[This book review was published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 122-129.]
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J. D. Vance
This very popular book has two dimensions. The first is a personal narrative, an American boy’s story of growing up in what would derogatorily be spoken of as “redneck” culture, and rising eventually to succeed, however insecurely. The second is as an important addition to a growing literature that in this age of “identity politics” directs attention to a distinct ethnic group – the Scots-Irish – that has been little noticed even though it has played a major role in America’s past and present. In effect, Hillbilly Elegy announces “We are here. Our rough-and-tumble culture is suffering decay after so many of us have migrated to a now hollowed-out industrial North. But take notice; the Scots-Irish are a vastly important constituent element in the American demographic.”
Although this affirmation of their identity is assertive, the very need for such assertion highlights how much the “center of gravity” has shifted in American life during the past half-century. There was a time when Theodore Roosevelt excoriated the very idea of there being “hyphenated Americans.” The United States today is a different place. After many years of mass immigration, both legal and illegal, much of it from the Third World, “multiculturalism” is no longer just an intellectual’s catch-phrase, but the reality of a newly made-over population. Something undreamt of before – “WASPS’s” feeling of need for a self-conscious awareness of their own particularity – is emerging.
This emergence is nuanced in a way that is significant in the context of “identity politics.” What we see from Hillbilly Elegy is that not all whites are the same. Instead of being a homogeneous fraction of the American population, the white population is a mixture of some widely differing cultures. The Scots-Irish, say, are rather different people than the patricians of New England or of the Tidewater South. And, as we will see, not even all Americans of Scots-Irish descent are alike. The large number of prominent and successful Americans among them attests to their dysfunction not being universal.
Vance was born in 1984 and grew up in an Ohio steel town that once was prosperous but that “has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Deep down, though, he felt his spiritual roots, so to speak, were at his great-grandmother’s house in an Appalachian “holler” in a small town in Kentucky’s coal country. One of his parents “struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life” (most recently with heroin), and neither of his grandparents had finished high school. His father abandoned his mother, leaving Vance to grow up with a series of transient father substitutes. A consequence of this, which came to haunt him after he was grown and married to a lovely law school classmate, was that he “never learned how a man should treat a woman.”
As Vance tells about all this, we see the stark underbelly of a dysfunctional culture, but without the alienation that has so long burned within most literary treatments of it. The narrative is not unlike the film A Coal Miner’s Daughter, where the realities are mixed with genuine affection and empathy. Vance says the people he tells about are almost all “deeply flawed,” but that “I love these people” just the same. “There are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way.” The book’s popularity is only partly explained by its being a good read; its allure comes from its revelation, without being syrupy, of the real-life humanity of the boy and those around him.
Vance describes himself as once having been “pudgy and long-haired.” He almost flunked out of his first year of high school, steeped in marijuana and alcohol. He “harbored resentment toward the world,” and at age 12 made “an outright rejection of the Christian faith” that was so basic to the hillbilly Bible Belt. Much of his account, though, is about how he rose out of that abyss. His high intelligence first becomes apparent when he tells us he always loved to read and to work math problems. His life turned around when he went to live with his grandmother, was “rescued by a handful of loving people,” and was propelled by a couple of inspiring teachers and some well-motivated friends. He did so well on the SAT exam that his poor high school record was overridden, qualifying him for college. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, though, he decided to go into the Marine Corps on a four-year enlistment. (Military service has for centuries been an important part of Scots-Irish culture, reflecting their centuries of desperate fighting first with the English and later after their migration to the Ulster Plantation in Ireland.)
Oddly, in a book that has so much to say about the author’s human context, Vance tells little about his Marine Corps experience. Those years could themselves have provided the grist for much sociological commentary. This reviewer (himself a former Marine) surmises the young man’s upbringing, in which obscenities were flung around in loose abandon among family members and fighting was a way of life, had conditioned him to accept the abuse that others with a more delicate background would find objectionable. The Marines didn’t pick up on that side of him, though, preferring to use what they accurately perceived as his literary ability; they sent him to Iraq, but as a “public affairs Marine” and not as an infantryman
Vance came out of the Marines with “an incredible sense of invincibility,” and enrolled at Ohio State University, for which the GI Bill paid much of the cost. He was graduated summa cum laude with a double major in 2009. From there, Yale Law School gave him a “financial aid package” that “exceeded my wildest dreams.” One summer while in law school, he worked for the chief counsel to a United States Senator. At the school, he became an editor on the Yale Law Journal, and fell deeply in love with a classmate, his future wife, the origins of whose name “Usha” he doesn’t explain. The book’s dust jacket reports that he is now “a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm.”
