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Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy: The Book and the Film

Walter G. Moss: Among such people—mostly white, non-college educated, living in smaller cities or rural areas, resentful of condescending big-city liberals—who form the core of Trump’s support.

Last week Netflix aired Hillbilly Elegy, directed by Ron Howard. Critical reviews of it far outnumber any positive ones. The Atlantic’s verdict, Hillbilly Elegy Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year,” is fairly typical. But the same titled book it is based on—and its author, J. D. Vance, is listed as an executive producer of the film—was a bestseller, and when it appeared in 2018 was credited with providing insight into working-class whites who supported President Trump. Moreover, director Howard and two of the film’s lead actresses, Glenn Close (as Vance’s maternal grandmother) and Amy Adams (as his mother), have previously delivered some high-quality efforts. Thus, the film seemed worth watching, and now provides an opportunity to comment, not only on it, but also on Vance’s book.

hillbilly elegy

Among such people—mostly white, non-college educated, living in smaller cities or rural areas, resentful of condescending big-city liberals—who form the core of Trump’s support.

First, the book. Like the film, it begins with his boyhood, bouncing back and forth from his home in Middletown, Ohio to Jackson, Kentucky, where his grandparents came from and where he spent many summers in his youth. As he tells us, “Thanks to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people. Indeed, Kentucky transplants and their children are so prominent in Middletown, Ohio…that as kids we derisively called it ‘Middletucky.’” (I can relate to that: Ypsilanti, Michigan—where I and my wife, Nancy, have lived for more than four decades—for the same reason has sometimes been referred to as “Ypsitucky.”)

Referring to his mom and transplanted friends among the “working poor” in Middletown, Vance ticks off many of their faults:

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads…We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake…We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears—when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity—there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition, no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses her job. We know we shouldn’t spend like this. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway. Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs…At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children.

This passage reminds me of a similar one by the great Russian writer Chekhov. In his short story “The Peasants” he wrote, “In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people [the peasants] lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarreled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who…Yes, to live with them was terrible.” Yet Chekhov also added, “Yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse.” Like Chekhov, Vance attempts to combine acknowledging the faults of a social grouping with empathy toward them.

And it is his empathy for the transplanted “hillbillies” spread out in more northern towns like Middletown that makes his memoir valuable. For it is among such people—mostly white, non-college educated, living in smaller cities or rural areas, resentful of condescending big-city liberals—who form the core of Trump’s support. Moreover, Vance is correct when he writes, “If you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.” We all need to be empathetic and open-minded toward others, and any work that helps us do so, regardless of the political beliefs it reveals, should be welcomed.

But don’t look to Vance’s book (or the movie) for political wisdom. There is little to be found. Although he points out that besides the troubled transplanted Appalachians like his mother now living in Middletown, there were people like his grandparents—“old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking”—the example of the older couple provides little political guidance for our troubled times.

Nevertheless, Vance holds up his grandmother,“Mamaw,” as the main hero and sage of his story. Yet this is the same woman who once “retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.” J. D., however, writes of her “great wisdom” and has her relating a tale the moral of which is “God helps those who help themselves. This was the wisdom of the Book of Mamaw.” She also “had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream,” which was that if you worked hard enough in America you could achieve success.

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This “dream” was one that once made Horatio Alger's fictional heros so popular. Historian Christopher Lasch called “Algerism” the dominant ideology of American politics” during the late nineteenth-century’s Gilded Age. And the historian added that “failure to advance, according to the [Alger] mythology of opportunity, argues moral incapacity on the part of individuals or, in a version even more implausible, on the part of disadvantaged ethnic and racial minorities.” A good deal of Trumpian opposition to government policies like Affirmative Action is fueled by such thinking regarding the “moral incapacity” (i. e. laziness) of minorities. (For a scathing satire of Algerism, see Nathanael West’s novel A Cool Million.)

Hillbilly Elegy

Like Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of England from 1979 to 1990 (and now depicted on Season 4 of The Crown), Mamaw and J. D. Vance himself seem to believe that self-reliance, not government policy, is the main gateway to political wisdom. About the difficulties that people like his mom face, he writes, “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.”

True enough. Government policies can help—and let’s hope the Biden administration can do a better job than the Trump one has done—but only to a limited degree. Yet Mamaw’s advice to be self-reliant and work hard can only take us so far. His mom, for example, is part of a vast opioid crisis that is especially rampant among Appalachians. And the crisis developed partly because the U.S. government failed adequately to regulate opioid use. Like many conservatives—and Vance tells us he is one—he fails to realize how significant and positive government’s role can be.

Yet, he is correct to suggest that individuals also need wisdom. But it needs to be more profound than that of Mamaw. In an earlier piece on the LA Progressive, “Education Should Deliver Us from Racism and Trumpism,” I suggested that education, formal and informal, should help us achieve greater wisdom, political and otherwise. And I mentioned individuals like psychologist Robert Sternberg and writer Wendell Berry as possible guides. (In a later essay, I indicated poet Carl Sandburg as another one.)

But Vance’s quickly-earned degree from Ohio State, after four years in the Marines, and then a law Degree from Yale did not produce much political or other wisdom, at least as judged by his Hillbilly Elegy, partly because education by itself does not further wisdom. As Sternberg has pointed out, it has to be the right kind of education.

In a 2010 essay on The Wisdom Page, I indicated how college education can help us become wiser. “Courses like philosophy and comparative religion” can “help you to examine and reflect upon values.” Psychology can “give you greater insight into yourselves and others…Courses in literature, music, and art…[can] help you appreciate beauty more…Courses in history, foreign languages, geography, and political science…will help you overcome cultural provincialism and appreciate other cultures…Courses in the sciences like physics or ecology…will enable you to better understand the importance of a scientific approach to truth or what is needed for humans to live in harmony with the rest of creation.”

Such education can help us develop values essential for wisdom, like compassion, empathy, respect for others, and a desire for truth and justice. But it’s also essential to remember Sternberg’s belief that “people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good”—a point that Pope Francis has made recently about those who ignore that goal by insisting on their “freedom” to ignore state-government coronavirus restrictions. Positive values might also be kindled by religion, as they have with the pope. But Vance writes, “The only affirmative teachings I remember drawing from church were that I shouldn’t cheat on my wife and that I shouldn’t be afraid to preach the gospel to others.”

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy the film offers even less wisdom than the book. It displays Mamaw’s essential traits, the drug addiction of Vance’s mom, and the alienation that J. D. feels at a Yale fancy dinner among those who know which fork to use for which course. It also highlights his determination to succeed and the support he receives from his girlfriend, Usha.

But, one might ask, how is the film as far as entertainment goes? Are not films meant primarily to entertain, rather than enlighten? Perhaps. But it’s a bonus when they do both. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining enough, not as bad as some reviews suggest. Especially entertaining is Glenn Close, whether lighting her husband on fire or cursing like a sailor—for example, “kiss my ruby-red asshole.” Just don’t expect to learn great wisdom from this salty lady or the rest of the cast.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss