Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
- D. Vance
June 28, 2016
I grew up in Lutherville, Maryland in the 1950’s. My parents moved there in 1947 after my father returned from Europe and World War II.
Lutherville was a quiet suburb of Towson, which was 8 miles north of Baltimore. We had our “good sections” of the town and the other sections, several of which were “colored sections.” We had a variety of neighbors, from the Japanese man up the street, Mr. Bridge, who changed his name because America had just finished a vicious war with his native country; to the Thomases and the Skinners whose parents came from West Virginia and Kentucky during the war for the plentiful work at the Glenn L. Martin aircraft factory and other wartime industries in Baltimore; to the Webbs from Georgia, the Maiones from New York, and next door, the Daums from Baltimore. Quite a mix when you take in all the other people. Lutherville grew exponentially after the war because the automobile, which was now in reach financially for the middle class, allowed people to live away from the factories and offices of the big city.
Not a mile from my house, on Lincoln Avenue of all places, one of the “colored sections” didn’t get town water and sewer until 1957. They still used a communal water pump at one end of the street.
I didn’t go to a “desegregated school,” one that taught both black and white kids in the same building, until 1958. Lutherville was a town that embodied the post-war prosperity of the 1950’s while living in genteel proximity to the anti-bellum society of the 1850’s. There was a class of cultures, not always peaceful.
While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I was startled to recognize, and remember, those many people who had migrated to Maryland from the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia, and other parts of the deep South. I can’t say that this was always the case, but quite a few of our new neighbors were instantly recognizable as “hillbillies” (a term we frequently used ourselves) by the old appliances, rusting 1930 automobiles, household trash, and, indeed, often swarms of chickens in the yards…the front yards too!
But while the outward appearances were telltale, in fact at school, there seemed to be no difference among any of the children’s societal backgrounds, as far as I could tell. We all knew what rung of the upward-mobility ladder we inhabited, but in school, and in sports after school, we were mostly pegged by our abilities.
Not so for the parents, though. One example that Hillbilly Elegy reminded me of was when one of my neighbor kids had been threatening me and some of my friends on the school bus. My father took me over to his house where we met with his father, out in the street. My father described the problem to a grim, unfriendly man, who proceeded to scream across the yard for his son to come over to us. He asked the son if he had done what we described and when the son admitted it, the father promptly slapped the boy on his bare back so hard that the red print of his hand was immediately visible and the boy lurched over and started crying. My father tried to intervene and the boy’s father said, “Mind yer own business. This here’s muh whelp an’ I’ll do whut ah want tuh him.” I was so shocked that I cannot remember what happened after that.
These people were from a world I never knew existed. But here they were, having escaped the grinding poverty of back home for a middle class life in the suburbs…with some having a little trouble amalgamating into it. And as I said, this type of family could be seen throughout the town and the surrounding towns.
- D. Vance was born into, and grew up in that region of the country and that culture that I saw transplanted to suburban Baltimore, only his people went to Ohio along Rt. 23, otherwise known as the “hillbilly highway.” Millions of them left in a great migration that de-populated whole towns in Appalachia. But as one of his characters said, “You can take the boy out of Kentucky, but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.” His story is the continuing saga of what happens to people during this type of mass exodus and re-alignment of society and the economy.
It is not a pretty story, as he says. But it is not without its virtues, mostly embodied by a fierce patriotism, loyalty to family and heritage, and toughness.
But what do people do when confronted by a brave new world that seems to make no sense to them? How do they cope? What happens to the children? This book is the story of that revolution, but without the pat answers and pop-psychological nostrums. It is a story that is resonating still, all across our country: What ever happened to the good old days? Who are all these foreigners? Why can’t they speak English? How come they get free stuff when I just have to work and work?
Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. In Ecclesiastes 7:10 we read, Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. The difference may be that today, so very many people are asking these questions. And although Vance never mentions him, it is obvious that the Republican candidate for President in 2016, Donald J. Trump, attracts these people to his rallies, gives them a voice, and promises them a return to those better days of yesteryear.
All through the book, Vance describes self-destructive behavior, fear of “the other”, disdain for knowledge and rules, and the disintegration of the family. It is a mirror of what is happening to some African-American and Native American communities, yet as is often the case, these people do not think they are so bad because, as one of my southern friends used to say, “At least we ain’t niggers.”
But this is not a book with a Democratic or left-wing bent. Vance is still not convinced that government should play a large part in fixing society’s ills. For example he writes that although his schools were not great, they were adequate. But what kept him from concentrating in school was his chaotic home life, a situation all too many kids face today.
But what comes across so cruelly is that Vance’s people think that nothing they do themselves will improve their lot in life. The game is rigged against them and they have no power to overcome it, to break through to the other side.
Changing these attitudes will not happen through government intervention, or some new program out of Washington. Turning this mind-set around will involve much more, yet Vance gives no answers. What he does do, and extremely well, is show us what’s going on and keeping our nose to the window until we actually see our fellow human being suffering and despairing, not just “those hillbillies.”
To change what’s happening in all of our marginal communities and societies will take a major awakening of the people in our country. Hillbilly Elegy is the opening sermon in what I hope will become a new tent revival of hope and peace.
August 4, 2016