Americans have long celebrated their capacity for self-reinvention. Who they think they are (unique) is conceived (and reconceived) in popular memoir. American exceptionalism is a story of individual uplift writ large. Benjamin Franklin’s incomplete autobiography is considered the urtext of the American Dream. His downright cleverness, his ability to pinch pennies and save nest eggs, his canny self-fashioning and skillful self-marketing, his rise from poverty to great wealth, defined him for all time as the quintessential self-made American man.
Memoirs are legacy-building instruments that do two things at once: the “I” of the author translates into the representative “we.” The personal life tells a national story. As the mantra goes, every hardworking soul can prove his or her worth in America. Everyone can climb out of the underclass and pass on that good fortune to his or her happy heirs. The flip side of the oft-told tale of mobility, what ennobling biography and autobiography cover up and Americans are loath to admit, is the fact that it is a mythic promise, a lure, a lie. For every Franklinesque tale, there are millions of Americans who can’t get their feet as high as the second rung of the social ladder, which is broken for most outside of a highly unrepresentative minority—the educated elite.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy borrows from the traditional formula of the American Dream, celebrating grit and self-actualization. Looking in the rearview mirror as he moves ahead, Vance—who was raised in a middle- and working-class community in southern Ohio, served in the Marines, went to Yale Law School, and became a venture capitalist—revels in the proven possibility of individual uplift. He simultaneously tells two stories: those of outsider and insider. He is at once a fugitive from his dysfunctional family and the anointed prophet tasked with translating rural Appalachia into words that the American media can process with knowing satisfaction. He is a believer in the “corny” American Dream and feels that he lives in the “greatest country on earth.” (Yeah, he actually writes that.)
Vance writes about a troubled childhood with an abusive mother who is battling alcohol and drug addiction. He endures a long list of stepfathers and a remarried father whose religious extremism he eventually finds empty because it “required so little” of him except hating gays, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, and extramarital sex. Vance’s childhood trauma centers around one very dramatic event, in which his mother threatens to kill them both in a car crash; but we never really see it from his perspective as a child. He survives the ordeal, and is forced to lie in court so that his mother, who is tried for a domestic violence misdemeanor, can retain custody and avoid jail time. He had made a pact with his grandmother, Mamaw: he could stay with her whenever he wanted, and “if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun.”
“This was hillbilly justice,” Vance declares. But was it? Vance’s grandparents were hardly unique in acting as surrogate parents; nor is it unusual that they didn’t want to send their daughter to jail. In every corner of society, family members that have to deal with addicts use threats routinely.1 And as literary scholars and psychologists all know, childhood reminiscences in memoirs are overdetermined, making it difficult to parse what that scarred child felt and what the adult Vance labels as “hillbilly.”
One of the most revealing parts of Vance’s story concerns his cultural conditioning at Yale, where he received “tens of thousands in need-based aid” as “one of the poorest kids in school.” From an academic perspective, he observes that his cultivation of the hidden rules of class power involved acquiring “social capital.” What he doesn’t say in his memoir, but subsequently acknowledged in an interview, is that his ability to get his memoir published was a perk he owed to his Yale connections. His mentor at Yale was Professor Amy Chua, of “Tiger mother” fame, and she introduced him to her literary agent.2 On a deeper level, the coming-of-age story he tells is shaped by the narrative he refined while at Yale. Every aspiring professional has a personal narrative, a biography that he uses to explain (and promote) his unique attributes. By the time Vance’s memoir was published, it was a carefully honed story, not a diary.
Vance notes in the introduction that he is not interested in writing an “academic” book. This statement ostensibly liberates him from the burden of analyzing the loaded, culturally constructed word “hillbilly.” As Anthony Harkins has pointed out in his cultural history, when it comes to the hillbilly, the “distinction between image and reality” is always blurred.3 The most obvious myth Vance promotes is the idea of the hillbilly’s Scotch-Irish pedigree. It is as if his family’s roots—and its inherited strengths and failings—can be traced to the supposedly unchanging traits of a single ethnic group. As I wrote in White Trash, this narrative strategy came into vogue in the 1980s, advanced by conservative scholars such as Grady McWhiney, who shifted the discussion about poor whites away from class conditions to folk culture.4
It is an appealing story, and it fits Vance’s desire to highlight what he admired about his family: their sense of loyalty, clannish protectiveness, and brutal honesty in always saying what they think. Though he grew up in Middletown, Ohio, his memories of Jackson, Kentucky (his great-grandmother’s homestead), are those most bound up in a rural landscape—the “holler,” the mountains he describes as a “paradise.” His grandmother stands out as the backbone of the family. She saves the young J.D. from his abusive mother and gives him a stable home during his high school years. Mamaw is depicted, deliberately and intensely, as a stereotypical hillbilly: her mannish attire, her favorite word (“fucking”), her pistol-packing, and the long menthol cigarette dangling from her lips. She had nine miscarriages—an inconceivable number to most minds (unless one recurs to stereotypes of the rural poor).