One would think from all this that he had “made it.” It seems like a modern Horatio Alger story, pure and simple. What will surprise readers, though, is how much class-conscious insecurity he has felt, both at Yale Law and even now. Stepping out of hillbilly culture, he has felt like “a cultural immigrant,” even to the point of lying to his friends in law school about his past. He analyzes this in clinical terms as “inner conflict inspired by rapid upward mobility.” The result is a gnawing psychic disorder in which he feels trapped. “In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit… Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion.” We mentioned earlier how he says he “never learned how a man should treat a woman.” The biggest surprise comes near the end of the book when he tells how difficult it has been to have “a happy partner and a happy home.” Usha has had to “learn how to manage me.” Although this psychological distress seems oddly out of place after all we’ve been told about his successes, it actually serves to underscore what he has told us about the cultural milieu in which he was raised.
Hillbilly Elegy is content to relate a personal story and makes no effort to place the hillbilly culture in historical context. The effect has been to whet this reviewer’s appetite for knowing more. For that purpose, he found the perfect book: Jim Webb’s splendid history Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004). Webb, of course, is a man of great distinction: A highly decorated Marine officer wounded in Vietnam, a graduate of Annapolis and the Georgetown University Law Center, Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, at one time a United States Senator from Virginia, and the writer of six bestselling novels. Although he is not a professional historian, his book on the Scots-Irish is a classic of historical scholarship. The subject is of special interest to him: at many points in his book he makes clear how strongly he feels his Scots-Irish roots and his nostalgia for his ancestors buried in the Appalachian hollows.
Webb recounts the origins of the Celts in Europe and then tells in detail about their centuries of conflict with the English along the much-contested border between England and Scotland. The bitterness of this experience is illustrated when Webb tells us that in 1296 England’s King Edward I “entered Berwick with some 5,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry, and in one day killed an estimated 17,000 people.” The effect of this slaughter was to arouse in the Scots “an uncompromising nationalism.” William Wallace and Robert the Bruce became the heroes of the Scottish resistance. Scotland’s independence was assured when the latter of these men “lured the English into the most decisive battle in Scotland’s history,” the victory over England’s King Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314.
In 1610, King James I of England set up the Protestant Ulster Plantation in Ireland. A migration of “large numbers of lowland Scots” to Ulster had already been underway, and was followed by many thousands more. Their Protestantism was Calvinist (and that eventually became the basis for evangelical Christianity in the United States). Webb describes them as a “hard-bitten, unbending, tightly knit” people, “desperately poor.” He speaks of “the Scots-Irish character” formed out of their struggles and their harsh lives in the mountains of Scotland. It was a character marked by “the mistrust of central authority, the reliance on strong tribal rather than national leaders, and the willingness to take the law into one’s own hands rather than waiting for a solution to come down from above.”
After more than a hundred years in Ulster, another great migration began. Between 1715 and 1775, “virtually an entire people” – estimated as between 200,000 and 400,000 – crossed the Atlantic to the American colonies. They headed for “the mountainous areas from central Pennsylvania to the Georgia border.” In effect, they were continuing their heritage as they had so long known it. It meant carving out life on the frontier in the Appalachian Mountains, where the land was contested by “Cherokee and Shawnee war parties.” Webb says “this remoteness accentuated the historic independence of the Scots-Irish culture.” There was little education, few governmental services, and a wild life of “heavy drinking… devilish music, sensual pleasures, constant physical challenge, and an inbred defiance of authority,” ironically alongside a “fearsome Presbyterian fundamentalism.” When we are told that New Englanders abhorred them, all of this helps us understand why. As we see in Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, there are contrasting levels of civilization, of which Vance was acutely aware as a child and still feels self-consciously today.
