University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Hillbilly Elegy A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Hillbilly Elegy is the journey of a Scots-Irish descent white American named J.D. Vance who classifies himself as a hillbilly. According to Vance “people need to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty have on children” (Vance, 2016, p.2). Vance administered the Appalachian culture, the struggles of growing up in poverty, and the psychological impact from having a tumultuous family history.
Appalachians’ lack of ability to maintain jobs has led to their difficulties with finances. The author portrayed that hillbillies are committed to their traditions yet also suffer from fixed mindsets preventing them from reaching the American dream. Although Vance has reached success, his childhood exposure to instability, drugs, and violence still impacts him today. The grandparents of J.D. Vance, moved the family from Kentucky to Ohio with the goal of improving their lives. Vance explained, “Mamaw and Papaw-were, without question or qualification the best things that ever happened to [him]” (Vance, 2016, p.23). Vance’s memoir is not just the story of the Appalachian struggles, but the impoverished and uncertainty many Americans face today.
Vance suggested Appalachians are complacent with government assistance and the majority struggle to find real work. According to Vance, “the truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they tell about themselves” (Vance, 2016, p.20). Each individual can relate to his or her cultural norms. Society, however, has encouraged Americans to stand tall and be the change if change is necessary. All Americans of low socioeconomic status can relate to the Appalachian struggles that Vance detailed. In some suburban areas, drugs may not be as prominent. “The most common assessment of outsiders by Appalachia outsiders is of a poor, isolated, and shoeless mountain people with too many children, little or no formal education, and barely making a hardscrabble living in an inhospitable environment” (Weller, 1965).
Appalachians also suffer from severe poverty. Hillbillies are in need of real assistance; otherwise, further generations will continue to fail with inadequate education and even a higher level of poverty. Appalachians have been struggling for so long that many have accepted poverty as the way of life and are unwilling to change. According to Elam (2002), Reck and Reck (1980) stated, “‘Living is more important than schooling’ expresses a mindset created by poverty and culture.” In America, further education can help land better jobs. Although there is financial assistance for post-secondary education, the amount of debt incurred by students has many wondering if furthering education is truly worth it. Furthermore, employers feel that students are not learning the job skills they need to become contributing members of our community. Poverty is currently one of the major reasons there are gaps in the education system.
Vance comes from a typical hillbilly family. Although he had a biological and adopted father, neither seemed to be involved in his life. His mother also exposed Vance to severe physical abuse that resulted in her arrest. His Papaw was an alcoholic and his Mamaw nearly set her husband on fire. Home life has and always will impact an individual’s overall performance. According to Vance, “social services weren’t made for hillbilly families, and they often make a bad problem worse” (Vance, 2016, p.243).
Vance’s memoir depicted the struggles hillbillies face. Culture and poverty are the norm for Appalachians. Mr. Vance has become an excellent example of what can occur if hillbillies would change their mindset and take the initiative to improve their lifestyles. Although Vance has reached his American dream, internal demons from his upbringing will also be present.