I just finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I am not interested in politically analyzing it, because that has been done. My political analysis of the book closely aligns with Bob Hutton’s article at Jacobin called Hillbilly Elitism. Please go and read that if you want a smart and thoughtful analysis of Vance and his complete disregard of poverty.
I want to talk about my emotional and mental response to reading this book. I was born in rural Ohio, not in the Appalachian part, but in the northwest corner. It’s the flattest part of world you will ever see. A mighty glacier flattened that area into the Lake Plains about 10,000 years ago.
I left Ohio when I was 19 years old. Less than 3 weeks after I graduated high school I boarded an international flight to Russia to study abroad for the summer. I spent a my graduation money on the trip and it was worth every penny. When I returned from that adventure, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania two weeks later for college and I never lived in Ohio again. Was I running from Ohio or to a wider world? I don’t know the answer, but it is probably a little of both.
There are parts of Hillbilly Elegy that forced a real emotional response from me. Many times, I knew the feeling he was talking about before the sentence would end. When he described the pervasive pessimism, the fear of imposition, or the frustration at people’s rigidity or lack of curiosity is something I think (probably obsess) about a lot.
Ohio is one of the few places in the world that make me want to respond like a conservative. When I am organizing anywhere else, I can apply a thoughtful power analysis to the situation. I try to consider the poverty, drug addiction, joblessness, and crime that many poor people battle. That analysis goes out the window when I think about rural Ohio. Unfortunately, I too often see folks in Ohio and think “turn off the TV and pick up a book,” or “you have nothing but farmland, grow food and stop with the fast food.” Those thoughts are unbelievably shitty and condescending and I try to keep unsolicited opinions to myself. They are very real and gross natural response I have to the “culture” of my home state.
I wanted to move out of my area for a very long time and a lot of that was centered around my sexuality, but not all of it. I wanted to be in a place that had things that interested me. I wanted to go to the orchestra and I wanted to see an opera. I wanted to try interesting foods. I thought the unpredictability of a city would lead to new adventures, and leaving a farm and moving to a city did allow for all of that and more. It was nice and it was what I wanted.
I struggle with other people’s pessimism. Vance talks about leaving Ohio and becoming and optimist, and I feel very similar to him on this issue. I was recently in Ohio and asked, “what is one thing we could do to really change the area for the better.” Someone said, “drop a bomb.” Everyone laughed, nodded in agreement, and offered no other solutions.
Vance discusses folk’s fear of imposition. This is very true and it drives me insane. People are really scared to express their opinion’s on anything. When my family from Ohio comes to visit, I’ll often say something like “would you like to do burgers or chicken for lunch?” The response is always, “Oh, we don’t care, whatever you want.” My husband tells a story from his childhood, where a relative offered to buy him ice cream and he chose the cheapest thing for fear of imposing. That adult had a conversation with him about how he would not have offered to buy him ice cream if he was unable to provide the ice cream my husband wanted. Sam knew from that day forward that if someone offers you something you accept it, be grateful for it, and to never feel bad for accepting it. No one taught me or any one I know that lesson in Ohio. It is an absolute crazy that accepting a gift causes more stress than giving a gift.
There are many reason why I do not return often. You probably think that homophobia is on the list, but there I have not experienced much as of late. That being said, my circles are limited to a loving family and friends when I visit, so there is not much of a chance to attack me or my husband. I don’t go back because of the fear and the pessimism. Vance captured that and those passages resonated with me, so I will give him credit on those merits.
The thing that bothers me more than Vance’s analysis is how his book became so popular. I am shocked that this was (and still is) on the best seller lists. If you don’t identify with or recognize parts of it, I’d think it is nothing more than navel-gazing blogging (I get the irony). It’s 250 pages of a guy working through his mom issues. It really grosses me out to think about a bunch of upper middle class people treating this book like a national geographic.
This book’s popularity is very unsettling.
If you think it is valuable to actually spend time on some of the issues mentioned here, than skip Vance and look up the Ohio Organizing Collaborative or Redneck Revolt. These people are working to make Ohio a better place and have the optimism and courage needed right now. I am unable to help with it, but maybe you can.