Sam Burnham, Curator
This is the second part of a two part segment on J.D. Vance's bestseller "Hillbilly Elegy." The first part was a review of the book. This part will explore the subject of the book - the plight of rural people and the white working class.
I mentioned in the book review that I both loved and hated this book. My feelings about the book are coequal partners. They support each other, rely on each other. It is a really weird feeling. I think it is because there are stories in his narrative that I could edit a few names and places and easily see the exact same stories in family members, neighbors, friends, and locations that I grew up around. My personal story was far more happy and "normal" than his and I don't want to appear to be riding his coattails here. My parents have been married since 1973, didn't abuse drugs or us, nothing like that, so my story is personally different. But I've seen enough in this world that I understand exactly what he’s saying.
Vance's story is attached to the Appalachian people of Kentucky who were lured to rust belt towns by promising careers in metal factories in Ohio. Mine is much more attached to the Crackers of (mostly) Georgia and (also) Florida where the major industry was textiles or other agriculture dependent industries. This is an excellent opportunity to mention that rural culture is not monolithic and while many similarities exist in the different regions, there are also regional differences. It is also true that people are individuals and a member of a culture may not reflect the traits common to that culture.
One of the most important similarities, that I think got somewhat lost in Vance's story, or at least his critics’ perception of it, is that the rural cultures exist today because people set out to be self-sufficient.
People in West Virginia and Kentucky had pushed west from the coastal states in search of land, opportunity, and anonymity. Theirs are the stories of the moonshiners, the bootleggers, the rough cut highlanders who gave us the Hatfields and McCoys.
Further south, the Crackers settled the former lands ot the Cherokee, the Creek, and the Seminole. They corralled the wild cattle - offspring of the bovines left behind by Spaniards in previous centuries. They catfaced the pines to turn tar into turpentine. They grew gardens and raised livestock.
Both groups lived by their own hands. They ate because they farmed, fished, and hunted. The lived in vernacular homes they built from materials they harvested and hewn. They clothed themselves in homespun garments. Anything they may have purchased from a store were typically luxuries purchased with money gained by selling their own handiwork or harvest. The ideas of success and The ‘American Dream’ were to have their own land, their freedom from the watchful eye of government and society, to have enough to support themselves and their families, and to pass that down to the next generation.
Then came the modern age.
One of the main reasons I argue that the Civil War was about far more than slavery is that it pitted one distinct industrial economy against one distinct agricultural economy. The outcome of the war was not a hybrid of these two economies fused into one. It was the supremacy of the industrial and the conquering of the agricultural. As society shifted in this new reality, the way of life that had been built by the rural people, especially those who lived small existences without slaves, changed forever. Progress brought new expenses, new taxes, new strains on finances. People who had lived for generations on little, if any, money found themselves now dependent on it. Money meant jobs, and jobs meant factories, quarries, or mines. True self-sufficiency became obsolete, even impossible. So in every region of the country, cultures who had prided themselves on independence now found themselves at the mercy of the captains of industry - rich people they'd never meet who lived in cities they'd never visit.
And so the rural towns, the center of business and culture in these rural areas, began to shrink. Vance gave the example of Jackson, Kentucky bleeding off residents to places like Middletown, Ohio. On this blog I've showed examples of places like Parrott, DeSoto, Rebecca, and so many others that have bled off their residents to Columbus, Atlanta, Savannah, or perhaps even further away. This has left the remaining residents running low on opportunity and even lower on hope. Such despair has a way of leading to the problems Vance detailed - drug use, abuse, and reliance on government support. Vance’s critics suggest he is unfairly labeling hillbillies as “lazy.” But that seems an oversimplification of what he is saying. It is often easier on the egos of people to deride a nameless, faceless villain for sitting on the dole while collecting from the government themselves. So "the blacks" or "Mexicans" become the obvious targets. They, at least in their own minds, create a level or two of social status beneath their own. "I might not have the best life but at least I'm better than those people." Minimal research reveals that whites make up the majority of welfare recipients. But these are proud people, the descendants of independent people. They have a despondency that comes from grasping at that independent life of old, but there’s nothing left to hold onto.
Industrialization was an economic boon for many hillbillies who migrated to new homes. Mills built villages for their workers. Employees had well built homes, medical care, churches, schools, community centers, stores, entire communities popped up around industrial sites. Companies even sponsored baseball teams that traveled and competed against other mills. But there are many examples where a large company, the only major employer in town, gained too much political and social power in the town and workers were left at the mercy of the "company store" or the "company man." As companies became more focused on profits, the benefits began to dwindle and the people had less and less to show for the economic progress of industrialization.
Then it became more profitable to manufacture in other countries. Mills began to close. Slowly these towns slipped away from the prosperity of the past. Villages began to deteriorate. Slowly but steadily, the conditions that Vance cites from Middletown spread through mill towns all over the country. Without the plant, workers had no more opportunity than they had back in their hillbilly or cracker homeland. People were no better off than they were back home.
That's where we find ourselves today.
It is worth pointing out that at the end of the book, Vance is meeting with teachers trying to refocus on getting students ready for blue collar jobs. While I see why some people think he is critical of blue collar workers, if you finish the book you see he isn't. And I'm not. I've been amazed at the industriousness of working class people I know. I know men and women who can be welders, carpenters, mechanics, and farmers - all in the same afternoon. Sometimes one of those tasks overlaps another. And they aren't barbarians. I know many that are talented musicians or use their industrial skills to create works of art. There is more to the white working class than hydrocodone, methamphetamine, and squalor.It is also true that people are individuals and are not always held to the generalizations pertinent to their culture.
A solution to this problem will not come easy as there is much to be done. Somehow, we have to educate boys. Vance mentions the disconnect between boys and education and he is absolutely right. The idea that reading and good grades are "girl stuff" combined with an educational system that is more beneficial to girls simply by the way it is designed make educating young boys, especially hillbillies and crackers, a difficult task.
There will have to be restored economies. Small towns will need to be revived. We've discussed that a lot on the blog. But the mindset that a job means working for a big corporation has to be broken. And that means we need to fight for economic reforms that make small businesses and self-employment gradually more realistic. Gradual, this can't be done overnight. The harder task will be convincing the people of these dead communities that they have a reason to hope, that they can get ahead in life, that success is a possibility, that families do matter. I really believe that the only way to fix this problem is to reintroduce independence to these people groups. It's a multifaceted solution with too many facets that are yet to be discovered.
So we're left with more questions than answers. It is important that the people who love these cultures and want them to have a future have to work to find solutions. That’s part of why ABG is here. So we’re headed to work on it now.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire