Hillbilly Effigy: Whitewashing Poverty

An early scene in Ron Howard’s retelling of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy places the young Vance at a high-stakes dinner during interview week. Around a table with key law firm partners, applicants are sharing their backgrounds. The conversation turns to Vance. As he describes in the most delicate possible terms his path from Ohio through Iraq to Yale, forks drop. Eyes look away, unsure whether to probe for more details or hope for a change of subject.

I’ve been at that table. The scene was a gut churning, unwelcome reminder – climb any distance above your raisin’ in the land of the American Dream and the air quickly chills and thins. You discover how few will welcome your disruptive ambitions, either in the home you left or in the places you aspire to reach. Sustaining that rise can mean closing down into a defensive, often suspicious crouch. You reveal as little as possible of a background that can turn you into a circus sideshow, a pariah or a kind of mascot.

Thanks to the powerful role played by race, Americans believe they live in a classless society, leaving us largely insensitive to the damage of class division. For a working-class kid trying to climb, some of the most hazardous and isolating moments come after you’ve left. These are the brief moments where Hillbilly Elegy shines, exposing our class hypocrisy, peeling back the curtain on the obstacles to social mobility in America. Those moments are brief, overwhelmed by what felt like hours of maudlin manipulation. Delivered over and over again, stripped of all nuance, self-awareness or humor, this endless parade of That Very Special Scene loses its punch, dragging the story into an incoherent puddle.

Howard stripped so much of the commentary from Vance’s original material to make the film palatable that even with every character acting more or less as a narrator, practically blurting out “This is the part where I talk about this important thing” you can’t tell where this rambling white trash This is Us is trying to go. As a series of short scenes addressing the rarely depicted experiences of working-class people trying to climb, the film was a wrenching emotional experience. But those moments are poorly connected, aimless and without purpose like a series of music videos. As a film, Hillbilly Elegy is schlocky melodrama.

Fiction is supposed to “show, don’t tell,” but Hillbilly Elegy can’t risk letting its few messages be lost in the telling. Vance’s character grandstands over the evils of marijuana, exclaiming in one scene that “marijuana is a gateway drug!” As his grandfather’s body is carried through town toward the cemetery and people stop and remove their hats in homage. Howard can’t let the moment carry itself. Glenn Close, as the grizzled Mamaw has to take the mic from the narrator, explaining, “We’re hill people, we respect the dead.”

The film is humorless, devoid of subtlety, self-awareness or nuance, powered by a script typed out with a hammer and emotionally manipulative to the margins of abuse. Hillbilly Elegy is as artistically interesting as an after school special, introducing the audience to the virtues of doing your homework and saying “no” to drugs. When you go back and pair the film with the uglier elements of Vance’s memoir, elements Howard overlooked, you start to wonder if Howard meant this as satire.

What is Hillbilly Elegy, the film, about? It’s hard to tell. Since Howard protected the author from the rage which would have followed if he’d incorporated Vance’s original ideas about the poor moral character of the poor, the overarching point fades. You’re left with a bunch of individual tableaus exploring the evils of drink or drugs or stealing or something. Work hard, wash your dishes, and you’ll go to Yale? How does someone produce such a sanctimonious, preachy film and still lose the point?

Hillbilly Elegy, the original memoir, is a gratingly unintentional story about the dangers of survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility. Imagine a soldier on a D-Day. His landing craft is hit by an artillery shell. It kills everyone on board while throwing him onto the beach where he lands alive and still able to fight. That soldier later pens a memoir attributing his survival to his superior military prowess, his religious faith, God’s favor, Mama’s prayers, or whatever. In fact, his survival was a statistical accident, but that cruel reality is just too horrifying to confront. That soldier is JD Vance, and that memoir is Hillbilly Elegy.

Howard mercifully spared Vance this honest treatment. It’s a familiar trap for a working-class kid who made his way elsewhere. Once you’re out, it’s tempting to imagine that your life is better than the lives of people you grew up with because you’re better than they are. Perhaps the most prominent case study is Trump’s favorite black guy, Ben Carson. Confronting that fallacy would have made a more interesting memoir and a piercing look at social class, but Vance didn’t give us that material and Howard declined to fill it in, at least not fully. At several points Howard drops the fact that Vance’s mother was the salutatorian of her high school class, a detail that might have opened an interesting window, but that part of the story never develops.

