The Hedgehog Review

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

J.D. Vance

New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg

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.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

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.

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Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. His work has appeared in The Christian Century, Paste, Books & Culture, and other publications.

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.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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