J D VANCE
Both The Southerner and Intruder In The Dust appeared before the end of the 1940s. Each black and white movie had a distinguished director. The Southerner was enhanced by the sophistication and intelligence of Jean Renoir. Hollywood veteran Clarence Brown had a sensibility that suited the adaptation of Intruder In The Dust, the literary masterpiece by William Faulkner. Both films provide affirmation of the potential of innocence but they also insist on the need for knowledge and understanding. In The Southerner one of the children in the family of the sharecropper becomes ill because his diet does not include enough vegetables. Racial prejudice in a Southern town has to be defied by lawyer and liberal hero Gavin Stevens to protect the black victim in Intruder In The Dust. Always there is merit but also flaws that require self-examination and development. Faulkner did not have contempt for fellow Southerners but he insisted they needed the superior intelligence and advice of the educated and informed.
Those not sympathetic to the American South might find The Southerner sentimental and Intruder In The Dust to be too concerned about how racial prejudice affects the white citizens. Faulkner is not so interested in the restricted opportunities for Southern blacks. His main concern is that the whites do their best to behave well. Both films suggested that the rural South in the right circumstances could provide an elegant context for ordinary existence. They also acknowledged that there was a dark side to Southern life. The films were optimistic because they imagined education and the educated would ensure progress. Descriptions of the American South contain both a lament for a disappearing past and the expectation of an improved future. A Southern elegy mixes self-hatred and pride, fear and hope.
Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance conforms to the tradition. It laments the loss of past self-reliance and virtue but demands a better-informed future for white working class Southerners. The book is nowhere near as important as some critics claim but it is a honest first hand account of life in a troubled working class family. The book deserves some space and air. Vance explains how he progressed beyond his own difficult environment to qualify at Yale Law School and become successful and affluent. The Sunday Times described Hillbilly Elegy as ‘the political book of the year’ and both the Independent and the Observer credit Vance with explaining why the white working class of the South are prepared to support Trump. All of this is nonsense. Any book about Southern working class culture has to refer to racism and music. Vance manages one glib and inaccurate sentence about race and he does not even mention the music of a social class that conquered the world. Hillbilly Elegy is a good light read that could be consumed on a cross-country train journey. It is, though, fifty pages too long.
The personal experiences and observations of hillbilly life contain nothing that would surprise anyone familiar with Southern literature. The tales of William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Eudora Welty exposed the inconsistency in human nature well before Hillbilly Elegy. Unlike Vance those authors understood that this inconsistency was not confined to any particular class. Hillbilly Elegy combines a very personal but not that exceptional story of progress of a bright and ambitious young man with superficial thinking about the American class system. To his credit Vance realises that his success required, at crucial moments in his life, both luck and interventions from others. His book reminds the reader that the decisions made by working class teenagers have more dangerous consequences than those made by their middle class equivalents. A misstep by a privileged teenager means that the step has to be taken again. When the working class adolescent commits the same error in judgement, he or she falls off the ladder. This is not that much of a revelation but it impressed those who write for The Economist and The Wall Street Journal.
Vance admits to being tempted to abandoning ambition when young. College, some important conversations and the Marine Corps intervened. According to Vance, the Marine Corps was where he learned to be an adult. There he was nurtured and persuaded that he could be a success. This support was not available from his family. J D Vance has a point. The working class Americans I know that moved into the middle class were all ex-servicemen who felt that their opportunity came while in military service. The military, of course, is the institution where a young person learns to take orders. No doubt lives have been improved through the ability to do what you are told but we should have no illusion about this process, what constitutes being an adult in a modern society. No one should begrudge J D Vance his success and the benefits that he found derived from his work ethic. But Hillbilly Elegy has a fancy title so we are entitled to make demands. Not academic rigour perhaps but some intellectual discipline. Hillbilly Elegy requires a wider perspective than it provides. Often this perspective can be provided by history, which is why the book compares badly to White Trash by Nancy Isenberg. She explains how class prejudice is institutionalised and how long lasting are the institutions. J D Vance worries that working class people wear the wrong clothes and have poor table manners.
The author of Hillbilly Elegy describes himself as a modern conservative and a patriot. He means well, has a decent heart and knows that what happens to individuals is not always fair. Egalitarian, though, he is not. The J D Vance notion of progress consists of improved social mobility for the gifted and little else. The lucky working class individuals learn about middle class values and adapt. The unlucky can be helped but they will have to learn those values, to take orders. The middle class examples are more fortunate. They succeed at a game where their families have written the rules. All that working class people have to do is ignore the traditions that helped their parents cope with poverty and routine unsatisfying jobs. The ambitious working class person should disinherit their parents and become like their betters. In Hillbilly Elegy J D Vance does both. The exposure of the problems of his mother earns no marks for loyalty.
Vance also uses the turbulence within his family to explain the decline in working class culture. Grandmother is strong and self-reliant. Mother is a heroin addict and consumer of men. Grandmother and Mom are very different but it is not sensible to look at grandparents and equate the calmness of old age to superior strength and a past of self-restraint. The grandmother of Vance was important and supportive. Her home provided a quiet refuge. So did the home of my grandmother to me, and all my mother did was like a cigarette. This was because my grandmother had home comforts that my parents had not yet realised. She was settled and did not need to strive. Grandmother in Hillbilly Elegy has the nickname Mamaw. When she was twelve years old, this sweet lady shot at a man and nearly killed him. Mamaw was violent to others, and her daughter attacked her own body. Neither qualified as aspirational role models. Working class life has changed as the modern world has taken a technological hold. Today we cope with a pace of life and demands that would bewilder our predecessors. They lived lives that would have defeated us.
Vance is not judgemental but somehow he argues widespread moral failure is the problem. Inspirational messages about potential and the imposition of self-discipline do no harm. Yet only the naïve can believe the solution to a lopsided and unequal power structure is individual striving and achievement. Ambition in the talented should be nurtured but for most people the precious self-discipline that Vance promotes will only help people follow orders and earn a living. That is better than settling for a life on welfare and seeking solace in drugs but the social problem and unfair division of wealth will continue as it did when working people prospered after the Second World War. Bohemia was a seductive message that appealed to the youth of the sixties. It led to promiscuity and drug taking. This began in the middle classes but was later adopted within the working class. Family life changed. The middle classes have more money and cope better with relaxed bohemia but they also have their casualties. Decline, if it exists, is not restricted to the working class.
J D Vance is now a man with influence and he contributes to organisations that try to promote working class success. He also works as an investor for a leading venture capital firm. The irony of him persuading people to aspire to jobs that his type of company helps destroy appears to be lost on the author. Human beings have failings and different periods in their lives. Only a fool would deny that they benefit from personal support and advice from the successful. They also like steady jobs and money, and that is serious social change.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.