His memoir attributes Vance’s climb out of poverty to his Mamaw’s stubborn discipline and his personal choices to avoid the pitfalls of the Pilgrim’s Progress. Naturally, all of these things were important, but none of them were enough to avoid that metaphorical artillery shell. Both the poverty in which he began and the obstacles to his climb were thrown up by a civilization which has devolved into one of the world’s most hostile environments for social mobility. That dominant reality is conveniently ignored in favor of producing Rocky for nerds.

What’s missing from Hillbilly Elegy, the crucial scene that might have broken the story open into something more profound and meaningful, would have been a contrast between the “values of meritocratic success” which Vance embraced and the values common among the wealthier kids who reached similar goals in a walk. Presumably, we’re supposed to conclude that the kids who “made it,” those smiling white faces around Vance at the Yale Law School dinner, embodied all those wholesome, “say no to drugs” values missing from reprobate hillbilly life. In the real world, the brain-dead Trump kids went to Harvard. George Bush Jr. went to Yale. We don’t get a picture of the personal choices that lead affluent white kids to comfy private schools because that would have wrecked the narrative.

He doles out scene after scene of poors being poors, lounging on the porch, failing to do the dishes with a smile, smoking, and indulging in the evils of drugs and sex. We’re supposed to conclude that these personal moral failings explain their poverty. Vance didn’t go off to a fancy undergraduate college full of wealthy white kids and it shows. If he had, he would have witnessed the bizarre scenes I faced, as the “culture of poverty” was acted out by the wealthy kids around me absent any of the supposedly inevitable consequences.

Where I came from there was no room for error. Kids who “fell into drugs” faded away. We were led to believe that this was morality and consequences at work, the machinery of meritocracy. Drinking, failing to do schoolwork, or lingering in that first-floor boys’ room that had become an open-air drug market was a gateway to annihilation. Get pregnant, or get someone pregnant, and you’re pretty much finished. Then I went to college and discovered a whole new set of rules.

Turns out the path to a fancy private college was paved with drugs, drinking, risky sex and broad immunity to the consequences of minor crimes. All the habits I thought were necessary for success, simply weren’t. Naturally, strong study habits and good moral character were helpful, but they weren’t essential. The winning combination was family money, modest talent, and the ability to master a few academic tasks.

The Hillbilly Elegy path to success is a lie. It only applies to at lower incomes, where every day is a tightrope walk and any error or misfortune could derail your ambitions. It is a persistent myth that poor families are more dogged by domestic instability, substance abuse and general dysfunction. Vance feeds that myth to make his success emblematic of his superior character. Wealthier young people engage in the same behaviors and make the same choices as the immoral poor in Hillbilly Elegy, it just doesn’t matter. Cushioned by money and family influence the consequences simply aren’t as meaningful. Money buys room to survive your mistakes. That’s the truth Vance’s story overlooks to preserve his access to a Republican political career. 

His isn’t a story of personal character and talent clearing the way to American Success. For working class kids, studying hard, learning good habits and all the other youth minister admonishments merely buy a lottery ticket. Vance is a statistical anomaly. A very small percentage of poor children in America get into Yale. It has be somebody. In this case it was him. In true American fashion he turned his lucky break into a one-man industry. As happens in the reality entertainment complex, that celebrity could be fleeting and might be costly.

If Vance had waited a couple of decades to write his story, we might have gotten something with a bit more wisdom and nuance. It probably wouldn’t have sold many copies and we wouldn’t have read it, like Christian Cooper’s searing, revelatory, largely unread account of his legacy of poverty. Cooper’s account was well-considered, insightful, and as one would expect from an honest account of survival, a bit harrowing. Poor material for a Lifetime movie. Vance doesn’t compromise the entertainment value of his experience by lingering over complexities. His story isn’t over.

Vance has decided to turn the “platform” of his book into a venture capital business he’s located in Ohio. Beyond that, he has his eye on Republican politics. Memoir is a dangerous pursuit. Converting memoir into a business is thoroughly unwise. His story probably has more to teach us yet.

