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J.D. Vance, in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, uses his own experiences living in rural Kentucky and industrial Ohio to paint a picture of the problems facing the poor white class—and its accompanying “Hillbilly” culture— which dominates American Appalachia. Recounting his experiences from childhood, to his time in the marines, to his college education, Vance sympathetically portrays the struggles of many who share his class and culture. However, he also portrays himself as a paragon of an upwardly mobile American, sustaining the idea of the American Dream. In doing both simultaneously, Vance argues that the condition of poor white “hillbillies” is due to economic disadvantages, but compounded by a destructive culture. In this arena his argument succeeds, as he sufficiently demonstrates throughout his own life’s narrative an awareness of the negative cultural effects he overcame. However, he fails to account for the factors and resources to help achieve that awareness which others in his class lack.
Vance introduces his memoir with the notion of pessimism, establishing the foundation for his argument that hillbilly culture has created a hereditary and debilitating mindset. It is this mindset, he argues, that should be primarily blamed for the condition of poor whites. Noting that “working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America,” above even those groups who are “clearly more destitute,” he vaguely “suggests that something else is going on” (4). He then illustrates this mindset in his childhood as a hillbilly. Describing his childhood as “a world of truly irrational behavior,” he implies that the poor are to blame for their own financial and social struggles (146). However, he admits that there are members of his class and culture who “struggled but did so successfully,” defining such success as “ intact families. . . peaceful homes, many children . . . believing they’ll claim their own American Dream” (149). In defining it as such, he equates the earliest success not to the achievement of the American Dream, but only the belief that they may eventually obtain it. This definition substantiates his claim that pessimism is the root cause of limiting social mobility, not a lack of ability to achieve it.
For Vance, Mamaw serves a bridge between the world of total helplessness and the world of so-called successful struggle. He credits her as the reason “[he] never saw only the worst of what [their] community offered,” as a quiet, peaceful place allowing him to focus on his schoolwork and personal relationships (149). She acts as an essentially different paradigm for what a hillbilly is, encouraging him to think positively about his future, which Vance admits “[his] neighbor kids couldn’t couldn’t say the same” (149). This haven which his grandmother offers, however, creates a paradox within his argument; he admits to his own luck in having a source of hope in Mamaw, yet he still maintains that his own life is not extraordinary, that he is a universal example of what white working-class men (at the very least) may achieve without the pessimism that characterizes them.
The distinction Vance makes between hillbillies as children and as adults serves as an important facet of his argument; as children, they are victims plagued their by culture, but at some ill-defined point along to path to adulthood they become the perpetrators of the same issues which plague the next generation. Vance’s transformation takes place primarily as a marine, where his “learned helplessness” from home turned into “learned willfulness” (163). Even his diet reflected his divergence from his hillbilly roots as he becomes this adult. During his marine service is also when Mamaw dies (yet another tie to his Appalachian life cut loose). Though he presents himself as a sort of reformed hillbilly, one who has not allowed pessimism to get the better of him, he accounts for the “demons of the life [he] left behind” which haunt him in his adult life. When describing the issues in his relationship with Usha, he blames a vague malady, “whatever it was that had, for generations, caused those in my family to hurt those whom they loved” (225). The solution then to deal with “the demons of [his] youth” was self-awareness and an “[understanding of his past and knowing that he wasn’t doomed” (229). Ultimately, he applies this personal learning experience to argue that only through such self-awareness can a pessimistic hillbilly avoid the cycle of poverty, for which, he believes, hillbilly culture itself is responsible.
Vance successfully fulfills his goal of demonstrating the psychological impact of poverty on the poor and their children and successfully portrays himself as a paragon of a hillbilly who has overcome the obstacles of his class. However, he fails to demonstrate that his experience is not extraordinary. In admitting his own luck, and admitting the advantages he had which others did not, he provides no way for those members of his class to achieve the American Dream which he claims is so attainable. Though he tries to prove the possibility of upward mobility for poor hillbillies, he does little more than advocate awareness for their own circumstances, without offering the means to defeat the pessimism that suppresses them unless those circumstances already favor their success.
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