“Breathitt County in east Kentucky is the only county in the United States not to have had selective service enforced during the Second World War.  That was because there were so many volunteers.”

—Gordon McKinney

Since I have long been convinced that the Appalachian South embodies a grounded yet radical alternative to the American mainstream, I got my hopes up recently when I learned that a young man from Breathitt County is garnering national attention as a spokesman for his native eastern Kentucky.  Under the stern hand of his formidable grandmother—Mamaw, as he affectionately remembers her—J.D. Vance broke the self-destructive mold set by his drug-addicted single mother, completed a successful enlistment in the Marine Corps, and earned a diploma from Yale Law School.  These experiences form the basis of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir described by its publisher as “a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans.”

Vance’s analysis begins auspiciously enough, with his forthright defense of the honor culture whereby his native county acquired the nickname “‘Bloody’ Breathitt.”  “The people of Breathitt hated certain things,” he observes, “and they didn’t need the law to snuff them out.”

One of the most common tales of Breathitt’s gore revolved around an older man in town who was accused of raping a young girl.  Mamaw told me that, days before his trial, the man was found facedown in a local lake with sixteen bullet wounds in his back.  The authorities never investigated the murder, and the only mention of the incident appeared in the local newspaper on the morning his body was discovered.  In an admirable display of journalistic pith, the paper reported: “Man found dead.  Foul play expected.”

By her terse, nonjudgmental account of the affair—“Bloody Breathitt got to that son of a bitch”—it appears Vance’s grandmother possessed a realistic perspective too often lacking among more comfortable Americans, who have been lulled into sentimental illusions about how the world works.  “By the time I was in seventh grade, many of my neighborhood friends were already smoking weed,” Vance mentions in a later chapter.

Mamaw found out and forbade me to see any of them.  I recognize that most kids ignore instructions like these, but most kids don’t receive them from the likes of Bonnie Vance.  She promised that if she saw me in the presence of any person on the banned list, she would run over him with her car.

If we don’t look out for our own, nobody else will.  Vance’s grandmother seems to have been keenly aware of this truth, and also seems to have regarded faithfulness to one’s own as a religious matter.  “My sister, Lindsay, and I could fight like cats and dogs in her home,” Vance recalls,

and for the most part she’d let us figure things out alone.  But if I told a friend that my sister was hateful and Mamaw overheard, she’d remember it and tell me the next time we were alone that I had committed the cardinal sin of disloyalty.

Vance’s book does have the potential to do a little good, then, if it provokes its readers into thinking about the significance of loyalty—a virtue that has at best been forgotten by the aspiring cogs of the global economy, and at worst gets stigmatized by them as a pathology.

For a brief, promising instant, Vance even meanders into the charged and taboo realm of loyalty to ethnos:

There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story.  In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin—“black people,” “Asians,” “white privilege.”  Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details.  I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast.  Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.  To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times.  Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash.  I call them neighbors, friends, and family.

Not exactly David Hackett Fischer, but good stuff nonetheless.  If “white American” is a meaningful expression—and it surely is—then so, too, is WASP, Scots-Irish, Hoosier, Cajun, Sooner, Midwesterner, Southerner, Yankee, Irish, Italian, and all the other interconnected and often overlapping terms denoting all the other British-rooted and European-rooted identities that reside at the heart of the American story.  Subsidiarity is a concept that should be applied to blood and soil no less than to economics and political structures, and Vance does us all a service by highlighting this.

Unfortunately, the occasional astute passage notwithstanding, Vance’s book fails.  As a general rule a hillbilly memoir should only come from a hillbilly who has actually accomplished something of historical significance, lest the narrative devolve into mere sensationalism and “local color.”  West Virginia mountaineer Chuck Yeager shot down an experimental Messerschmitt jet fighter in the skies over Germany, and afterward went on to break the sound barrier in an X-1 rocket plane during the height of the Cold War.  Scots-Irish Virginian Jim Webb served with distinction in Vietnam, and then came home to become a statesman and novelist of some prominence.  While his uneventful enlistment in the Marines and degrees from Ohio State and Yale are to Vance’s credit, they hardly justify a memoir, and since the narrative cannot be centered upon his achievements Vance has little choice but to serve up numerous sordid, obscenity-ridden anecdotes drawn from his dysfunctional upbringing.  Vance quarrels with his mother when she asks for his urine so she can pass a drug test at work; fed up with life, she tries to kill herself by driving a car off the road; Vance quarrels with her at his grandmother’s funeral.  At times reading Hillbilly Elegy was like being forced to watch The Jerry Springer Show.

Nor does the book make a better impression when considered as political analysis.  As if daring the reader to notice the absurdity, the dust-jacket biography relates that the hillbilly elegist now works for Silicon Valley, lives in San Francisco, and is a contributor to National Review—a journal not exactly renowned nowadays for aligning itself with the concerns of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish (or any other) descent.  When all is said and done, Vance is at least as much a millennial as a hillbilly.  “I’ve worried about racial prejudice in my own family and friends,” he confides to the reader in one passage.  So a child complaining about his sister to a playmate is guilty of the cardinal sin of disloyalty, but the man who leads an untold number of faceless strangers to believe that his family and friends might be a pack of racists is not?  Just what “prejudice” means here, Vance doesn’t say.  I know quite a few hillbillies myself, by the way, and their chief prejudice—against having their country taken over by foreigners—is a perfectly wholesome one.

So, anxiety about (white) racism, check.  Anxiety about homophobia?  Check.  Without ever quite giving three cheers for gay marriage, Vance makes sure to share his youthful revelation “that gay people weren’t out to molest me,” preaches that there are “more important things for a Christian to worry about than homosexuality,” and tells us about his troubled mother’s “unbelievably kind friend who was secretly gay.”  He also offers a solution for evangelical churches with “terrible retention rates”: They might stop being so obsessed with “this or that particular social malady: the gay agenda, evolutionary theory, Clintonian liberalism, or extramarital sex.”