Making a venture capital fund work in a place where venture capital works is challenging. Doing it in a place where venture has never worked before is going to be dicey. Doing all this while raising capital on the platform of fame and politics, seems like the opening of an American tragedy.

When a venture capital fund has a bad year there are a lot of angry phone calls. When a venture capitalist with a Ron Howard biopic has a bad year, it becomes a story in People Magazine. A venture capital investor does not want to be in People magazine.

He could still succeed. Anything can happen. But with these career moves Vance is juggling daggers, balanced atop a stack of basketballs. He may have been wise to cash in on his biography before all the interesting parts happened. There’s still time for this Horatio Alger to become another Elmer Gantry.

******

A few notes.

If you’re looking for a story about poverty in America, the legacy of the Scots-Irish, or the cultures of our “hill people” there are much better options than Hillbilly Elegy. The film produced from Daniel Woodrell’s searing novel, Winter’s Bone, is a brilliant exploration of America’s hill cultures, and still Jennifer Lawrence’s finest performance. Marshall Mathers’ 8 Mile is an unflinching look at poverty in Detroit. Hell or High Water is an outstanding depiction of white working class life after the financial crash. And Mississippi Damned may be the best story of “the culture of poverty” and barriers to social mobility you’ll find anywhere. Most people haven’t heard of them because they are excellent and uncomfortable, not compromising the complexity of their story to manufacture a cartoon hero.

In non-fiction, Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men is a fantastic exploration of the lives of landless or poor whites in the Antebellum South, a foundation for the narratives of whiteness and poverty that would follow. Nancy Isenburg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America is another great place to start. And Daniel Woodrell’s novels of Ozark life are a powerful fictional introduction to rural poverty.

30 Comments

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/magazine/trump-election-philadelphia-republican.html

    I won’t be surprised if the next couple years show a coordinated effort in Republicans voting out old elected GOP election officials and voting in new mini Kandidate Kris Korbaches whose pitch will be ‘electoral purity’, and in the areas of assigned officials, GOP statehouse office holders and governors will be similarly pressured to remove the old guard and install a new one.

    The GOP tide ran up against an institution of democracy that had previously not caught their attention, i.e. election officials who see their role as actually counting ballots, and like the GOP’s ever persistent and rising animosity toward reality, soon it will be clear that the ONLY election officials they’ll allow anywhere near ballots are the ones that don’t even need the ability to count because their responsibility is to declare the GOP candidates the winner and scour the Democratic voting ballots for mistakes and errors to throw blue voters in jail whenever possible. That’s their next play I suspect.

    1. That’s merely one more step down the path paved first by the religious right, then the Tea Party, then the MAGA crowd, and now likely a bunch of outright KKK types. Each phase was a step in dropping the mask, moving closer and closer to naked appeals for race war.

      Back in 2015 I thought Ted Cruz was the guy who would take us there. Turns out someone else had plans. https://blog.chron.com/goplifer/2015/03/ted-cruz-will-end-the-liars-game/

  2. The common thread in this discussion is “alienation”….by class, race, gender, religion, and, opportunity, which offers an exit for the fortunate from whatever binds them to their situations. Early pregnancy, poverty, drugs, neglect, the color of one’s skin, lack of adequate educational preparation, can make that road out more difficult. Yet, we still expect everyone to succeed regardless and judge them harshly if they don’t. People of great potential are being left behind and others with less ability are succeeding. Why? How have we become so insensitive to the struggle people are experiencing trying to succeed by standards that are set and measured by those who were born into success ? Maybe the problem is how we define “success”. How else would it be possible for someone like DJT to achieve the presidency of a great democracy and attain cult status among religious fundamentalists and conservatives if he had been born Black and poor?

    What has gone so fundamentally wrong in America ? What happens when the Hillbilly Elegy becomes a movement? The event held yesterday on the Washington DC Mall is a clear warning of a merger between poverty, religion and class grievance. The Republican Party leadership has a choice – they can enable authoritarianism or they can stop it. We are very close to this possibility.

