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The Ideology of Hillbilly Elegy

By Tom Pepper

The first step in determining the ideological function of the book Hillbilly Elegy is to set aside concern with its ideological content.  Because clearly enough the book can be taken to support any number of positions on the political spectrum.  Vance himself points this out, in his afterward to the paperback edition of the book:

I’ve heard, for instance, from someone on the Left that my book is a victim-blaming piece of anti-government libertarianism and then, in the same week, from someone on the Right that my book’s premises, if accepted, would justify a massive expansion of government welfare programs.  Both of these things can’t possibly be true. (260-261)

Of course Vance, like just about any Yale graduate, not to mention any millionaire, considers himself a conservative, whatever he might mean by that.  But he is wrong to say that “both of these things can’t possibly be true.”  Because allowing for the simultaneous “truth” of contradictory positions is an essential part of how capitalist ideology works.  

That is to say, the ideological effect of this novel is to hold in place the terms of debate, the implicit assumptions we all generally share when discussing issues of poverty and possibilities of social mobility.  With these assumption unexamined, we can in fact arrive logically at two completely contradictory positions.  What Hillbilly Elegy does, I would suggest, is employ the strategy of the discourse of Literature, particularly of the realist novel, to naturalize certain assumptions about the way the world works, to render them unquestionable.  The result is that we are left with only an “aesthetic” resolution to the contradiction, one at the level of the narrative of the life of an individual “character.” 

Although it has long been the function of novels to bring attention to social problems, the twenty-first-century novel never depicts the struggle of the white working class.  Novels still seem to do some of the work of raising awareness of gender and racial injustice, but the vast class of impoverished white Americans have become invisible in Literature.  Of course, they generally were, with the exception of those rags-to-riches stories of the industrious young man who escapes his origins.  Realistic depictions of the working class are so few that they are often quite memorable: The Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road may come to mind.  Or the industrial novel of the great depression, in which the grandson of poor immigrants finally makes it out of the factory and into college—novels like Out of this Furnace.  But today, the mass of ordinary poor people are typically invisible in fiction, probably because they are not the readers of fiction.  

Vance’s story, written eighty or ninety years ago, would have likely been in the form of a semi-autobiographical novel.  It has most of the features of the traditional Bildungsroman, including the description of how his grandparents and parents wound up where the hero starts out. Traveling the “hillbilly highway” north into the steel towns of Ohio, they are left stuck and impoverished when the steel mills all move production overseas.  They aren’t destitute. They own houses they can’t sell and can’t afford to maintain.  They scrape by, but have little sense of meaning in their lives.  But they aren’t exactly in a downward spiral:  Vance’s sister marries, has kids, buys a house.  At one point his mother and her husband move out of Vance’s hometown, having a “combined income of over a hundred thousand dollars” between them; but they still “struggle with money” because they buy new cars and a swimming pool they can’t really afford (71).  The image here is not of the underclass, those struggling to make ends meet working three part-time jobs.  These are typical working class people who simply can’t find any meaning or contentment in their lives, and seek it in buying things or in the next new romantic partner, or in drugs and alcohol.

The point here is that, in a move typical of the novel, the problem is shifted from the economic realm and even out of the broadly cultural realm into the purely personal.   After finishing college at Ohio State in two years, Vance spends a summer at home working to save up money for his move to New Haven, where he will be attending Yale Law school.  His first year, he discovers, will be almost “a full ride” because he is “one of the poorest kids” in the incoming class.  Because of this, of course, Vance gets the absurd idea that anybody could go to Yale, no matter how poor, because after all for the very poor it is free.  Still, he needs to save some money for living expenses, and he works “odd jobs” and lives with his aunt.  “Those last few months living in Middletown,” he tells us, “were among the happiest of [his] life” (188).  He then goes on to explain that his “optimism” about his future at this point “contrasted starkly with the pessimism” of those around him.  The problem, he explains, “went much deeper than a short-term recession,” the problem is “spiritual” (188).  He explains that the lack of social mobility is not a result of economic hardship, or the fierce competition for the few slots available to those trying to move up the social ladder.  No, the problem is that “as a culture, we had no heroes” (188).  The lack of positive role models and ambition is what keeps people poor.  And he is willing to concede that this is partly the fault of the conservatives, who encourage the “white working class to blame problems on society and the government,” while we all know that “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives”(194).  This is the only hope for the poor: have more ambition.  

