notes to my muses

Dear J. D. Vance,

Hillbilly Elegy


Dear J. D. Vance,

Hillbilly Elegy

Thank you for Hillbilly Elegy. Your writing is so accessible and straightforward that as I read, I felt you were talking to me. But if you had been talking to me, you’d be the first Scots-Irish Rust Belter I’ve ever had the opportunity to converse with. I’m one of those coastally oriented urban liberals who doesn’t know many folks who don’t share her politics. So your book was an opportunity for me to hear from somebody who might help me understand all those angry unemployed white men I heard so much about during the recent presidential campaign. You gave a voice to a group of people I would otherwise never meet.

But I read your best-selling memoir not only to learn about you and others from the Rust Belt. I also read it to learn about memoir writing because I’d like to write one. I was immediately struck by the way you introduce yourself and your story: “My name is J. D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession. . . .”  You don’t “sound” like a hillbilly. You sound like an extremely reliable and smart narrator who’s taking me into his confidence from the get-go. Your professed openness and your simple vocabulary prepared me to read a memoir that is both credible and unpretentiously written.

Next you assure readers that you’re not telling your life story to chronicle something “extraordinary” that you’ve achieved. This was immediately reassuring to me because my life has not been extraordinary in either achievement or debacle, factors which, separately or together, fuel many memoirs. Instead, you explain that you are using your life story to illustrate how a kid from a poor and very screwed up family in a decaying steel town achieved something “quite ordinary” for many American

Yale Law School Logo

young people. You went to college, graduated, and got yourself accepted to Yale Law School in spite of obstacles neither I nor most of your classmates faced. You had considerable support from your less than perfect mom, your tough old-time grandparents and your sister. Their love fostered your aspiration to join the white collar work world which meant getting an education. So in that way you differed from many of the other kids in Middletown, Ohio. But even so, your path to college and grad school wasn’t easy.

Vance and Grandmother

You claim that you were able to accomplish what you did not because you are especially brilliant, but rather because this “handful of loving people rescued” you. These “loving people,” most notably your hillbilly grandparents, were hardly poster people for parenting a homeless teen. But those grandparents saw that you could not flourish in your mom’s care. She was addicted to pain killers and attracted a series of stepfathers each of whom you had to learn to love and then lose. So Mamaw and Papaw, stepped up and did the best they could. And you acknowledge that four years in the marines between college and law school helped too.

U. S. Marine /corps Logo

You mention the “spiritual and material poverty” of the community you grew up in. To contextualize this sad state, you trace the history of the Scots-Irish migration from Appalachia to the Midwest and the remarkable persistence of the values they brought with them such as loyalty and patriotism. But there are others, equally persistent. One of these is a historical preference for whiteness. Along with that goes a distrust of outsiders and/or those who appear different from themselves. Introspection is not highly prized, but being tough and willing to fight to defend one’s family is. You point out that a man will battle fiercely to defend the honor of his mom or his sister, and then, after marrying, he’ll cheat on his wife and joke about it with his buddies. At the recent Women’s March in Seattle, I thought of those wives.

Unlike many, you don’t think that having more manufacturing jobs is the silver bullet that will bring back the good times before the local steel mill closed. Rather you show how over the generations various factors, especially drug use and the resulting breakdown of families, contributed to the failure of many Scots-Irish to embrace the work

Closed Steel Mill

ethic they profess to hold dear. Unaccustomed to self-examination, when they are fired for not doing their jobs, they blame their bosses. “How could he fire me? I have a pregnant girlfriend!” Or they blame “outsiders” or the government. You comment on how a man has energy enough to sire eight kids, but not enough energy to work to support them.

Parents appear oblivious to the effect of their neglect, instability, and poverty on their children. You illustrate through your own story how difficult it is for a youngster to do well in school with no one to make him do his homework, let alone help him with it, with no quiet place in which to study, and with hunger and high level domestic drama as constants. And you note again that there persists also a stubborn refusal to examine one’s own behavior, accept responsibility for it, and try to change it.

Before I read Hillbilly Elegy, I assumed that many white Midwesterners in the Rust Belt were Evangelical Christians. But the folks you describe have drifted far from organized religion of any kind. You say that the churches they once attended were more judgmental than supportive, so when times got hard, their members turned to drugs or booze. But what unchurched Rust Belters have in common with many fundamentalists of any stripe is the almost inchoate realization that modernity─ globalization, diversity, feminism, technology, new jobs requiring new skills ─ threatens those enduring values they brought with them from Appalachia and which still seem to be the bulk of their belief system. And it is this culture that you expose and yet still identify with. For although you have gotten that education, the white collar position, the lawyer wife and the cherished kids who will never wonder where they are sleeping or who is the daddy of the month, you identify still as a hillbilly.

As a would-be memoirist, I envy you your underexposed background. Perhaps because not too many hillbillies write memoirs, your upbringing seems exotic and makes me almost wish my own tribe, Jews descended from immigrant Eastern European Jews, had not been chronicled quite so extensively. While Scots-Irish avoid self-examination, many of my landsmen (and women) have filled library and bookstore shelves with lengthy accounts of neuroses caused by their overly protective Jewish moms, by poverty or affluence, by immigration, or, of course, by antisemitism. I’ll have to find something unique in my own background or an especially intriguing way of describing it to justify my desire to leave behind yet another story of yet another nice Jewish girl.

J. D. Vance

In Hillbilly Elegy you explain why so many American white men feel left behind, forgotten, and frightened by the whirlwind of changes in our country and our world. Since their migration north, they seem incapable of taking any action of their own to adapt. They remind me a little bit of those Jews who refused to believe that the Nazis would invade the countries where these same Jews held respected positions and led gratifying lives. So they ignored the warnings of their relatives abroad and stayed in Europe until it was too late to leave. I hope Hillbilly Elegy inspires many of your friends and relatives to prepare themselves and their children for the world as it really is rather than for the one they would like to revive. This book is a great gift from you to them and to those of us seeking to understand them. It took great love of kin and country as well as great courage to write it.  Thank you.


Jane Isenberg