Hillbilly Elegy - a book about the real Americans?

In order to understand American culture and society better, we will work with the Appalachian region and extracts from the novel "Hillbilly Elegy".

Our learning goal: Learn more about the Appalachian region in order to understand the complexity and diversity in the American population better.

Competence aims: 

 

The American Dream, "Hillbillies" and "white working-class Americans" - what do you know?

What is the main idea of the American Dream? How is it related to the following quote from the Declaration of Independence: "

What do you associate with the term "hillbilly"? Which stereotypes are usually associated with this term?

After Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, many people argued that his victory was a result of the support from white working-class Americans. What do you associate with this group of people? How are they portrayed in the media?

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"A Patchwork Nation"

Read about the Appalachian region in the text "A Patchwork Nation" about the different cultural regions in the USA.

"A Patchwork Nation"

The US is a large country, consisting of people from different backgrounds and with different values and cultural traits. The text is about how culture and values tend to differ from region to region - to the extent that the USA can in fact be considered "a patchwork nation".


Frontier spirit: "Appalachia" – the Upper South 

This region was settled in the early 1700s by tough bands of Scots-Irish immigrants from Northern Ireland. They came from areas of civil war and  strife. Their past encouraged a fighting spirit and a strong belief in individualism and personal freedom. 

The Appalachian settlers often arrived in clans, and over time spread out and settled in the hill country of the early frontier. Considered the original “frontiersmen,” Appalachian trailblazers  like Davy Crockett became legends in their own time and are a source of American  folklore. Andrew Jackson from Tennessee was an important 19th century President who is considered responsible for making it easier for poor whites to vote, thus bringing democracy to thecommon man. Several of the states from this region fought for the North in the Civil War, but formed a cultural alliance with the Deep South afterwards. 

Economically, parts of Appalachia have suffered, and are still some of the poorest communities in the nation. In the 1960s, with this region in mind, the government declared a “War on Poverty,” which has helped the neediest in rural areas with poor whites. However, in recent years hardship has returned. 

There is a strong sense of religion in this region as well. Like the Deep South, it tends to support issues such as school prayer and  efforts  to ban abortion. Appalachia is also well known as a source of “roots” and folk music that arrived with the settlers in the 1700s. Nashville, Tennessee is the commercial capital of Country music and Bluegrass originated in Kentucky and the Virginias.


Which geographical area is considered a part of Appalachia?

  • Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest
  • From West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas
  • Southwest Texas and the border region

The text emphasizes that people who live in the same region tend to have more in common. What is typical for "Greater Appalacia?"

Vocabulary training

Find the meaning of relevant terms used to describe American society, issues, people and politics

Vocabulary - these terms are often used when talking about American society in general and American welfare in particular. Explain them in your own words:  

  • Social class 

  • Social mobility 

  • Self-reliance 

  • Equal opportunity 

  • Republican 

  • Democrat 

  • To pull yourself up by your bootstraps 

  • Food stamps 

  • Dependency culture 

  • The deserving poor

"Hillbilly Elegy" - a memoir by J.D. Vance

Video: J.D. Vance on "America's forgotten working class"

After watching the video of J.D. Vance, answer the following questions: How does Vance describe the American working class? Based on Vance's stories, what seems to be the main challenges this group face today?

Why can J.D. Vance be seen as an example of the American Dream?

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


  • Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a memoir (i.e. biography) by J. D. Vance about the Appalachian values of his upbringing and their relation to the social problems of his hometown.

  • Vance describes his upbringing and family background. He writes about a family history of poverty and low-paying, physical jobs that have since disappeared or worsened in their guarantees, and compares this life with his perspective after leaving that area and life.

Hillbilly Elegy - extract number one

Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J.D. Vance 

Introduction 

My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it. The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous. But about two hundred people do the same thing every year, and trust me, you don’t want to read about most of their lives. I am not a senator, a governor, or a former cabinet secretary. I haven’t started a billion-dollar company or a world-changing nonprofit. I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.  

So I didn’t write this book because I’ve accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future—that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year.  

I was one of those kids with a grim future. I almost failed out of high school. I nearly gave in to the deep anger and resentment harbored by everyone around me. Today people look at me, at my job and my Ivy League credentials, and assume that I’m some sort of genius, that only a truly extraordinary person could have made it to where I am today. With all due respect to those people, I think that theory is a load of bullshit. Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.  

That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us. 

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. 

The Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America. As one observer noted, “In traveling across America, the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else.” This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.  

If ethnicity is one side of the coin, then geography is the other. When the first wave of Scots-Irish immigrants landed in the New World in the eighteenth century, they were deeply attracted to the Appalachian Mountains. This region is admittedly huge—stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio to parts of New York in the North—but the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive. My family, from the hills of eastern Kentucky, describe themselves as hillbillies, but Hank Williams, Jr.—born in Louisiana and an Alabama resident—also identified himself as one in his rural white anthem “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It was Greater Appalachia’s political reorientation from Democrat to Republican that redefined American politics after Nixon. And it is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery. 

