Nancy Isen­berg

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Nancy Isen­berg

Hill­billy El­egy: A Mem­oir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Cri­sis by J. D. Vance What You Are Get­ting Wrong About Ap­palachia by El­iz­a­beth Catte

Ramp Hol­low: The Or­deal of Ap­palachia by Steven Stoll

Hill­billy El­egy:

A Mem­oir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Cri­sis by J. D. Vance.

Harper, 269 pp., $16.99 (pa­per)

What You Are Get­ting Wrong About Ap­palachia by El­iz­a­beth Catte.

Belt, 146 pp., $16.95 (pa­per)

Ramp Hol­low:

The Or­deal of Ap­palachia by Steven Stoll.

Hill and Wang, 410 pp., $30.00

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 self­made 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 pis­tol­pack­ing, 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 oned­i­men­sional. 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-outof-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.

‘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

Shawn Reilly, a Na­tive Amer­i­can vet­eran, out­side the Mon­roe In­de­pen­dence Day Powwow, Sardis, Ohio, 2015; pho­to­graph by Lau­ren Pond from the ‘Look­ing at Ap­palachia’ project, cu­rated by Roger May

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.