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Beware the Interpreter: “Hillbilly Elegy” as a Prime Example


Vance’s critics could benefit from a basic overview of the difference between a primary and secondary source, and between the personal and the systemic.”

I count among my fonder memories reading Ziauddin Sardar’s primer What Do Muslims Believe? some 12 years ago. In retrospect, my high school history teacher deserves much credit for including this book in the curriculum—and even more for elevating the voices of our class’s small Muslim minority as we discussed it. It goes without saying that Sardar could not speak perfectly on behalf of all Muslims, but reading What Do Muslims Believe? was, nevertheless, a formative moment for a group of students largely uninitiated in the religion. It was the first time many of us had Islam explained by someone who was not Christian. The interfaith and intercultural conversations that followed were of a quality that astounds me to this day. 

It was not all Kumbaya, of course. Seeking to understand Islam even better, I went on to purchase a copy of the Quran. A relevant biographical detail is that I grew up in a conservative part of Michigan, at a time when the September 11th attacks were still a fresher memory. So, needless to say, there were some eyebrows raised as I carried that book around. 

This was all for the better, I think. If one seeks to understand something, one must be willing to look it in the face. To do so takes work, but it is the best way to learn. Thus emerges a general rule: To understand a phenomenon, first consult primary accounts. Going straight to the source can be far more educational (and more fun) than getting information secondhand. 

Does one wish to understand the horrors of slavery and, in turn, the abolitionist cause? Good—please proceed to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. On a lighter and more contemporary note, is one curious about the trials and travails of the restaurant industry’s underclass? That is good, too—check out Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. Raw stories of this nature are invaluable. They offer us what drama attempts but so often fails to achieve: complete immersion in another person’s brain as it inhabits a moment in history.

This is not to say there is not a place for secondary sources. Reviewers are useful insofar as they provide an overview of a work’s content and join in the conversation an author starts. But if I want to know what to think about Keith Richards’ tome Life, I’ll read it myself, thank you very much. Some memoirs, especially those of the political sub-genre, reach such a state of popularity that they become rhetorical footballs, the latest grist for preset ideological mills. Provide me with the critic (or their publication), and I will tell you their take. It is content as Rorschach test. 

Such has become the case with Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s account of his journey from the fringes of poverty in Middle America to the Ivy League. Critical reception of the memoir is voluminous and need not be reproduced here. Suffice it to say that the book enjoyed immense popularity among the general public, with more than one stint atop the The New York Times Best Seller list. Elegy‘s loudest critics came from far-left outlets including Jacobin, arguing that it ignores “structural problems in [the] American economy” and “staunchly defends the up-by-your-own-bootstraps fairy tale that capitalism has always used to win support from the underclasses.”

There are few things more tiresome than a critique addressed in advance by an author’s introduction. Vance explicitly states that while economics is a major part of Middle America’s hollowing out—“I worry about those things too”—the memoir’s focus is elsewhere: “[t]his book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

When a group finds itself exhibiting such a profound sense of learned helplessness, culture must be part of the reason why. 

Vance in no way denies that macroeconomic forces have hit former industrial centers particularly hard; indeed, that is one of his premises. What Vance contributes to the conversation is the keen observation that some cultures weather economic challenges better than others, and that it is worth exploring why survey data reveals working-class whites to be “the most pessimistic group in America,” even as their prospects are hardly the worst in the country. When a group finds itself exhibiting such a profound sense of learned helplessness, culture must be part of the reason why. 

It appears that every good debate is worth rehashing, and Netflix’s release of a star-studded Hollywood adaptation of Vance’s memoir is the perfect occasion. The intervening years have produced a few critics whose whole brand is to be anti-J.D. Vance, the most notorious of which may be the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. 

Since hard work is a central topic of this poverty discourse, it is ironic to find that a close read is precisely what some of Vance’s most vitriolic detractors fail to put in. One recent case is particularly pungent: the bad-faith caricaturing as journalists Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi interview the Worker’s Party hosts on their own platform, Citations Needed

The conversation is replete with the party-line critiques one might expect. Vance is guilty, they say, of underemphasizing the deleterious impact of the coal industry, and of overemphasizing drug users’ personal responsibility for the consequences of their addictions. This is all ground we have covered before, until things go laughably off the rails. Johnson, with the group in full agreement, manages to garble Elegy’s message so badly as to assert that Vance believes poor white people are genetically inferior and “unmovable, fixed, static, racist forever and that’s like the thing they are essentially, and [will] always be.” Shirazi echoes the bizarre straw man: To Vance, “everything is a moral failing based on genetics effectively.”

It does not take much intellectual firepower to see that genetic determinism and bootstrapping are mutually exclusive concepts. The invocation of genetics is a particularly bad non sequitur. Vance’s argument is cultural, not racial, and he takes pains to encourage readers not to view his arguments through a racial lens. Even without this qualifier, the misunderstanding is absurd on its very surface. Are we to believe that Vance—a Yale Law School graduate and millionaire many times over—thinks his own family’s genetic material is subpar? If Vance finds his own people so worthless as to be deserving of extermination, what is the point of all the cultural reform and hard work for which he advocates? Should such bile raise any additional eyebrows, yes, Tarence Ray of Worker’s Party actually spewed that bit about extermination, in direct reference to what he imagines is Vance’s view of his own mother. You can check the transcript.

One is compelled to imagine what would satisfy the podcast hosts. Perhaps it is a memoir framed entirely in terms of economic forces, presumably, in which Vance’s family plods along, devoid of agency, exploited and abandoned by Big Coal in Appalachia, while Big Pharma shovels prescription opioids down the collective throats of Middletown, Ohio. Somewhere in this Sinclairian slog is supposed to fit young J.D. and his rise to the intellectual and economic elite. However, this is where things get complicated. How, exactly, does one saddled with this kind of generational curse emerge to become the first in his family to graduate college? How does that person go on to attend Yale Law School, and then become a principal at a venture capital firm? Is the answer only sheer luck? Because if it is, that does not make for much of a memoir. 

And a memoir this is—through and through. Vance makes it clear that one should interpret Elegy primarily as an account of life as he experienced it. This is not political science; it is not sociology: “Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck…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.”

Vance cannot tell his story differently from what you find in those pages. That story is such that his personal decisions—based on the embrace of some aspects of Appalachian culture and the rejection of others—catalyzed his meteoric success. To discount the memoir on the grounds that it embraces bootstrapping and personal responsibility is patently absurd when there is no reasonable way to explain Vance’s outcome without them. Hard work applied in combination with a conscious choice to break from toxic cultural cycles is, in fact, a path to success that many more could follow. Of this, Vance himself is undeniable material proof. 

Is it not amazing how much hearkens back to lessons learned in high school? Vance’s critics could benefit from a basic overview of the difference between a primary and secondary source, and between the personal and the systemic. Perhaps, then, they might develop a rudimentary understanding of the memoir as a genre.

Speaking of which, please do not take my word for all this. Read Vance yourself. Decide for yourself. Hillbilly Elegy is a valuable account of a damn important moment in American history, the essence of which is insultingly bungled by interpreters acting in bad faith.

Joshua Barthel is a writer in Washington, D.C., and he runs the blog Rhetoric. He is a graduate of Harvard University, and his work has also appeared in the Harvard International Review. He can be found on Twitter @BarthelJoshua

Correction: A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of Frederick Douglass’ name. 

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