The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)
Fanfares for the Common Man
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
New York, NY: Viking, 2016.
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Arlie Russell Hochschild
New York, NY: New Press, 2016.
Those who write about the rural, white, poor South often alternate between disgust and empathy. I have a letter from my maternal grandmother, Dorothy Abnett Pugh, a missionary who left Pennsylvania during the Depression to save the benighted souls of Breathitt County, Kentucky. In it, she details a senseless killing fueled by moonshine, her tone wavering between amused contempt and real sorrow. Nothing else in it is as good as the opening lines—“I want to start with a tragedy. It is first we have had for a couple months”—two sentences that masterfully combine classical economy with understated irony (“for a couple months”) and a tang of the vernacular (“It is first”). Gordon Lish couldn’t do better.
We used to send missionaries to the unfortunate; now we send a pundit, a historian, and a sociologist. Three recent books—J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land—have been pressed carelessly into service as rise-of-Trump explainers despite varying widely in discipline, approach, and subject.
I opened Vance’s memoir expecting the typical new-pundit-in-town biographical self-advertisement: some self-serving anecdotes, a smattering of suspiciously crisp dialogue, and a facile policy solution or two. But Hillbilly Elegy has a secret weapon, and it’s Vance’s grandmother—a remarkable woman who manages several generations’ worth of other people’s emergencies with her sense of humor and her faith intact. At one point, the child Vance is with her when she makes the wrong turn onto an exit ramp. As cars swerve and the boy screams, she says, “We’re fine, goddamnit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?”
If you appreciate the bruised piety of this remark as much as I do, you will want to at least skim Hillbilly Elegy for every anecdote about Bonnie Vance. Less convincing are the portions of the book where Vance tries to coax a culture-of-poverty argument out of his childhood. As a teenager, Vance resented the way his fellow hillbillies “gamed the welfare system,” buying “two-dozen packs of soda with food stamps” that they then sold “at a discount for cash” (the depravity!); as an adult, he criticizes their work habits, their terrible diets, and their conspiratorial view of the Obama administration. As he rises through the Marines, college, and Yale Law School, he makes some accurate if token criticisms of his new milieu (e.g., rich people don’t clean up after themselves enough). His observations about learning to function in stable, healthy, non-shouting-based relationships with peers, lovers, and mentors ring truer and fresher, at least to this reader, who has made a similar climb.
While Vance laments a survey finding that working-class whites are the group least likely to believe that their children will live better than they themselves do, he avoids looking into the roots of the region’s deep cynicism—that might lead him to the coal companies, which have done things to the soil and air of Kentucky that would qualify as acts of war if done by a foreign power. But Vance has chosen to write a different kind of book, the sort that can bear a blurb from Peter Thiel, and that mostly won’t anger the people who fund think tanks like the one he is trying to establish (as mentioned in several recent interviews). It’s too bad. He could still be a fine writer, if not a Dorothy Abnett Pugh.
Those who would like to understand the pessimism Vance describes will find a useful resource in Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Despite its subtitle, Isenberg’s book does not really tell the story of the American working class—with its enslaved blacks, its Chinese railroad workers, its non-citizen Filipino farm workers in early-twentieth-century Hawaii. Actually, it’s about a race: Isenberg aims to show that white trash has always been as much a biological as a social insult. Lower-caste whites were imagined from the beginning as “incurable, irreparable breeds” living in gross symbiosis with the worst kinds of American land. She cites John Donne’s 1622 description of Virginia, in which it functions as England’s “spleen and liver”—the poor men who settled Virginia are themselves waste in this analogy—and John Locke’s bizarre Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, in which the great egalitarian sets out a caste system rigid enough for a whole trilogy of fantasy novels. (We tend to forget that Locke was the Royal Africa Company’s third-largest stockholder.)
Isenberg’s chapter on the Great Dismal Swamp—a fetid nightmare that turned the free, poor whites who lived there into cadaverous monsters, at least in the British imagination—is a tour de force, as is much of the first half of the book, a comprehensive debunking of the notion that America ever really aspired to classlessness. She loses her way somewhat in the second half of the book; by the time she gets around to exegeses of Beverly Hillbillies episodes, the reader feels that the stakes of the argument aren’t what they were. But Isenberg helps us understand why so many powerful people have felt comfortable taking the sorts of liberties that have so immiserated, among other places, Vance’s Kentucky and Ohio.
The poor whites with whom so many of those liberties were taken are now blamed for the election of Trump, although many of them don’t vote at all. In Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild turns her gaze on some who probably did. Specifically, Hochschild wants to understand—intuitively, from the heart—why those most hurt by pollution vote for politicians who promise more of it, and she turns to rural Louisiana, land of oil spills and cancer clusters, for answers. The result is certainly worth reading, but it suffers from its focus on empathy, which has driven Hochschild both to construct the book as a story—she wastes a lot of time on scene setting of the “As I reached for another cookie, I asked [interview subject] what he thought about.…” variety—and even to base her argument on a particular narrative. She constructs what she calls a “deep story” to explain why her subjects feel as they do about pollution, immigrants, political correctness, and so on. It’s an insipid extended metaphor about “standing in the middle of a long line,” waiting for the American dream, when suddenly the government invites, you know, other people to cut in front of you—refugees, welfare recipients (always figured as black in spite of statistics). Amazingly, several of her interview subjects agree that this story constitutes a faithful description of their interior lives. (I was honestly hoping the interviewees would wow me, and Hochschild, with something other than these factually challenged clichés, which she rebuts point by point, with statistics, in a politely devastating appendix.) Empathy cannot, alas, make a deep story true.
Some of the people Hochschild talks to are remarkable, in particular Lee Sherman, a former pipefitter. His bosses secretly ordered him to dump toxic waste in a local marsh. The chemicals he worked with, both legally and illegally, made him sick, so they fired him. Like all of the book’s subjects, Sherman adamantly refuses the label “victim.” As I read, it occurred to me that those who refuse to admit they have been victimized might be especially quick to sign up for more of the same treatment—what better way to prove to yourself and others that everything is fine? And they may seek to further normalize their own mistreatment by insisting that others suffer in the same way. I don’t know whether this explanation is true, but it strikes me as more useful than a “deep story” that merely repeats their factual errors.
Lee Sherman, like many rural whites, in fact has a great deal to feel victimized about. But to admit this would mean admitting a degree of hurt that might make it hard to get out of bed. Easier, perhaps, to recite Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all this through him who gives me strength”) and vote against the interests of other, even poorer people. This dynamic can be fairly described as, among many other things, racist—though the intentions of the people perpetuating it vary, as intentions tend to do. Empathy cannot finally kill it. The “racist Tea Partiers” of Hochschild’s book are brave, disciplined, strong, hurting, and dangerous. They are not abominations. They are not white trash. They are human beings. That is bad news enough.
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.