    1. This piece by a conservative, describes in alarming detail the events that occurred during the Jericho march yesterday at the Washington Mall. About the only positive thing I found was that a conservative was alarmed enough to publish this piece. Unmentioned in the article was the fact that principles with the Proud Boys met T in person in the White House during the early hours of the event.

      https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/what-i-saw-at-the-jericho-march/?fbclid=IwAR36LEZzmptSayJRM2QAnyGubPdwz7m8p3hdlD9MuW-JQgXJilDwzNQIjAU

  3. This essay and subsequent discussion prompt many questions.

    As I sure you’re aware, there’s a lot written these days about the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. Victims have nowhere to go to get out of the way.

    I now think there was much more shuttered violence in my hometown than I could imagine. I see it as male violence. I could be wrong.

    That wife who read to her husband? Her father was a drunk, beat her brothers and sisters, sexually assaulted with words my mother if he saw her in the backyard alone, and molested me. The priest forbade her mom to divorce him. Yes, priests are male.

    It was rumored the father of a boy I had a mad crush on beat his mom. They lived in one of the nice houses on Main Street. Starstruck, I didn’t believe it, couldn’t believe it. Yet, as an adult, my crush beat his wife.

    I don’t know where I’m going with this, exactly. I don’t believe violence is limited to a single class or income level. And I have a friend who was badly beaten by her mom.

    Any striving person with a ragged childhood carries heavy baggage while figuring out how to walk the tightrope to being the best ever in somebody’s eyes. Does that experience always turn into surviver’s bias? Maybe feels necessary or everything would break.

    When it comes to movies, I think Tyler Perry doesn’t demonstrate survivor bias. When he dons women’s clothing and takes on the persona of Madea or some other woman, it’s not because he’s looking to put them down or reveal flaws. He exploits their comic potential AND he acknowledges their power.

    1. I think you are correct. Given what we’re witnessing with male-dominated nationalism movements and male child-like adulation of T, their egos must be very frail. Education of women and their capable performance in the workforce, apparently creates mixed feelings in their male partners. People who are confident in their lives don’t abuse women and children. Their model embodies the worst possible example.

  4. Really enjoyed reading this review, and the subsequent discussion about American poverty and class . I might’ve brought it up before, but it deserves bringing up again if so. It’s really refreshing to be able to follow somebody who though I don’t always agree on solutions, still correctly identifies what the problems are. That is the basis from which true plurality flourishes, as we’re not operating from different interpretations of reality itself.

    Now, moving onto the meat of this piece. I hadn’t been aware of “survivorship bias” until now, and it puts into words something I see all the time. It really hit home because I knew a guy in my online community who was just like this.

    He was born into an impoverished background in a decaying rural town in Florida’s interior. By the time he was a teenager, he was a miscreant with a felony on his criminal record. He took the option to join the Army to avoid prison time, and from there he spent ten years as a plumber’s assistant.

    Through hard work and eventually learning to code, he happened to buy himself that winning lottery ticket as you said. His mildly sociopathic personality and high charisma also helped. He is now the CTO of a medium-sized tech firm. He almost got poached by a rival firm, but his current employer was able to keep him by giving him a massive raise and benefits. Lives in a fancy house in Boca Raton, regularly grills lobster for dinner.

    While he is nowhere near as bad as Vance is, he still has extremely smug contempt for the poor people he grew up with, as well as poor people in general. One thing he said still sticks with me: “There are no obstacles out of poverty, only excuses.” In his mind, if he could get where he is today from having nothing AND being an ex-felon, then everyone else can too if they just work hard enough.

    He sees the moral failings of his former peers in the same lens as Vance, mistakenly identifying them as the causes of their poverty. He also deeply resents progressive taxation and most public services and welfare. And his life experience is a dead ringer for survivorship bias.

    Needless to say, I didn’t particularly like him. He liked me for some reason I don’t fully understand, but that’s not important.

    Lastly, I enjoyed seeing your recommendations for alternatives to Hillbilly Elegy for understanding American. Vox recently published a similar list of alternatives to Hillbilly Elegy for understanding rural America in general. Hell or High Water was on their list too, as was Mudbound.

    https://www.vox.com/culture/21564651/southern-rural-movies-like-hillbilly-elegy-recommendation-list-to-watch

    This article recommends documentaries from past and present, including “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” “First Language: The Race to Save Cherokee,” and “Harlan County, U.S.A.” It also recommended feature films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, October Sky, Songcatcher, and The Last Feature Film.