The Scots-Irish warrior culture led to their making up as much as 40% of the American army during the Revolutionary War (in which, not surprisingly, they again fought the English). The unsuccessful attempts by the British during that war to subdue the mountain people led to a military disaster that upset the Southern Strategy by which the British had hoped to create, as Webb says, a “’domino effect’ whereby the Southern colonies would be rolled up,” demoralizing the American cause.
Webb deals at length with President Andrew Jackson (in effect a populist hero of the Scots-Irish), the minimal role the mountain people played in the slave system of the South, their fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War not as a defense of slavery but as resistance to what they saw as outside control, and the economic/cultural devastation that beset the South (and Appalachia) during the decades that followed the war.
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy confirms what Webb then tells us about the twentieth century migration of large numbers of the Scots-Irish from Appalachia to the states of the industrial North, where they have been impacted severely by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Webb says there was so much migration that the roads north became known as “Hillbilly Highways.” As we know from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the renown of Highway 66, “hundreds of thousands of other migrants from the South and Midwest poured into California.” In fact, the Scots-Irish diaspora extended across the middle and western parts of the United States. They became “the dominant culture in the settlements of many parts of Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri,” and after the Civil War “would count heavily in populating the Rocky Mountains and the Far West.” In the course of it, they came to be seen simply as “Americans” and not as a distinguishable “minority.”
Although it is true that there has been (and is) a “hillbilly culture,” it is also true that a large number of prominent Americans have been of Scots-Irish lineage. Here are a few listed by Webb: Historic figures such as Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, Stonewall Jackson, Sam Houston, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George S. Patton, Sgt. Alvin York, Audie Murphy, and David Hackworth. Presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Chester Arthur, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Writers such as Mark Twain, Horace Greeley, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Mitchell, and Larry McMurtry. Thespians such as Tallulah Bankhead, Ava Gardner, Andie MacDowell, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Robert Redford, and George C. Scott. Musical figures such as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, and Toby Keith.
It is with all this in mind that Webb takes great umbrage at what he sees as the recent drive by elites in politics and academia to “twist yesterday’s America into a fantasy.” He says “the greatest disservice on this count has been the attempt by these revisionist politicians and academics to defame the entire Confederate Army in a move that can only be termed the Nazification of the Confederacy.” The argument against display of the Confederate battle flag comes from the premise that showing such display “is a veiled effort to glorify the cause of slavery.” He decries this as a “blatant use of the ‘race card’.”
Jim Webb’s Born Fighting brings in so much historical context that it is an excellent complement to Vance’s personal narrative in Hillbilly Elegy. We would encourage readers to consider them together.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. The acronym “WASP” refers, of course, as most everyone knows, to “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” Interestingly, it is accepted as a neutral descriptor in the United States at the present time, despite its being quite an obvious, and arguably vicious, characterization. It is oddly out of place when similar ethnic slurs are so taboo that anyone who uses one is considered beyond the moral pale. The explanation lies in the double standards so prevalent in contemporary America.
2. This generous financial aid bears out the truth of something a lot of parents don’t realize: that for a bright student from lower-income families it is often less expensive to attend an elite private university, because of the assistance available through its endowment, than it is to go to a public university.
3. This class consciousness has not made Vance a Marxist. He describes himself as a “modern conservative.”
4. It is interesting to note that the Confederate battle flag (which is today under attack by the American Left as a symbol of “hate”) was “drawn from the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland.”
 The acronym “WASP” refers, of course, as most everyone knows, to “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” Interestingly, it is accepted as a neutral descriptor in the United States at the present time, despite its being quite an obvious, and arguably vicious, characterization. It is oddly out of place when similar ethnic slurs are so taboo that anyone who uses one is considered beyond the moral pale. The explanation lies in the double standards so prevalent in contemporary America.
 This generous financial aid bears out the truth of something a lot of parents don’t realize: that for a bright student from a lower-income family it is often less expensive to attend an elite private university, because of the assistance available through its endowment, than it is to go to a public university.
 This class consciousness has not made Vance a Marxist. He describes himself as a “modern conservative.”
 It is interesting to note that the Confederate battle flag (which is today under attack by the American Left as a symbol of “hate”) was “drawn from the St. Andrew’s Cross of Scotland.”