It is of course true that combating leftist initiatives is no substitute for a whole vision of man and how he relates to his neighbor and Creator.  But what Vance fails to see is that conservative evangelicals who let themselves get entirely absorbed in the culture war are only reacting to liberal preachers, pastors, and priests who first set the precedent for politicizing Christianity and conflating piety with activism.  The difference is that the liberal Christian replaced the transcendent Gospel with his own unique set of obsessions—world hunger, environmental pollution, segregation.

In any case, for somebody who doesn’t think homosexuality is important enough to worry about, Vance talks about gayness more than any eastern Kentuckian I have ever met.  So, too, do many of those in the lawyer class to which he now belongs, as the past several years have seen numerous ordinances and laws aimed at cramming acceptance of homosexuality down Kentuckians’ throats.  As Vance later reveals, his bright idea of lightening up on social issues actually comes from an article he read on The Huffington Post—not quite the first oracle I’d consult when trying to find ways to reverse the decline of traditional religion.

Vance exhorts us, his fellow Appalachians, “to stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies,” and “ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”  Up to a point I might agree.  Appalachians do suffer from self-inflicted wounds, and do need to get their act together as a people.  Yet the way Vance puts it, one gets the feeling that only small-minded provincials could regard globalism as a threat to Appalachian life.  In truth, complaining about Bush, Obama, and faceless companies is stupid not because it is delusional and paranoid to see such political actors as enemies—it isn’t, for they are—but because only a fool expects anything but mischief from his enemies to begin with.  By glossing over the problems of finance capitalism Vance offers balm for the consciences of fellow Ivy Leaguers who might otherwise be tempted to do a bit of soul-searching in the wake of Brexit and the Trump triumph.  The suspicion and hostility working-class whites have toward transnational elites is quite justified, and until and unless a critical mass of elites themselves comes to admit this, the prospects for a humane resolution to the West’s civilizational crisis are nil.

Even more problematic than his obvious desire to avoid getting unfriended by liberals on Facebook is Vance’s uncritical deference toward studies, “scientific” experts, and surveys and polls of all kinds.  Such deference might be barely tolerable if he lingered long enough to draw some sort of conclusion, even a wrong one, but time and again he serves up a factoid only to move on, like an ADD-afflicted teenager surfing the internet.  One passage in particular forced me to do a double take.  Having explained how part of his childhood had been spent in a southern Ohio town, Vance reflects on the conclusion of his undergraduate years at Ohio State:

My closest friends had already graduated or were about to, but many stayed in Columbus after graduation.  Though I didn’t know it, I was witnessing a phenomenon that social scientists call “brain drain”—people who are able to leave struggling cities often do, and when they find a new home with educational and work opportunities, they stay there.  Years later, I looked at my wedding party of six groomsmen and realized that every single one of them had, like me, grown up in a small Ohio town before leaving for Ohio State.  To a man, all of them had found careers outside of their hometowns, and none of them had any interest in going back.

And that’s it.  This is exactly the first and last time we hear about “brain drain” in a book by a Breathitt County boy who criticizes the choices, lifestyle, and religion of his former neighbors . . . from 2,000 miles away.  What is important about the fact that Vance and all of his college friends left their hometowns behind?  The fact that social scientists have a name for it.

In Vance’s description hillbillies are like The Sopranos; the most vivid memory of his time with his estranged father is of watching Indiana Jones movies; a particularly unpleasant episode in his mother’s dysfunctional household calls to mind an episode of The West Wing; what with their tenacity and protectiveness, his grandparents resembled the unstoppable cyborg protagonist from Terminator 2.  Just to be clear, I point this out not to condemn the occasional reference to popular entertainment, but to note the extent to which the moral imagination of one of America’s elites seems to be dominated utterly by mass media.  Both the Appalachian tradition in which Vance was reared and the liberal-arts universities through which he passed have lost much of their ability to imprint substantive identity upon the next generation, and it shows.  Is Vance even capable of expressing himself at length without clutching images manufactured by HBO, NBC, or Hollywood?  As a Western public intellectual, does he recognize his obligation to wrestle (at least occasionally) with some perennial Western work of philosophy, literature, or theology?  Setting aside classical figures such as Plato, Cicero, and Pascal, there is little evidence that Vance is especially familiar with the microclassics of his own Appalachian subculture—the very left-leaning but nonetheless illuminating documentary Harlan County, USA, for instance, or Harriet Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker, or James Still’s River of Earth.  Most disturbing of all is the fact that the King James Bible seems to have had minimal influence on Vance’s language and thought.

So perhaps the next time Vance wonders what we can do to make things better, he might start by asking himself how realistic it is to expect much from a people when all of their potential leaders and role models abandon them for El Dorado.  He might also ask himself how much of the utopian American Dream that the Scots-Irish have been taught to reverence is just rationalization, a fig leaf for restlessness and insatiable ambition.  Last but hardly least, he might ask whether the fissioning of the nuclear family is an inescapable consequence of his adoptive class’s ongoing campaign against “racial prejudice” and old-time religion.

In spite of its pretensions and brief, tantalizing flashes of insight, Hillbilly Elegy never quite tackles such dangerous questions head-on, so the interested reader must look elsewhere.  Had Vance been schooled in the liberal arts rather than careerism, he would have written a much better book.  Had he been more rooted, he probably wouldn’t have written the book at all.  But he has considerable natural gifts.  Maybe he will use his newfound prosperity to pursue an education, in which case he may someday have something more profound to say.


[Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance (New York, NY: Harper Collins) 272 pp., $27.99