    1. Apart from the operation of survivorship bias, there’s an animosity toward the place you started that almost inevitably builds as you move away. That force might be strongest at the point where you’re pressing against the metaphorical sound barrier of resistance to that climb, when seemingly all of the people who were your peers and support system are, intentionally or unintentionally, punishing you for breaking social bonds. It’s almost necessary in those moments to think of yourself as a hero on a quest and those peers are obstacles on your journey. I did this and I’m deeply embarrassed, but I also don’t know how I could have kept my legs churning without it.

      Sooner or later though, some realities set in. At a corporate awards dinner once I made the mistake, inspired by a glass of wine, to talk candidly about my high school memories while everyone else at the table was discussing their teen years. Someone put their hand on my arm and said how proud they were of me for getting so far, and something about it felt very off. Thing is, I can’t shake the memory of the people far more talented than me who are dead.

      I lost track of “A” late in high school as our lives were moving in different directions. She had been my Jr High crush, then a good friend, but in the second half of our senior year she was spinning out and I never found out why. By then I was deep in a desperate campaign to find money to get out I didn’t see what was happening to her. She still finished as our salutatorian, but she turned down free rides at heavy schools to stay at the local state college in our town. I lost track of her after that. She finished an undergraduate in math there with a 4.0, then an MS with a 4.0, but she stayed and worked in a small town school district. We reconnected a few years later. I was in town for the summer, living with a friend to save up money for law school. Several of us started playing tennis together, but she wasn’t ok. Don’t know how else to describe it. And she just stopped communicating after I left. Couple of years later I heard she was having problems with painkillers. Couple of years after that she committed suicide. Still don’t know the circumstances.

      I was never a top student, merely good enough. She was smarter, quicker-witted, more talented than me on every plane and beautiful on top of it. She’s dead.

      A kid in a class a few years behind me was a close friend of the family. Absolute genius from a difficult family background and dead broke. He was struggling at the end of high school, but without even trying he earned an Ivy League SAT score. He was going to quit school to go make money, but I helped him get a scholarship at my university. He seemed to do great there, with fantastic grades, lots of friends, professors loved him. Got an excellent tech job after graduation. But then the wheels started to come off. Turns out he had developed a quiet, but serious drinking problem. A few years later he disappeared. Literally. No one could find him. Couple years after that someone found him living in his old family home in our hometown, a place everyone thought was abandoned. He was dying. Drank himself to death.

      There are more of these stories. They get even crueler among my black peers. There was no way I could look at my path through this mire and credit my talent. I knew too many people who dwarfed me in every way who ended up dead or just defeated. Having people look at me and see some tale of moral qualities overcoming adversity was so false as to be embarrassing. It just wasn’t what happened. Part of me wanted to feel superior, if for no other reason than to escape the existential dread of realizing how easily I could have failed. It would have been easier to escape a sense of guilt. It just doesn’t hold up to reality.

      And there were many people from my school and background who soared out of that environment to impressive achievements. Compared to them my only real achievement is getting and holding a decent job.

      Not to mention the fact that lots of people chose other paths, paths I wouldn’t have liked, and they’re happy with them. And that has to be ok too.

      I think it’s fine for someone in my position, or in Vance’s, to look at life outcomes which were difficult to achieve and which please them, and feel joy at that achievement. But it’s hard to do that while still appreciating the pain of peers who faced different outcomes. Building a mythology of superiority is a powerful temptation that never really goes away. It makes everything so much easier.

      Watching Hillbilly Elegy caused some upheaval in the Ladd house.

      1. Wow, Chris. This is a big story.

        I propose you consider pitching a memoir. Readers are very curious about this stuff, and publishers are obviously looking for it. You could even go as far as to call it the Anti-Vance memoir, so that it has a clear frame of reference in what is being discussed and why it’s important to see the different sides in it.

        Also one thing I didn’t like about Vance’s work was that he goes through all the trouble of describing the abuse, stress, and disorder of his childhood environment and then claims that it ‘will help you understand’ that population more, but he doesn’t actually go as far as to explain the whats or offer solutions, even directly saying something like, “If we just get these people off drugs and into churches” as implied by your review of the movie.

