s achievement after a year-and-a-half in print: to reinforce a right-wing political agenda by making it sound like a left-liberal feeling about identity.

These days, you can readily catch Vance feeling on television. He contributes to CNN. He wanders horse trails with Megyn Kelly, tearing up when she asks him questions about Mamaw and home. And he appears on mainstream news shows to provide answers to questions about what is going on with poor white people (or middle-class white people, or, frankly, any white people). His pundit turn illuminates the core of a project for which Hillbilly Elegy is instrumental, but for which it is only the beginning of the story.

To catch Vance in pundit mode is to see — and, more importantly, hear — a very different voice from that of the book’s author. As he opined on the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville to CBS This Morning, for example, he delivered more complex answers in a diction that veered far from the easy-reader prose of Hillbilly Elegy. (His answers begin with filler and usually a stutter before he catches; as he becomes more practiced, this will pass. Senator Vance’s handlers will see to that.) This is not simply an impression. We ran a transcription of that appearance through a standard set of reading-level metrics and compared it with an equivalent length passage from Hillbilly Elegy — the portion when he decides to join the Marines rather than go directly to college. The book is written at an 8th-grade level; his answers more than 12th. He is, in short, writing downward.

At the same time, he cannot bring himself to condemn white supremacy as such. Whenever a word like “racism” would be appropriate, he ratchets down and says, “this stuff.” This coached reflex becomes almost ridiculous, but still he forces himself to say “this stuff” eight times in five minutes. The ironies are rich. Vance is arguing that as unfortunate as it might be that Trump was unwilling to “name this particular phenomenon,” we ought to remember that President Obama could not bring himself to say “radical Islamic terrorism.” But Obama was perfectly at ease explaining the strategy behind his phrase of choice, “violent extremism.” Vance is far less forthcoming about why he prefers to talk about “this stuff.”

That blockage at the heart of Vance’s aw-shucks punditry will assure that his political ascension is swift. No figure looms larger in that rise than Yale Law professor and “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua. Chua’s controversial 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, famously describes pushing her children toward excellence, and it was Chua who first encouraged Vance to write Hillbilly Elegy. Just as Vance responded to Mamaw’s relentless pushing in Middletown and the Marines’ in Iraq, so he responds to Chua at Yale.

Chua gave Vance a key piece of advice. At the end of Hillbilly Elegy he is struggling to decide whether to continue pursuing the highest levels of prestige in his field, in this instance, chasing an influential clerkship. When he asks Chua for her thoughts, she does not give him the “value of excellence” talk she gave her own children. Instead, she talks him down:

I don’t think you’re doing this for the right reasons. I think you’re doing this for the credential, which is fine, but the credential doesn’t actually serve your career goals. If you don’t want to be a high-powered Supreme Court litigator, you shouldn’t care that much about this job […] This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize [your girlfriend] and figure out a career move that actually suits you.

Chua’s words, as reported in Vance’s memoir, reveal more than he knows. Perhaps she is giving tailored advice here, showing more nuance than in her own manifesto. Perhaps she is warning this white boy away from a gig she doesn’t think he is good enough for. But whatever she’s doing, she’s pegged him as a sentimental careerist with no interest in justice in the abstract or the majesty of the law. “It was the best advice anyone has ever given me,” Vance writes, thrilled to be so known, so read — so utterly felt. We agree: she reads him right.

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Florence Dore is professor of literature at UNC-Chapel Hill and the author of Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll (Columbia University Press 2018).

J. D. Connor is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. His book Hollywood Math and Aftermath: The Economic Image and the Digital Recession is forthcoming from Bloomsbury.

Dan Sinykin is a postdoctoral scholar in digital humanities at the University of Notre Dame. His website can be found at dansinykin.com.

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Banner image from college.library.

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[1] Very familiar. Toward the end of the book Vance mentions about falling in love with Usha, his classmate at Yale. “I joked with a buddy,” says Vance, “that if she had possessed a terrible personality, she would have made an excellent heroine in an Ayn Rand novel.” Somewhere along the way, and not on any college summer reading list, Vance has made his way through Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Apparently, it got to him. Calling your girlfriend (now wife) an upgrade from Dagny Taggart is high praise in libertarian circles. The unfunny joke stands as a shout-out to the Peter Thiels of the world — a message in the lingua franca of one-percenters.


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