Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I paired this book with White Trash, Nancy Issenberg’s more academic historical look at the white underclass in America since founding. What Issenberg was missing in characters, tone, emotion and personality, Vance picks up in this book. And what Vance is missing in history, context, data and evidence, is largely available in Issenberg’s book. They make for a good pairing.

Overall, my only real complaint with Hillbilly Elegy is the quality of the writing. Vance is a lawyer and it shows. His writing, instead of being literary or ebullient, is more straight forward and structured. There’s nothing wrong with that type of writing but usually memoirs, especially those with strong emotional underpinnings are wont to try, through writing style, convey emotionality. I got a good sense of Vance’s relationship with his mother, his grandparents, his sister and his wife but I would’ve loved for those emotions to come through the writing more.

Beyond the writing and emotionality, I found Vance’s picture of white America well painted, his arguments well thought and his world view well conveyed. His solutions, surprisingly, were more institution centric than I would’ve expected. Yes, he asks his family and friends in his home town to reconsider their work ethic and take personal responsibility for their decline. But many of the things he outlines as reasons for his success are traditional institutions like church, family, work, the military, higher education and some government programs like the GI Bill (although he’s critical of other government programs like child foster care). The importance of personal responsibility was a welcomed addition to this conversation, for me, because liberal corners of this literature tend to diminish its importance.

Vance, more than Issenberg, is more successful at dealing with the question of race in his book. He builds a better case for understanding why poor whites are reluctant to understand or believe major narratives about race relations because they see their own decline and their own plight as similar to that of black Americans. Poor whites feel like outsiders in American society just as much as black Americans, at times.