        After reading Christian Cooper’s article, I’m very curious what you think better and comprehensive poverty alleviation policy would be, if any. I know you’re fond of UBI but Cooper directly mentions _conditional_ compensation to attach agency and long-term planning to the methods.

      2. No memoir is coming. Can’t see a way to write about my background without casting an unwelcome light on some people who don’t deserve the disruption. I haven’t accomplished anything of any real interest (though frankly, I’m not sure that getting into Yale law school would, by itself, meet that criteria either). And an honest look back at all that would be absolutely no fun to write or read.

        However, after we move back to Austin in the spring I expect to be writing a lot more about Texas and maybe about Beaumont. Being just a few hours away from the old hometown would make it easier to research some ideas.

        I’m extremely skeptical about the capacity of an institution that governs 350m people to tailor poverty solutions to individual needs. Would it be good to have some mediating institution formally intervening in a positive, counseling manner in the lives of struggling people? Probably. Can the US government perform that function effectively? Absolutely not. Asking them to do it is asking for mayhem.

        The worst thing about poverty is the lack of money. Fix that enormous and simple problem first with a basic income floor. Then explore what can be done with the problems that remain.

      3. The UBI would be a great start, as any senior receiving social security will attest.

        We don’t have to invent a new process, merely humbly borrow ideas from our European neighbors. That’s the easy part. The greater challenge will be to lift the third of America from their morass of selfishness. That will require examination of one’s soul, conscience, morals, and faith, and there will be many who will fail. We have to restore our sense of collective understanding,, compassion and empathy. Capitalism doesn’t have to divide people. It should inspire people. At some point, we drifted away from caring about other people. WW2 helped America find that common bond, but years of relative prosperity have created a wealth divide that has become a social divide. That’s where we are and that has to change.

      4. If Biden had lost were considering bailing out and going to Oakland or SF, but under the circumstances we’re just gonna go home.

        Chicago has been great, but it’s cold and it will never be the place filled with our extended family and friends. We were immigrants here.

        With the youngest finishing high school this year it’s time to go home. We’ve missed way too many birthdays, graduations, weddings, showers, funerals etc for our closest friends and family over the years.

        Funny enough, Austin is WAY more expensive that just getting a place down in Chicago. It wasn’t that way when we came here.

      5. You wrote

        The worst thing about poverty is the lack of money.

        A psychologist friend who did an internship in family counseling 35-40 years ago in Dallas said the only solution he could see for the dysfunctional, suffering families was to send the black helicopters over the poorest neighborhoods so they could fling out bundles of money for the people below.

  5. So, unrelated to this:

    I was wrong.

    I was wrong about the fascists using violence to intimidate at the voting booths, and I was wrong about SCOTUS backing the tyrant, (though I believe the filings by the tyrant’s lawyers were so incompetently done there was no way SCOTUS could do anything but what they did.)

    Now, if I am wrong about the tyrant not calling for his death cult and gestapo DHS to take to the streets, we will have to see. The madman’s tweets over the past 8 hours are hardly anything but insane. His latest one, from a few minutes ago, is total scorched earth, where he mulls declassifying EVERYTHING. I am starting to wonder, however, if the Joint Chiefs had a chat with the tyrant some time ago where they said “You call out your death cult into the streets, and we WILL get involved, and you won’t like it.”

    Biden has won, but there is no doubt in my mind the Secret Service are going to be very very busy over the next months and years.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful, personal piece. My parents were Depression kids from the south, so there was only “up” for them and most of their peers. Both of them graduated high school and had a little college but had to quit to go to work to help their families. I went to public schools throughout my entire educational process and me and my peers from all backgrounds didn’t think much about class distinctions. We simply all attended the same school. This was before integration and races didn’t mix educationally or socially so few white kids understood what true poverty and class suppression was about, and it was certainly a different experience for the races. I was the first in my family to complete college, but not the last. Tuition was a whopping $15/semester with my scholarship. It was a small, local, no frills college. My aspirations were not for an advanced degree nor an ivy league institution but just to simply get a degree in a field where women could find work- nursing, teaching, or being a secretary, or, if you were fortunate, marry well and become a stay at home mom. So, humble roots which served me well because I never expected more, and achieved more than I probably deserved.