Not surprisingly, Vance’s memoir has been equally praised and reviled. One of his cousins was moved to write a review defending his “Hillbilly cred.”5 Elizabeth Catte’s new book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, must count as the most damning critique of Hillbilly Elegy. She accuses Vance of “selling cheap stereotypes” of Appalachia as a place of “alarming social decline, smoldering and misplaced resentment, and poor life choices,” while acquiring wealth and fame by acting as “spokesperson” for an entire region. According to Catte, Vance’s media image is just as opportunistic. His “humility is just a strategy,” she contends. She doubts his insights, as she rejects his implicit claim of authenticity.
Steven Stoll has little in common with J.D. Vance except that he, too, is the beneficiary of a Yale education. Stoll is an environmental historian, but his book Ramp Hollow more accurately casts him as a theorist of the “American peasantry.” He claims that “every region is based on a theory,” and derived from a “set of defining events.” The theory he pursues most forcefully is this: that Appalachia’s history is one of enclosure and dispossession.
In Stoll’s account, mountaineers, small landholders, squatters, agrarians, and settlers have all been engaged, since the eighteenth century, in an uphill battle against capitalism. He imagines that from the time of Daniel Boone, the Scotch-Irish and other western migrants (of varied backgrounds) who made their way into the backcountry—and who eventually found a place in Appalachia—created and recreated a “makeshift economy,” in which settlers engaged in subsistence practices of hunting and gathering, sustaining a household economy through “family solidarity.” Stoll rejects the idea that these people were or are backward, or that their best interests can only be served by finding ways to introduce them to modern work habits or make them dependent on wage labor. His country folk are victims of the “tyranny of money”; they found themselves “in its path but didn’t want to became a part of it.”
Unlike Vance, who stands before the reader as a piece on society’s checkerboard who made his way across and was kinged, Stoll writes about simple survival. His focus is the household, the choices family members make in producing and consuming goods. One of the major tools of peasant families in Appalachia was what he calls the “functional commons”—undeveloped land where people could hunt, fish, cut timber, and herd animals. The battles over enclosure began across the ocean in England. By the sixteenth century, the enclosure movement had pushed English peasants off the land, taken away their shared space of the commons, and turned them into vagrants. Stoll insists that this practice carried over into the American colonies, and that “enclosure has never stopped.” He argues that Appalachians suffered a fate similar to the English peasants.
To prove his theory, Stoll offers a series of historical vignettes. The Whiskey Rebellion (1791–1794), in his view, was more than a refusal by desperate distillers to pay an excise tax; it was a rejection of the state’s authority to drag rural western Pennsylvanians into the cash economy. George Washington’s successful eviction of squatters from his land west of the “Apalacheon Mountains” between 1785 and 1795 was a struggle between two competing systems of land use. Washington treated land as an investment, while the “common folk” saw the backwoods as commons. Giving his peasants a poetic refashioning, Stoll insists that “to them, the landscape composed a breathing, mossy, muddy lattice”; despite their engagement in land speculation or mistreatment of the woods, “their dependence on it made them environmental managers by default.”
His argument is most persuasive when he focuses on the actual process of dispossession. It is tenancy and the rule of law that facilitated the inequality that industrialization compounded. After the Civil War, the new state of West Virginia aggressively pursued policies that turned its government into an engine for attracting commercial logging and coal industries. Dillon’s Rule, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1891, treated municipalities as “tenants at will of the legislature,” that is, tenants who could be evicted without notice, which meant they had little control over their land.
As a result, corporations only had to win the favor of state politicians to override opposition from localities. Other legal devices, such as assigning the rights to minerals below the surface, likewise shifted power to industrial interests. Men called “fixers” looked to buy land or deeds, or else take possession of land whose owners hadn’t paid their taxes. This was how coal companies were able to extract natural resources, and how “timber-hunters” and “projectors of railroads” denuded forests and “blackened vegetation.”
The next stage saw “mountain households” enter the coal camps, leaving workers and their families vulnerable to what Stoll describes as “small police states.” Labor violence ensued. Families were exploited by company stores, which charged exorbitant fees for goods, and entire families worked their small gardens because the low wages of the male workers could not cover basic necessities. After the Great Depression, waves of migration on the “hillbilly highway” led many Appalachians to northern, Midwestern, and western factory towns and cities; it was during this period that J.D. Vance’s grandparents moved from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio.