Vance even mentions a friend, who once worked in the White House, who “cares deeply about the working class” but tells him that “you can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around.  But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins” (238).  By “at the margins” Vance seems to mean not people at the outer edge of society, but those on the border between class positions. Those, like himself, who have the native intelligence and basic ability to do well at professional occupations requiring education, but may not quite have enough money to get there, or might not know what those professions are, or even that they exist.  He lists all the “thumbs” on the scale that made his rise possible, but he wants us to know that it is not systematic programs that helped him.  Those “thumbs” were the people in his life who kept him from falling into the underclass around him: his sister, his aunt and uncle, “teachers, distant relatives, and friends”(239).  

In the end, we are left to puzzle over the question Vance says he wrote the book to answer: why aren’t there more people like him at Ivy League institutions?  Vance cannot quite answer that, although he seems to suggest that it is mostly a combination of lack of ambition and lack of knowledge about how one goes about moving up the economic ladder.  In novelistic discourse we cannot get beyond such simple explanations.  For instance, after describing the point in his adolescence at which he moves in with his grandmother, he tells us:

I’m sure that a sociologist and a psychologist, sitting in a room together, could explain why I lost interest in drugs, why my grades improved, why I aced the SAT, and why I found a couple of teachers who inspired me to love learning.  But what I remember most of all is that I was happy—I no longer feared the school bell at the end of the day, I knew where I’d be living the next month, and no one’s romantic decisions affected my life.  And out of that happiness came so many of the opportunities I’ve had for the past twelve years. (151)

The irony in this paragraph is startling.  His disdain for real learning, clear enough in the dismissive tone of the first sentence, is taken as a love of learning!  This is a very American attitude, rejecting any explanation more complex than the level of a talk-show cliché. Apparently, Vance has the native intelligence that tests like the SAT measure.  And he has the capacity to commit the “right” answer to memory, and repeat it on a test—which is the kind of intelligence required to get good grades in state university courses, and do four years of college in two years.  What he has disdain for is the kind of intelligence that would want to take the time to explore any subject in greater depth—the kind of intelligence many college professors wish their students valued, but which is in fact not valued in American culture.  The novelistic nature of this book requires that we seek explanations in personal narratives of triumph or failure.

The effect of stopping at this level of explanation can be extremely limiting.  It can rob us of any potential we might have to gain real agency in our lives.  Vance himself is convinced that the forms of relating to others he has learned from his working class upbringing are beyond his power to change:

In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes or brown hair. The sad fact is that I couldn’t do it without Usha.  Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion—I can be defused, but only with skill and precision.  It’s not just that I’ve learned to control myself but that Usha has learned how to manage me. (230).

Without being “managed” by his wife, who was born and raised in an affluent family and so has different habits of relating to others, Vance has no way to function in the new class position he has attained.  The level of understanding of even one’s own behavior that might be provided by greater depth of philosophical thought is ruled out. Effectually, agency is abandoned, and Vance is just lucky he found a rich woman willing to control him the way one might need to control a pet.

More significant than this, though, is what the rest of us miss when we read and debate Hillbilly Elegy.  We engage in arguments about what might really enable more working class kids to wind up in the Ivy League, without ever considering that this goal is itself highly problematic.  The critics arguing over the politics of this book never stop to consider that the competition to succeed, in a capitalist society, no matter how level the playing field is made, will always be a zero-sum game.  Even if all of those who, like J.D. Vance, come from working class families but have the native intelligence to ace the SATs were to get a shot at the Ivy League, this would not help the vast majority of working class people who do not happen to have this natural ability.  For most of them, it is not lack of ambition or knowledge of how the world works that keeps them down.  They simply don’t have the ability to do the kinds of things that are the only way out of poverty in America, now that there are so few “blue-collar” jobs available that pay a decent living wage.  

Even when working class people do manage to get steady work with a living wage, there is no ideological practice left in America in which they can find their lives satisfying and meaningful.  Consider the religion Vance’s father belongs to; he tells us that “many of the sermons he heard spent as much time criticizing other Christians as anything else” (96).  The evangelical Christianity of the midwestern working class tends to be mostly focused on preserving ignorance and fostering hate for others, resulting in “the terrible retention rates of evangelical churches”(99).  When Vance’s mother and her husband begin to make decent money, they seem to become even more unhappy, seeking contentment in big-ticket purchases.  The narrative of personal escape from the working class into wealth simply fosters this attitude.  We all think money will make us happy if we can just get enough of it, and cannot even imagine taking part in any social activity not that is not likely to somehow get us to the other side of the class divide.

