From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
Discussion leader: John Wolcott
Gentlemen–Hillbilly Elegy is an extremely important book, perhaps more because so many pundits are liberally quoting it than might truly be the case–and therein lies an intriguing paradox. However, Elegy is extraordinarily well-written (the pages fly by) and relates an absorbing, disturbing, yet at times uplifting story set in Appalachia, referred to by politicians, some sympathetically, others, condescendingly, as the Rust Belt. Our discussion will be both lively and provocative.
Once you’ve put the book down (but not before), please read the attached book review from The New Yorker. I’ve read a number of others, and none comes close. It’s so good that you could almost skip the book, but again, the book is so well crafted that you shouldn’t miss it. The article also refers to several other sources that might be worth a look.
See you all January 11. In the meantime, Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year, speaking of which, make reading Hillbilly Elegy your first New Year’s Resolution!