Stoll concludes his interpretive chronicle of victimization, survival, resistance, and migration with a proposal: a “Commons Communities Act” that would return the landscape to households within discrete communities. He aims to reestablish a modern-day commons that allows for hunting, gathering, gardening, and farming, and goes so far as to say that if federal or state governments do not cooperate, “people can do it themselves, by squatting on abandoned land and defending their right to the commons.” Perhaps he is aware, deep down, that the proposal is far-fetched. There is bound to be resistance from landowners whose property would be repurposed, and it will be difficult for communities to recover practices that have been lost for generations. “Historians don’t often write legislation,” he admits, which is why his work at times reads as a morality tale of capitalists versus makeshift agrarians.
Despite his impassioned writing, Stoll’s American peasants seem one-dimensional. He acknowledges that gender inequality has existed within rural households, but he largely ignores this fact in his study, and he overlooks the most commonly exploited contribution of women: their reproductive capacity, whose labor value has long been recognized by feminist labor historians.6 Children and servants were seen as interchangeable, even into the twentieth century—fathers assumed they had a right to their children’s labor.
In opposing slavery in his colony, the founder of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, believed that the combined labor of a wife and son could substitute for one slave laborer, enabling poor men to become free laborers. Benjamin Franklin, like English demographers before him, recognized that household production required offspring. Franklin believed that children were the major source of labor to be harnessed by fathers, as Pennsylvanians migrated west. Yet Stoll sidesteps this glaring pattern of exploitation of wives and children and misses how it comported with the cultural values inherent in both subsistence and commercial economies.
Stoll covers the dispossession of Native Americans (if too briefly), a process carefully orchestrated by land office agents, judges, legislators, treaties, and war. Both Native Americans and squatters were stigmatized as vagrants, dismissed as essentially nomadic in their inclination. This logic was deployed by government officials (and ratified by the mainstream culture) to justify undermining the so-called vagrants’ claims to use and possess the land. Significantly, male heads of households, whom Stoll treats as the principal victims in this history, were just as often victimizers themselves.
Stoll does not discuss the other side of the story: not all poor rural families resisted capitalism or the desire for private property. Many squatters claimed their tracts, established their own boundaries, and chased off other claimants. They wanted their right of adverse possession legitimated, and assumed that their improvements to the land had a tangible cash value. With Jeffersonian and Jacksonian calls for a landowning democracy, followed by the Republican Party’s homestead policy, a powerful ideology justified the mad scramble for land and sold the dream of ownership to common men, as if it applied to all. Those in Stoll’s makeshift economy were not immune to ambition, greed, coercion, competition, illegality, and exploitation, all of which were also needed for survival (or could be rationalized as such).
Vance and Stoll offer quite different theories of economic dislocation and family survival. Vance makes a big deal of “learned helplessness,” by which he means that poor white hillbilly families reproduce a culture of failure and encourage self-destructive tendencies that undermine the kind of personal discipline that would otherwise enable them to compete in the capitalist marketplace. Yet “helplessness” is surely the wrong word. His grandfather was an alcoholic who sobered up; his mother’s siblings did not suffer from addiction. Mamaw is anything but helpless.
What his family does indulge is anger and resentment. Vance learns from his grandmother how to draw class distinctions. Mamaw calls the woman next door a “whore” because she doesn’t work, has children, and lives off government subsidies. Vance learns to hate the people on food stamps who scam the system by using their government assistance to buy T-bone steaks Vance’s family can’t afford. His stepfather Bob Hamel is, in the words of his grandmother, “a toothless fucking retard,” a class rung below his family. He learns to despise the wealthy people in his town who drive Cadillacs. Stoll’s notion of “family solidarity” simply doesn’t apply in the Vance household: boys get more support than girls, and the women are often derailed by unplanned pregnancies and bad marriages. If Vance had been a girl, he probably wouldn’t have made it to Yale.
Vance mentions the “brain drain,” the economic decline in his Middletown neighborhood and in the trailer parks of Jackson, Kentucky. But he offers no macroeconomic analysis of the decline of the American Rolling Mill Company, where his grandfather worked all of his adult life. Why did his grandfather become an alcoholic? The one (indeed, dubious) explanation he gives is that his grandmother engaged in a “covert war” to make his “drunken life a living hell.” He blames his grandparents for refusing to internalize middle-class values, as if it was simply a matter of personal choice.
This failure to embed his family’s failings within any larger social context reflects Vance’s need to celebrate individual agency at all costs. For Vance, “hillbilly” is a term of endearment, a state of mind, a group moniker, a source of chaos and anger, but it is more often than not disconnected from real economic conditions that shaped his family’s class identity. The “hillbilly” that he invokes is both a composite of his memories and a literary device; yet for him to escape his troubled past, it must be shed, redrawn, tamed, and perhaps buried nostalgically with Vance’s grandparents.
