From the Holler to Yale Law

Review: J.D. Vance, ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

The sun sets over the Appalachian Mountains
The sun sets over the Appalachian Mountains / AP

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is mistitled: it should be called Marine Corps Hymn. An elegy celebrates the dead. But this book has nothing good to say about the Scots-Irish working class world Vance grew up in, which isn’t dead but very much with us, plagued by drugs, abusive and transient relationships, lack of role models, and too much self-hatred. What the book is really about is the self-reliance the author, still in his early 30s, learned from enlisting in the Marines.

It’s also a hymn to America. He tells us: "I’m the kind of patriot the people on the Acela corridor laugh at." Who’s laughing, dude? I’m already standing at attention cheering. This is beautiful stuff.

But who’s this book for? I can’t figure that out. Its effect will surely be blunted by its highly individual and somewhat self-contradictory message: people like those the author grew up with can’t be fixed with government programs; they have to fix themselves. As a result he says he’s a conservative, but rejects "the rhetoric of modern conservatives" that "foments the kind of detachment that sapped the ambition of so many of [his] peers." But this position conflicts with his insistence that the Marine Corps had to make a man of him.

I hope Corps mines this book for quotes. "The Marines changed the expectations I had for myself." And by this he means immediately, in boot camp at Parris Island. "Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during at run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself." And his sum-up: "The day I graduated from boot camp was the proudest of my life."

I believe whole-heartedly in self-reliance, so of course I loved this stuff. But who else will love it? The people who could take Vance as a role model and get themselves to the nearest USMC recruiter won’t read it, and the members of the privileged world he can’t believe he has joined may well see his tales of domestic horror before Parris Island as a freak show that they, thank God, don’t have to deal with themselves.

This is the wondering look-about of someone who finds he’s now a citizen of Oz, not Kansas. Oz is beautiful but strange. Vance both criticizes and admires the insular nature of the upper-crust social world of the Ivy-level universities that he has somehow managed to join. It’s a world, he reports self-deprecatingly, where they know things like what a butter knife is for and that you have to wear a suit to an interview that isn’t huge, that your shoes and your belt should always match, and that fried baloney is "considered unhealthy."

But what will this do but cause the correctly suited (their belts matching their shoes) passengers on the Acela, reading his book on their way through Philadelphia, to feel self-righteous and holier-than-thou? This book’s readers, after all, won’t be from the world Vance left as a result of completing Ohio State on the G.I. Bill and then Yale Law School, but from the world he joined. And because the book explicitly rejects over-arching programs to fix the world he has now left, it’s unclear what its bottom line is. Go G.I. Bill?

Ohio State and Yale Law are quickly summarized in this book, and seem like an afterthought. So too, for that matter, is Vance’s actual time as a Marine. Its sort-of high point was a non-combat year in Iraq (he did public relations) and the rest is dismissed with a wave of the hand ("my final two years in the Marines flew by"). The lion’s share of the book, and its sole reason for being, is the gory and tangled mess of the author’s childhood. This was not primarily in the picturesque hollers (correct pronunciation of "hollows") where self-described hillbillies live in the Kentucky part of Appalachia, where the author was born, but in the once-thriving and now dead-end small manufacturing towns of states like Ohio, where he was raised by his grandparents. These at least are picturesquely called Mamaw—which he tells the reader helpfully is pronounced "Ma’amaw," and who is the flawed heroine of this book—and "Papaw."

Vance’s mother, though intermittently helpful in his life, was a drug addict who tried to run him over with her car. She introduced a slew of men into the boy’s life, some of whom she married. His biological father ("Dad") disappeared at birth and then re-appeared; he liked "Matt" (and says he still keeps in touch with him). "Living with Mom and Matt was like having a front-row seat to the end of the world." During this period, his mother arrived home one day to say she was marrying another man, one whom she’d just met. Vance’s name changed several times. And Vance can’t answer simply the question of whether he has brothers and sisters—between the step-siblings, half-siblings whom he never knew, the adoptions, and the sudden departures, it’s all too messy to list.

Dysfunctional families? Strindberg, you have just met your match. Vance writes acerbically about "marriage conflict resolution" based on what he learned from his mother’s brief marriage to "Bob." "Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do" and "always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner" are key concepts. And oh yes: "It’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t start it." (Who says there’s no chivalry in this world?) But what are we to do? The author recalls watching an episode of the television show "The West Wing" where the subject is school vouchers for poor children. He rejects this as a meaningful solution and asks how this can help children who are "raised by wolves."

Better teachers? The author sees how unreachable he must have seemed even to those people trying to help him: twenty years after kindergarten, where he was held back because he was so badly behaved, he meets the teacher. She tells him that he was so ungovernable that she, a newly arrived kindergarten teacher, almost quit. And she still couldn’t help him.

There’s nothing to recommend this world because it kills the spirit, makes those trapped in these hellish families think of themselves as failures. This is the core of Vance’s political argument, and his conservative (but not Beltway conservative), politics. He rejects Democratic insistence that social engineering can save the children of this world, whether they are inner-city African-American or hillbilly Scots-Irish. And the Republicans (like Donald Trump, about whom Vance wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times) he says, feed their sense of isolation and despair.

We’re used to seeing this story in racial terms; this is the hardscrabble white version of the tale of someone who gets out of the black ghetto, like Ben Carson. But I think what Vance is really writing about isn’t class- or race-based at all: it’s the tortuous journey from being a biological male to being a man in a world that has ceased to give value to this notion of "being a man," or acknowledging that it’s different from being a woman, a person, or a self-defined "it."

For most boys, however, becoming a man is The Big Journey. And their needs are being forgotten today—with the result that many, not just Vance, are scrabbling. My three decades at the U.S. Naval Academy, which is part of the world of privilege Vance manages to join, have shown me that most midshipmen also arrive chasing a vision of masculinity that the Naval Academy quickly kills, leaving them burnt out and rootless at an early age.

The military is a structured existence that still relies on its PR image of macho striving to attract volunteer recruits. That includes the upper echelons, like midshipmen. These young men, and also many of the women, like Vance, also (in my experience) long for the relentless drill instructor, the challenge to overcome insecurities, the sense of pride in challenges surmounted. What they find is an institution obsessed with a million pointless regulations that puts on parades for tourists, where physical challenges have been watered down to take account of our new gender neutrality, and where the politically correct embrace of any gender- and sexual orientation-self identification has caused the men to wonder what happened to the macho. Most are bitterly disappointed to find themselves also-ran cast members in a taxpayer-funded military Disneyland for tourists. They came thinking it would be their Parris Island, and it isn’t. Where’s their role model?

So the problem is more general than Vance knows. For that matter I too had to discover how to be a man with no role model. My own father, though a college professor with a Ph.D., an Ivy Ed.D., and a J.D., was a dysfunctional abusive alcoholic. What he wanted on his tombstone, and got, was that he had retired from the US Army Reserves as a colonel. But he was one of the worst officers I ever saw, sycophantic up the chain of command and brutal down. He never learned what Vance understood from boot camp: that you have to respect the people you’re in charge of. My parents didn’t even (finally!) divorce until I was an adult. So this was all middle-class, and military: but I had to make the same journey that Vance, and my male students have to make it as well.

We as a society have to talk about this journey to becoming a man. It’s because we don’t that Vance had to write this book.