It is unsurprising, then, that we’re a pessimistic bunch. What is more surprising is that, as surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. More pessimistic than black Americans, whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites. While reality permits some degree of cynicism, the fact that hillbillies like me are more down about the future than many other groups—some of whom are clearly more destitute than we are—suggests that something else is going on. 

Answer the following questions after reading the introduction

Questions: 

  1. What do you learn about J.D. Vance in this chapter? Write a summary of 5-10 sentences. 

  2. What is upward social mobility? Why is this a relevant expression for Vance's story?  

  3. Describe in your own words what the American Dream is. Why can Vance's story be considered an exemplification of the American Dream? 

  4. Which US states are mentioned as a part of the Appalachians? Do the terms “the industrial Midwest” and “the Rust Belt” involve the same states? 

  5. What is a stereotype? What kind of “hillbilly” stereotypes are described or mentioned in this chapter? 

  6. What is a value? What kind of “hillbilly” values are mentioned in this chapter?  

  7. Vance writes that "statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future". Find statistics online on education and employment for the Appalachian population and describe what you find. 

Hillbilly Elegy - extract number two

"Dreams in Appalachia" - extract number two

Today, Middletown can be described as “little more than a relic of American industrial glory”. Today’s struggles in Middletown are strongly connected to the collapsing importance of Armco - as the business has had troubles competing in the globalized world. Armco Kawasaki Steel used to be an important factory in our town; the company where my grandfather worked and the reason many had settled in the town in the first place. However, as a child I never even thought about working at the place. As small children, we had the same dreams that other kids did; we wanted to be astronauts or football players or action heroes. I wanted to be a professional puppy-player-wither, which at the time seemed eminently reasonable. By the sixth grade, we wanted to be veterinarians or doctors or preachers or businessmen. But not steelworkers. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted.  

Many kids today seem to feel the same as we did. A few years ago I spoke with Jennifer McGuffey, a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school, and when you try to talk to them about what they’re going to do, they talk about AK. ‘Oh, I can get a job at AK. My uncle works there.’ It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK.” My initial reaction was: How could these kids not understand what the world was like? Didn’t they notice their town changing before their very eyes? But then I realized: We didn’t, so why would they? 

For my grandparents, Armco was an economic savior—the engine that brought them from the hills of Kentucky into America’s middle class. My grandfather loved the company and knew every make and model of car built from Armco steel. Even after most American car companies transitioned away from steel-bodied cars, Papaw would stop at used-car dealerships whenever he saw an old Ford or Chevy. “Armco made this steel,” he’d tell me. It was one of the few times that he ever betrayed a sense of genuine pride. 

Despite that pride, he had no interest in my working there: “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” he once told me. The only acceptable career at Armco was as an engineer, not as a laborer in the weld shop. A lot of other Middletown parents and grandparents must have felt similarly: To them, the AmericanDream required forward momentum. Manual labor was honorable work, but it was their generation’s work—we had to do something different. To move up was to move on. That required going to college. 

And yet there was no sense that failing to achieve higher education would bring shame or any other consequences. The message wasn’t explicit; teachers didn’t tell us that we were too stupid or poor to make it. Nevertheless, it was all around us, like the air we breathed: No one in our families had gone to college; older friends and siblings were perfectly content to stay in Middletown, regardless of their career prospects; we knew no one at a prestigious out-of-state school; and everyone knew at least one young adult who was underemployed or didn’t have a job at all. 

In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school’s entering freshmen won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state. Students don’t expect much from themselves, because the people around them don’t do very much. Many parents go along with this phenomenon. I don’t remember ever being scolded for getting a bad grade until Mamaw began to take an interest in my grades in high school. When my sister or I struggled in school, I’d overhear things like “Well, maybe she’s just not that great at fractions,” or “J.D.’s more of a numbers kid, so I wouldn’t worry about that spelling test.” 

There was, and still is, a sense that those who make it are of two varieties. The first are lucky: They come from wealthy families with connections, and their lives were set from the moment they were born. The second are the meritocratic: They were born with brains and couldn’t fail if they tried. Because very few in Middletown fall into the former category, people assume that everyone who makes it is just really smart. To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn’t matter as much as raw talent. 

It’s not like parents and teachers never mention hard work. Nor do they walk around loudly proclaiming that they expect their children to turn out poorly. These attitudes lurk below the surface, less in what people say than in how they act. One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. “So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,” she’d say. This was the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she—despite never having worked in her life—was an obvious exception. 

 Study questions 

  1. What is the difference between a blue-collar and white-collar career? What seems to be the ideal today, based on Vance’s descriptions? 

  2. Vance writes that his grandfather once told him that “your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands”. How can this be said to symbolize the changing economy and ideals in the region? 

  3. The American Dream is often described as the idea that if you are willing to work hard enough, you can achieve success. However, Vance describes the road to success as perceived as something different in Middletown, where “hard work doesn’t matter as much as raw talent”. How do Middletonians perceive those “who make it”? 

Hillbilly Elegy - extract number three

Vance's observation in Middletown, Ohio  

Mamaw encouraged me to get a job—she told me that it would be good for me and that I needed to learn the value of a dollar. When her encouragement fell on deaf ears, she then demanded that I get a job, and so I did, as a cashier at Dillman’s, a local grocery store. 

