Left Behind

Shelby Lee Adams
‘Three,’ 2013; photograph by Shelby Lee Adams from The Book of Life, a collection of his ­images of four generations of Appalachians, to be published by Steidl this summer

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,…

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