The recent movie based on Hillbilly Elegy only highlights the ideological function of the book, mostly by what it leaves out.  There is no explanation of how Vance’s family wound up in Ohio, and no real account of how his natural ability and a few lucky but completely uninformed decisions worked for him.  Vance tells us in the book that he picks law school mostly because it is the only kind of high-paying career he has ever heard of.  He enters the military because he has no real idea of what going to college will be like, and can’t even figure out how to apply for financial aid.  This is cut from the film, as is any mention at all of Vance’s father.  Instead, we get a typical cinematic tale of the sensitive boy nearly destroyed by the clinging and mentally unstable mother.  In the end, in a scene that does not appear in the book, he has to muster the strength to walk away as his drug-addled mother begs him to stay and holds out her hand to him; he resists her maternal power, and makes it to the interview that secures his future as a millionaire (we are all aware, because of the publicity for the movie, that the film rights to the book were purchased for $45 million).  Movies cannot quite  produce the same ideological effect as narrative texts, and we can see more clearly how Hillbilly Elegy works by noticing what the movie leaves out.  Offering us one more tale of a sick and suffocating mother, one more rescue by a gruff, wise elder, the movie is trite and uninteresting.  The book was enormously popular because the ideological contradiction it works to resolve can best be addressed with the features of the realist novel, even if they are now employed in a non-fiction memoir.

Like a novel, Hillbilly Elegy can give us the illusion that social mobility is a real possibility, that American capitalism is a meritocracy, and that we could all join the ranks of the rich.  We are left debating the politics of left and right, and never notice that the kind of social mobility depicted here is possible for only one in a million working class kids.  Vance is lucky that most members of his class of origin don’t have the ambition and knowledge necessary to take a shot at the Ivy League. If he had competition, he would likely never have made it.  He would be stuck as yet another unemployable working-class kid with a political science degree from a state university.  But when we read this, as we would when reading a novel, we root for his success and cannot see just how extraordinarily unlikely this (true) story actually is.  

My suggestion is that we read Hillbilly Elegy and books like it, not to figure out the political agenda or find out about the plight of the working class, but to examine exactly how our ideological discourses frame the kinds of questions that are asked.  We need to find a way to raise the questions that are excluded from our ordinary discourse.  Such books are generally popular for the same reason novels become popular: they address an irresolvable ideological contradiction, and find an illusory resolution in an unlikely narrative.  They generate intense debate, but debate that goes nowhere, because the underlying assumptions are never addressed.  

Perhaps we can learn to read such books exactly to pick out the assumptions about the world that structure our every action, every choice, and that leave us with no agency and no sense of meaning in our lives.  Because the only real agency we can get is exactly when we learn to do what Vance is sure cannot be done: when we learn why we respond to the world the way we do, and make decision about whether this is the way we should be responding. When we begin to take steps to develop a different response to the world, we have the only kind of agency that exists.  Vance, probably like most readers of this book, assumes a world in which capitalism is universal and natural, and breaking into the world of Ivy League “social capital” is the only chance to succeed. The only question left is how do we get there, or at least get our children there.  But what if the question were how we might work toward a world in which most working class people make a decent living wage, even if they aren’t Ivy-League material? 

In the end, we would have to agree with Vance.  No government program is ever going to solve the problem we face today.  What we need is a shift in what Vance calls culture, what I would call ideology.  As someone who, like Vance but twenty years earlier, came from white working-class culture, I would suggest that the lack of meaning-building social practices prevents any attempt to work collectively to change our economic situation.  One thing we learn, when we read Hillbilly Elegy against the grain, is that the culture we come from, those of us who are white an working class, is horribly deformed by more than a century of alienated labor and lack of education, by the commercialization and commodification of every cultural activity, from sports and music to religion and story telling.  What we are left with is the horrifyingly savage culture Vance describes, the same one I grew up in, in which rage and violence is mistake for family loyalty, and ignorance is a source of pride.  

Reading this book, I was surprised by how much of it sounded familiar.  The world of Middletown, Ohio, was surprisingly similar to the world I grew up in, twenty years earlier in the suburbs of New York.  Shabby decaying houses people couldn’t afford to sell and didn’t maintain.  Family violence, addiction, and daily brawls in the halls of the high school.  Drug dealers in all the playgrounds and little hope of college in our future.  

I didn’t take the path Vance did, partly because having grown up during the Vietnam War the idea of entering the military was not at all appealing.  I went to grad school instead of law school, and wound up among the overeducated unemployed.  So the question compelling me is a bit different from Vance’s.  I don’t think it would be possible for all working class boys to go to Yale Law and become millionaires.  What I want to know is: How do we create social practices which produce a different kind of subject?  One engaged in critical thinking but also interested in producing the the indispensable goods we all need to thrive?  What would such a practice look like?  And how do we overcome the resistance to collective action produced by addiction—to drugs and alcohol, but also to Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and smartphones?  

I haven’t answered my question yet, either.

Work Cited

J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins.  2018.

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