Vance reviewed Stoll’s book for The New York Times Book Review and said he disagreed with almost everything in it. To be clear, Vance’s politics are not of the Trumpian variety. His memoir suggests a more tolerant strain of compassionate conservatism. Mamaw dismisses his father’s homophobia as silliness; in Vance’s telling, his military experience becomes a metaphor for racial harmony. Still, Vance does try to make his family fit a conservative mold. Though he claims his family loves Jesus and the military, his grandmother tried to convince him not to join the Marines, and no one else in his family except his great-grandfather served (as far as he reveals). The only mention of the Vance family participating in a religious service is for his grandfather’s funeral.
Vance’s saga of upward mobility is less about his hillbilly cred and more about the need to adopt new identities. From his troubled youth in the manufacturing town of Middletown, Ohio, he joined the Marine Corps; he obtained his college degree at Ohio State in less than two years, then went on to Yale Law School and a lucrative job as a Silicon Valley investment manager, and lastly to media celebrity as a pundit and best-selling author. He is a class chameleon who has more in common with Ben Franklin than Jed Clampett. What makes him most like his eighteenth-century forerunner is that Franklin also crafted his persona through writing. In France, Franklin posed as the humble sage of the New World, a natural genius among barbarians. Today he is remembered for his homespun adages, as the common man’s philosopher for practical success.
Hillbilly Elegy is a conservative treatise on the capitalist work ethic, evoking the rewards of delayed gratification. For his part, Stoll is presenting a kind of family history without any screaming or infighting; the two murder-suicides he mentions (in Iowa and Oklahoma in the 1980s) were caused, in his telling, by economic dislocation and not human failings. Stoll’s hillbilly is a rational actor responding to threats to his family’s self-interest. Vance’s hillbilly is an unstable mixture of emotional impulses, pride, and excuses.
Beyond these stark distinctions between their two visions, both books tell us a good deal about current limitations of political thought. They remind us that the history of poor and migratory people, hillbillies and squatters, is a difficult story to tell. Convenient answers are not compelling answers. Because Americans do not like to talk about class, euphemisms take their place. Stoll’s “makeshift economy” gives a positive spin to shiftlessness, a word too often used to describe poor whites. While Vance acknowledges his mother’s difficult upbringing, his grandfather’s alcoholism, and his grandparents’ “constant fighting,” in the end, he concludes, “Mom deserves much of the blame.” There is no “perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card,” he blithely writes, as if human psychology is as easy to master as the rules of Monopoly.
Neither Vance nor Stoll acknowledge that poverty affects all aspects of a person’s life, and survival is never as simple as personal responsibility or family solidarity. Class is imprinted on family dynamics, environment, neighborhood, employment, sexual life, politics; it shapes race, gender, religion, a person’s appearance, speech, and self-presentation. Vance changed his name from his stepfather’s, Hamel, to that of his grandparents. That act of self-identification altered his lineage, his choice of family heritage, and his pen name. Reinvention is the motto of Vance’s hillbilly tale. He gives readers an unfolksy story of upward mobility, and yet it’s a familiar, even comfortable story, because we can all find a way to relate to it.
Readers and reviewers have sought to connect Vance’s memoir to the 2016 election and Trump’s unvarnished, tweet-happy, anti-presidential style. While the actual connection is thin, one aspect of Vance’s memoir that does say something about 2016 is his core political belief that hardworking Americans must earn their place in the upper echelons of society. No one gets a free pass. “Hillbilly” may have become, in some circles, a loose synonym for the aggrieved white working class; but at the moment, it rather appears to be one more casualty of the democratic myth of mobility, as Trump teams with Republican legislators to empower corporate capitalists at the expense of everyone else.
See “How Drug Addiction Led to More Grandparents Raising Grandchildren,” PBS NewsHour, November 3, 2016; and Jeanne Whalen, “The Children of the Opioid Crisis,” The Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2016. ↩
Caroline Kitchener, “How the ‘Tiger Mom’ Convinced the Author of Hillbilly Elegy to Write His Story,” The Atlantic, June 7, 2017. ↩
Anthony Harkins, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 4. ↩
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America (Viking, 2016). ↩
Stefanierose Miles, “Author J.D. Vance Does Have Hillbilly Cred—Like It or Not,” Lexington Herald Leader, September 9, 2016. ↩
A reviewer of an earlier book by Stoll, Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2002), noted the same gender blindness. See Conevery Bolton Valenčius, “Dirt and Dung, Enduringly,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 31, No. 3 (September 2003), p. 403. ↩