‘Hillbilly’ memoir analyses root causes of Trump phenomenon

America Letter: bestselling account reveals true face of poverty-stricken rust belt voters

An abandoned car manufacturing plant of in Detroit, Michigan. JD Vance’s memoir sketches the narrative of those who left the US southern states of Kentucky for a better life in the so-called rust belt states up north. Photograph: Eric Thayer

An abandoned car manufacturing plant of in Detroit, Michigan. JD Vance’s memoir sketches the narrative of those who left the US southern states of Kentucky for a better life in the so-called rust belt states up north. Photograph: Eric Thayer

 

One of the many unintended consequences of the electoral victory of Donald Trump has been a renewed interest in the written word.

News publications such as the New York Times have seen a jump in subscriptions since the election – its latest tagline “Just facts. No alternatives” deliciously plays on the tensions between the Trump administration and the grand old dame of American journalism. Meanwhile, the humble book has also seen an upsurge in sales.

For weeks, George Orwell’s 1984 has topped the Amazon bestseller list, prompting Penguin to print thousands of new copies. The 1949 novel depicts a dystopian world where “newspeak” has replaced independent discourse, the world is at perpetual war and Big Brother is always watching you.

Similarly, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a futuristic fantasy that imagines America as a totalitarian theocracy where women are forced to live as concubines, has been leaping up the New York Times bestseller list, though this may be in part be because a television version will hit American screens later this year.

People are trying to make sense of a regime that seems to be moving further and further from all norms of American politics

The reason for the resurgence of interest in these literary classics is not difficult to fathom. In this brave new world of Trump’s America, people are trying to make sense of a regime that seems to be moving further and further from all norms of American politics.

Brutally honest

But while it is understandable that people are searching for parallels, a more useful guide to what is really going on is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

This work by first-time author JD Vance (31) has been sitting in the New York Times’s bestseller list for weeks.

While classics such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale present interesting perspectives on the Trump phenomenon, Hillbilly Elegy analyses its root causes.

Vance is a white man from Ohio and the book tells the story of his journey from self-professed hillbilly to Yale law school graduate.

While it was published last July, months before the US presidential election, and contains no mention of Donald Trump, Vance has become the inadvertent voice of the working class in America, the embodiment of the white, male demographic group that turned out for Trump in such huge numbers last November.

Part memoir, part social commentary, the book charts the story of Vance and his family, and in so doing sketches the narrative of an entire generation of Scots-Irish descent that left the southern states of Kentucky for a better life in the so-called rust belt states up north.

It is a poignant and brutally honest account of Vance’s childhood – his troubled relationship with his mother and the “long line of failed paternal candidates” that moved in and out of his life; his mother’s battle with drug addiction, suicide attempts and brushes with the law; the endless evenings of TV dinners as he and his sister fended for themselves.

A worker hangs a paper mache figure depicting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a workshop in Reynosa, Mexico, Angry Mexicans can beat it with a stick. Photograph: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
A worker hangs a paper mache figure depicting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a workshop in Reynosa, Mexico, Angry Mexicans can beat it with a stick. Photograph: Reuters/Daniel Becerril

But, as in all good coming-of-age books, there are moments of redemption. For Vance it was his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, that “saved him” from the life pursued by most of his peers. This brash, crude couple from Kentucky, whose own marriage was the result of an unplanned pregnancy when his grandmother was 13, acted as his “safety valve”, a beacon of stability in Vance’s nomadic life and unlikely promoters of the American work ethic.

‘Relic of industrial glory’

As Vance recounts his decision to join the Marine Corps, apply to Ohio State University and eventually Yale University law school, he depicts moments of cultural unease as he tries to fit in with his adopted social milieu. A recruitment dinner at Yale is recalled in painful detail.

For those wanting reassurance that the American Dream still exists ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is essential reading

Vance’s highly personal narrative is punctuated with statistics that tell the story of this sector of American society. In his hometown of Middletown, Ohio – “little more than a relic of American industrial glory” – 20 per cent of those entering public high schools won’t make it to graduation; in certain parts of Kentucky, life-expectancy is 67; nearly a third of people in Vance’s grandparents’ hometown of Jackson live in poverty and struggle with prescription drug addiction.

He also encompasses a broader political sweep, arguing that the reorientation of the predominantly white working-class voters of America’s greater Appalachian region from Democrat to Republican “redefined American politics after Nixon”.

For many of those New York Times readers who have been devouring Vance’s book since November’s election, his politics may be problematic. He describes himself as a conservative and criticises the working class tendency to “blame problems on society or the government”.

But for those wanting an authentic insight into the forces shaping Trump’s America – and reassurance that the American Dream still exists – Hillbilly Elegy is essential reading.

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