At last I finished the “Hillbilly” book. Reading it was a very slow process for me. And it wasn’t because I was savoring it. The book is a mixture of memoir and sociological study. The prose is nothing exceptional though in fairness it wasn’t promoted as such. It is readable enough, yet I found myself arguing with him throughout. My annotations run along the lines of, so this makes you a hillbilly?
“Chip was kind of a hillbilly himself: He loved cheap beer, country music, and catfish fishing…” Huh. Is it the country music that does it? Much of what he describes belongs to a lower-class strata or even lower-middle. Much also could belong to many Black neighborhoods. Vance himself says, “That it resonated so personally is odd, however, because he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia—he was writing about black people in inner cities.” He goes on to comment the same on similar books. About the only thing that makes Vance a hillbilly is that he comes from a hollow that they pronounce “holler” and that he calls his grandmother “maw-maw.” But he believes himself to be one so that works.
Too often, especially in the beginning of the book, he tells of an occurrence in his life but only in general terms because he “can’t remember the details,” or what caused it. Yet some of the developed anecdotes are interesting and many are entertaining although I’m not sure he meant them that way. The comments about the government involvement and criticisms of it are, once again, not specific to a hillbilly culture. Towards the end of the book the sociological comments and data are staggering. That aspect of the book is eye opening.
“It’s not just fighting. By almost any measure, American working-class families experience a level of instability unseen elsewhere in the world. Consider, for instance, Mom’s revolving door of father figures. No other country experiences anything like this. In France, the percentage of children exposed to three or more maternal partners is 0.5 percent—about one in two hundred. The second highest share is 2.6 percent, in Sweden, or about one in forty. In the United States, the figure is a shocking 8.2 percent—about one in twelve—and the figure is even higher in the working class.” It is shocking. And he goes on to quote other statistics.
It is made clear the U.S. is hardly the best country in the world if you struggle. If your home environment is tough or abusive. If you’re not in the middle to upper middle and above classes. Maybe not even then. But it ain’t only the hillbilly culture in crisis.
I’m not sure why the book is called an elegy. I don’t think that Vance means the sadness or even the death of the culture is to be mourned. That the family and culture are in crisis is absolutely true. True also is that that small slice of the U.S. is no longer small, and it is growing much larger.
By my reckoning the book is a C, even though there are redeeming factors. It’s not difficult to read and it’s not the sort of book you have to walk away from. But if you want to learn about hillbilly culture this isn’t the book. It’s Vance’s culture.