I bought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy just days before my son came into the world, so it’s taken longer than typical for me to finish the book. But the effort was richly rewarded. “Elegy” is an unusually absorbing memoir, particularly when you consider that its author writes nothing more spectacular about his life than getting accepted into Yale Law school. What makes “Elegy” a poignant read is, I believe, the fact that so much of Vance’s childhood and teenage life is an experience of America that is buried beyond recall for most people in this country. It’s not just that most Americans have no conception of the poverty, cultural dissipation, or disenchantment of rural whites; it’s that, as Vance shows without arguing, this ritual of life on the fringe is left almost entirely untouched by politicians or cultural critics. These people are literally invisible to the American consciousness.
Much of that invisibility is self-inflicted, of course. That is part of the central tension of Vance’s book: How do you legislate help for the kind of person who absolutely would not help himself? There are two heroes of the book, Mamaw and the Marines, and without them Vance freely admits that his life likely would have become another stagnant existence, riddled with substance abuse and apathy. But my takeaway from Vance’s story is that the gap that both Mamaw and the Marines filled in his life was not a gap that an anti-poverty agenda can fill, nor even one that access to better education, lower taxes, or more upwardly mobile jobs could.
What Mamaw and the Marines did for Vance, I think, was give him parents. An aloof biological father, a drug-addicted mother, and a revolving door of variably disinterested stepdads meant that Vance’s life was anchored into jello; there was no constance or pattern of consistent love and protection that solidified a sense of hope or duty in a young boy.
I hope to expand these thoughts in an upcoming essay. For now, let me just remark on a few things that Hillbilly Elegy reinforced for me:
- The cost of the sexual revolution’s disintegration of the family will always be higher for the poor.
- Addiction–to heroin, prescription medication, or even pornography and TV for that matter–is a cultural epidemic that far too few are willing to look in the eye– partially, I suspect, because of the politically palatable rhetoric of disease and victimhood that surrounds it.
- Place matters. Upward mobility means little if people displace themselves from relational networks that can support and care for them.
- National politics, either of Left or Right, mean very little to a large group of Americans in this country. Very large.
- It’s quite possible that evangelicalism’s focus on renewing the urban city has come at the expense of rural Christians and non-Christians, many of whom are left with either a vacuous Bible-belt religion or else open unbelief. There are more atheists in Owsley County, Kentucky, than we think.
- There is no way to replicate the parent-child relationship. Saving graces can intervene (see what I said above), but any desire of cultural elites to go “post-parent” is foolhardy.