UW’s disingenuous “Hillbilly Elegy” conversation

This year’s Go Big Read selection only further poisons the narrative about rural decline.

This year’s Go Big Read selection only further poisons the discourse about rural decline.

Source image of Appalachia as seen from space via NASA, photo illustration by Scott Gordon.

UW-Madison’s annual Go Big Read program attempts to engage students and community members with a series of events surrounding one selected featured book. Each year’s round of Go Big Read includes multiple, recurring discussion at campus and local libraries as well a plethora of free books handed out at the beginning of UW-Madison’s fall semester. The 2017-18 book selected for the program, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis, has absolutely sparked debate and the conversation, which admittedly is what the program is all about. But picking this particular book was a blunder, and perhaps the community should learn from it as the process of nominating the next Go Big Read book ramps up.


Published in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir about the struggle to escape generational poverty while growing up in a rural, Appalachian region of Ohio and eastern Kentucky. Vance specifically homes in on the decline of “Appalachian values,” a decline, he argues, that explains why none of his peers or family members have been able to escape the problems of the area. As Vance portrays them, these values suggest an image of the thick-skinned and hardworking hillbilly—a person who is loyal, incessantly hardworking, and strong-willed.

Embodying these values in the book are Vance’s grandparents, especially his grandmother: “Mamaw and Papaw believed that hard work mattered more,” Vance writes. “They knew that life was a struggle, and though the odds were a bit longer for people like them, that fact didn’t excuse failure.” While I can’t dispute the value of loyalty, hard work, and persistence, Vance uses these attributes to minimize the reality of the situation. It is difficult, for instance, to remain hardworking and loyal in jobs that are unstable or don’t even exist. Vance writes that Americans simply don’t work hard enough and need to “stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” But those same faceless companies have left town and deserted workers, leaving once prosperous communities in shambles.

Vance depicts his hometown of Middletown, Ohio in a way that will seem familiar to anyone who’s visited a struggling community in the Appalachian region or the Midwest recently. It’s a place with failing public works and schools, diminishing employment prospects post-Great Recession, and a harrowing public health epidemic in the form of opioid abuse. But what Vance fails to do is see that this decline didn’t come about because of a lack of wholesome values.

“Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us,” Vance writes. The government he asks the reader to ignore is the same one that votes for tax policies stacked against the poor and middle-class people that inhabit these regions. Vance hopes that readers pay no attention to the scheming behind the curtain as he continues to rewrite the bootstraps myth in the face of a declining region. The decline Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy comes in the wake of large-scale corporate plunder. Companies have drained these hurting areas of their natural resources and job stability, then up and left when it meant higher returns for shareholders. The decline in the region continues as workers face stagnant wages and companies declining to invest in their own workers. But Vance perpetuates the idea that a declining society is the fault of poor and middle-class individuals and their lack of willpower.

Another harmful aspect of Hillbilly Elegy is that it offers little to no conversation about the relationship between race and regional poverty. Early on, Vance asks that “readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey, the poverty rate among white people in the state of Ohio, the center of Vance’s memoir, is 12.3 percent, which is below the national poverty rate. Poverty rates are significantly higher in Ohio for most nonwhite groups: 33.2 percent for African Americans, 27.4 percent for Native Americans, 27.1 percent for Latinos, and 13.4 percent for Asian Americans. While the national gap between non-Hispanic White citizens and Black, Hispanic citizens has been closing at a slow rate, the rate of poverty among Black or Hispanic citizens is still triple that of their white counterparts. The racial prism is not something that can be blithely ignored in the face of such painful and empirically quantifiable disparities.

But in Vance’s telling, the white working class is still getting the worst of it. “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation,” he writes, somehow believing that working-class whites have a less hopeful future than minority populations. He conveniently neglects to hold up the gloomy expectations of working-class whites to reality. Generations of housing, schooling, and economic discrimination have kept minority populations in poverty at a larger rate. To ignore that fact is to reinforce the notion that the poor must be poor because they deserve to be.

Leading up the 2016 presidential election, this memoir gained traction as a way to explain the rise in Trump supporters. In the wake of the election, Hillbilly Elegy might actually (if unintentionally) fuel the scapegoating of the people Vance hopes to elevate.Vance advocates for Appalachia to just pull itself out of poverty and never allows for current voices of the region to explain why it is not just a matter of willpower and perseverance, but a lack of needed resources and economic stability. The world that Vance describes becomes a reason behind increased predatory budget cuts and reforms to programs that impact the region in much-needed. The image of unproductive poor rural residents is not reflective of efforts people in rural areas are making to reclaim their communities and highlight underprivileged voices for the better. Vance acts as if the government will never again help these communities, and essentially argues that their residents must somehow transform themselves without ever having a chance to get on a stable footing.

Worse, he packages these harmful ideas in a supposedly heartwarming memoir that caters to progressive, liberal citizens who want to place blame somewhere, while also appealing to conservatives who oppose the expansion of government and public services. It’s a modern-day telling of the mythical American Dream, and it plays into wrongheaded ideas about poverty all across the political spectrum. But it’s good for Vance, who’s enjoying newfound notoriety and even recently took a meeting with known white supremacist swamp monster Steve Bannon for a possible position at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has said that selecting Hillbilly Elegy as a Go Big Read book was meant to spark debate and conversation in the classroom and community. Embracing the book allows aloof liberals and moderates in Madison to pat themselves on the back for finding someone to blame. I respect and advocate for a lively book discussion about poverty, race, and regional divide in this country, but putting this nauseating and reductive book at the forefront of the conversation doesn’t help. It also reveals how little UW-Madison leadership cares to advocate for real, productive conversation in the face of our country’s polarizing political and social climate. The self-serving, liberal progressive Madisonian gets to placate themselves and stay inside the bubble of the city and university while the rest of the state continues to falter in public education and job creation. Our own state now faces the consequences of a large, outsourced corporation that will create little in-state economic growth while literally draining our resources.

As the son and grandson of coal miners, greenhouse workers, dairy farmers, and a public-school teacher from eastern Tennessee, I sincerely ask this state, this city, and this campus to look at what is going on in other regions of our country. We need to stop asking who we can blame and start asking who we can advocate, vote, and fight for. Hillbilly Elegy does a great job of regurgitating falsehoods and speaking over minority voices while conveniently pulling the heartstrings of conservatives and liberals alike. Campuses and cities like Madison will continue to masquerade as accepting while silencing true free speech on campus and ignoring the stories of people who are truly burdened by power structures in our country. In turn, they will echo these minimizing and harmful outlooks created by Vance’s memoir until there is nothing left to hear but white noise.

Readers with an idea for the 2018-2019 Go Big Read can nominate books until December 15. There are plenty of books that are worth reading, discussing, and promoting. If you want to submit, check out some of the recent short and longlisted titles for the National Book Awards. A few personal recommendations from that list include: Sing, Unburied, Sing; Don’t Call Us Dead (authored by UW Madison alumni Danez Smith); When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities; Democracy In Chains; and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. For those interested in reading more about race, class, and identity in Appalachia and the South, a few places to start would be: Belonging: A Culture Of Place, Women Of The Mountain South: Identity, Work, & Activism, and The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers In The American South.

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