    It’s harder for my children’s generation in many ways. They experienced higher expectations and more class competition to achieve. In some ways, they missed out on some valuable life experiences that struggle offers, but it’s different times.

    A book I would like to suggest is: The Worst Hard Times”, by Timothy Egan, a story of survival during and following the Dust Bowl and Depression. Also a memorable movie about privilege that disintegrates into abject poverty, is “Mudbound”. Neither of these is light but they are instructive – certainly no Schitts Creek melodrama.

  7. Thank you for this review.

    I read Hillbilly Elegy. Literally my only takeaway was that Vance is the type of person who needs a lot of therapy and deprogramming from the abuse and suffering he took, but he wouldn’t do it because it both make him feel weak and destroy the narrative he has. The narrative is pretty much his one leverage in this world, so he can’t heal that away.

    The movie I had no interest in seeing whatsoever, not only because of its frequent bad reviews and then the whole partisanship behind the reviews, but because I don’t want to watch a movie that handles that sort of content unless it’s done with care and delicacy, and it just wasn’t stacked with the sort of talent or producers to do that.

    And whenever I hear conservatives complaining about ‘Hollywood’s liberal bias’ and ‘Good American stories’, your review sounds like the type of movie they want to hear. Rich white people produced schlock about poor white people living Christian morals and being rewarded with six figure incomes and a movie deal. And all that pretentious nose wrinkling from the classist poofs that don’t respect a hard-earning working man are liberal elitists of course, not the same Good Ol’ Boys on Fox News who complained about Occupy Wall Street disrupting their drive home to a steak dinner. After all, every single one of those Fox News hosts has their own memoir where they grew up in the gritty rural farm their Papa took them to on summers to explain libertarianism to them and get them the taste for the super hard work of drawing tax subsidies for the just-enough-acreage-of-vineyard-to-apply and riding their horses around.

    That said I’m not so sure how Vance’s long story will turn out as you. He may fail in his Ohio endeavor but then that’s another memoir to publish and make royalties off of.

    Good movie recommendations, too, btw. I love Winter’s Bone, and the others are very strong. For another good recommendation, check out The Devil All the Time, a movie about a young man barely surviving an environment of small town corruption and brutality. It was released on Netflix not too long ago.

  8. I’ve recommended this book before, but will again because it’s relevant- Paul Fussell’s “Class”. It states straight out in its opening that Americans cherish that myth of a classless society, take offensive at the notion that social classes exist, and that changing classes (either up or down) is rarer than most people realize.

    “ For working class kids, studying hard, learning good habits and all the other youth minister admonishments merely buy a lottery ticket. ”

    That’s a good summation. I’ve phrased it as making poor lifestyle choices while poor is very different from making poor lifestyle choices while rich. Or making poor lifestyle choices while White vs while Black or Brown.

      1. As you realize, Chris, as do others who are trying to find a way forward, we have to find common ground in order to preserve our democracy. We are so close to losing it. As angry as I am at the sheer selfishness and arrogant rejection of facts that have consumed so many people, the burden is on us to restore trust in our democratic institutions and regain commitment to our shared responsibility, because we care.

  9. The kids who “faded away.” What happened to them? Did they live or die? Or merely live for awhile with the opprobrium of the church and school?

    A friend got pregnant while a senior in high school. The school wouldn’t let her walk across the stage to get her diploma because she was now a married high school student? Because she was pregnant? Who knows.

    Later, she and her husband ran their multi-million dollar trucking company in the same small, fading town. He could not read well, so she read documents to him and together they made necessary decisions. Neither came from wealthy families.

    I think Americans who change class are much like immigrants and are more likely to achieve the success the seek if they are able to view the landscape in that way.

    1. That’s a great story. It’s good to hear.

      In many cases I genuinely don’t know what happened to them. Some others…well, a lot classmates died young, including some folks who were definitely, empirically more talented than me; people who outperformed me in almost every way but caught an unfortunate break here or there.

      A few others broke free and started to do well, but the trauma of their early life, the isolation of the climb, or just bad luck brought them down. This is a very hostile culture for social mobility.

      My class started with almost 1600 freshmen. A little over 460 kids walked across the stage on graduation day.

      Being talented and virtuous is not enough. It just gets you onto the field.

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