Working as a cashier turned me into an amateur sociologist. A frenetic stress animated so many of our customers. One of our neighbors would walk in and yell at me for the smallest of transgressions—not smiling at her, or bagging the groceries too heavy one day or too light the next. Some came into the store in a hurry, pacing between aisles, looking frantically for a particular item. But others waded through the aisles deliberately, carefully marking each item off of their list. Some folks purchased a lot of canned and frozen food, while others consistently arrived at the checkout counter with carts piled high with fresh produce. The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food with food stamps. After a few months, I came home and asked Mamaw why only poor people bought baby formula. “Don’t rich people have babies, too?” Mamaw had no answers, and it would be many years before I learned that rich folks are considerably more likely to breast-feed their children. 

As my job taught me a little more about America’s class divide, it also imbued me with a bit of resentment, directed toward both the wealthy and my own kind. The owners of Dillman’s were old-fashioned, so they allowed people with good credit to run grocery tabs, some of which surpassed a thousand dollars. I knew that if any of my relatives walked in and ran up a bill of over a thousand dollars, they’d be asked to pay immediately. I hated the feeling that my boss counted my people as less trustworthy than those who took their groceries home in a Cadillac. But I got over it: One day, I told myself, I’ll have my own damned tab. 

I also learned how people gamed the welfare system. They’d buy two dozen-packs of soda with food stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They’d ring up their orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and cigarettes with cash. They’d regularly go through the checkout line speaking on their cell phones. I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about. 

Mamaw listened intently to my experiences at Dillman’s. We began to view much of our fellow working class with mistrust. Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large minority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks, I’d get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state incometaxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though I’m far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s “party of the working man”—the Democrats—weren’t all they were cracked up to be. 

Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!” 

At around that time, our neighbor—one of Mamaw and Papaw’s oldest friends—registered the house next to ours for Section 8. Section 8 is a government program that offers low-income residents a voucher to rent housing. Mamaw’s friend had little luck renting his property, but when he qualified his house for the Section 8 voucher, he virtually assured that would change. Mamaw saw it as a betrayal, ensuring that “bad” people would move into the neighborhood and drive down property values. 

Despite our efforts to draw bright lines between the working and nonworking poor, Mamaw and I recognized that we shared a lot in common with those whom we thought gave our people a bad name. Those Section 8 recipients looked a lot like us. The matriarch of the first family to move in next door was born in Kentucky but moved north at a young age as her parents sought a better life. She’d gotten involved with a couple of men, each of whom had left her with a child but no support. She was nice, and so were her kids. But the drugs and the late-night fighting revealed troubles that too many hillbilly transplants knew too well. Confronted with such a realization of her own family’s struggle, Mamaw grew frustrated and angry. 

From that anger sprang Bonnie Vance the social policy expert: “She’s a lazy whore, but she wouldn’t be if she was forced to get a job”; “I hate those fuckers for giving these people the money to move into our neighborhood.” She’d rant against the people we’d see in the grocery store: “I can’t understand why people who’ve worked all their lives scrape by while these deadbeats buy liquor and cell phone coverage with our tax money.” 

These were bizarre views for my bleeding-heart grandma. And if she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next. The government, after all, was just helping poor people find a place to live, and my grandma loved the idea of anyone helping the poor. She had no philosophical objection to Section 8 vouchers. So the Democrat in her would resurface. She’d rant about the lack of jobs and wonder aloud whether that was why our neighbor couldn’t find a good man. In her more compassionate moments, Mamaw asked if it made any sense that our society could afford aircraft carriers but not drug treatment facilities—like Mom’s—for everyone. Sometimes she’d criticize the faceless rich, whom she saw as far too unwilling to carry their fair share of the social burden. Mamaw saw every ballot failure of the local school improvement tax (and there were many) as an indictment of our society’s failure to provide a quality education to kids like me. 

Mamaw’s sentiments occupied wildly different parts of the political spectrum. Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat. Because of this, I initially assumed that Mamaw was an unreformed simpleton and that as soon as she opened her mouth about policy or politics, I might as well close my ears. Yet I quickly realized that in Mamaw’s contradictions lay great wisdom. I had spent so long just surviving my world, but now that I had a little space to observe it, I began to see the world as Mamaw did. I was scared, confused, angry, and heartbroken. I’d blame large businesses for closing up shop and moving overseas, and then I’d wonder if I might have done the same thing. I’d curse our government for not helping enough, and then I’d wonder if, in its attempts to help, it actually made the problem worse. 

 Study questions: 

  1. Write a brief summary of what Vance observes as a cashier, and what image it depicts of the people in Middletown. 

  2. How does Vance’s job at the grocery store shape his views of class difference and welfare?

The American Dream in Appalachia - does it seem attainable?

In what ways can J.D. Vance's story be seen as an example of the American dream? (Write 1-2 paragraphs)

In what ways can the extracts from Hillbilly Elegy be seen as an argument for how difficult it can be to achieve the American Dream today? (Write 1-2 paragraphs)

Do you think the extracts from J. D. Vance portrays the Appalachians in a mainly positive or negative aspect? Give reasons for your opinion.