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Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy 
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 Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy

Please use this thread to discuss Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy.



Mon Jan 01, 2018 7:48 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
The first few chapters set the stage by talking about the extended family of Vance within the context of the honor culture and the violence of hillbilly Kentucky. Certainly the reference to the Hatfields and McCoys makes an impression, reminding me of the bloody feud in Huckleberry Finn and the connections to Celtic culture (mostly Scots-Irish, I gather) from which so many of the region's residents descended. It also reminded me of the culture of duels still common in early America, which killed Alexander Hamilton and in which Andrew Jackson dueled four times and killed a man. I remember reading a historian's account of the culture of brawling in the frontier days of the Ohio River, in which dozens of young men would fight each other at a time, for the sport of it, often in absurdly violent ways (such as using deliberately sharpened thumbnails to gouge eyes out).

When I lived in Indiana for a year I encountered a few references to hillbillies. The stereotype of interbreeding, made more widely famous by the book and movie "Deliverance", was part of the reputation. The main elements of the reputation were poverty and ignorance, much like the "Okies" in California when I was growing up. But I also ran into a few people from the Ohio River area and they generally seemed hard-working and sociable.

Vance sets up a seeming contradiction between irresponsibility, especially by particular men, and fierce pride which included, in some cases, great sacrifices for family members. There is some doubt in my mind whether it is fair to characterize their culture that way - isn't it possible that many men are sexually irresponsible just by nature, especially in circumstances of poverty and stress? I am interested to hear what others say.

The pride and family loyalty was striking, and they went together strongly. More on that at a later time.



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Tue Jan 02, 2018 8:40 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
I just realized that I gave this book to my daughter after reading it a year ago. I need to get it back from her so I can look it over for the discussion. One thing I wanted to mention from Harry's post is that the cultures of these poorer, hollowed-out industrial areas are duplicated in other wealthy nations. This was brought home to me in reading a short book published in English as The End of Eddy, by the French writer Edouard Louis. If you have a chance to read this, it's worthwhile, very frank and vivid. Like J. D. Vance, Louis was one of the relative few who escaped from the social miasma of his poor town in northern France. His route was very unlike Vance's, however, and I would say even a harder path, since Louis is homosexual.

The combination of poor nurturance of children and "pride and family loyalty" was striking in the book. Violence and exaggerated manliness (much admired by the women) were constants. My recollection is that in those regards, Vance's Ohio might have been a bit less grim than Louis's village of Hallencourt.

Oh, now I see while looking up the village name (Louis doesn't give it): the NYT calls the book "The Hillbilly Elegy of France."



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Wed Jan 03, 2018 3:05 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
I'm on chapter 6 and realized I hadn't discussed the first 3 chapters yet. It's easy reading and interesting, although I'm finding the writing a bit "scattered" in style. I think it works okay for this memoir, or at least doesn't distract from the content. I'm trying to discern how the author's memories and feelings came together to group thoughts in the way he did. I wouldn't call this brilliant writing, but I am enjoying it.
I don't know much about this culture and geographic location, so I'm learning a lot about the history, particularly the migration to Ohio that happened during this time. I'm surprised that there was such a large presence of hillbillies in Ohio and that they traveled back and forth so frequently between their new and old homes. The author says his grandparents never fully assimilated to life in Ohio, despite achieving financial security. I wonder how much traveling back to KY was due to that and how much it perpetuated it. Also, was it common for children and grandchildren of the migrants to consider KY their true home, or was that due to the author's particular circumstances?
Another interesting passage was the assertion that white Ohioans found the hillbillies upsetting for the fact that they were white and acted in a manner so foreign to Ohio natives' own belief systems around "whiteness". This rings really true for me. I grew up in CA and many of my relatives live in rural FL and TX. Even though we are related, I feel utterly different from them. Many of their behaviors are similar to the hillbillies as described in this book. With the recent recognition of how divided our country is, I'm hoping that this book gives me some insight into understanding not only my relatives, but a large section of the population that have very different lives from mine.
As others are saying, I've been struck by the fierce loyalty to family, the strong sense of pride, and the frequency of violence. Even with financially stability, which should reduce stress, the violence is a constant. Later chapters speak to this in greater depth, so more discussion on that later.



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Mon Jan 08, 2018 9:46 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
SusanRO wrote:
The author says his grandparents never fully assimilated to life in Ohio, despite achieving financial security. I wonder how much traveling back to KY was due to that and how much it perpetuated it. Also, was it common for children and grandchildren of the migrants to consider KY their true home, or was that due to the author's particular circumstances?
Welcome, Susan. Good observations and good questions. I hope you find this an interesting site to exchange views on.
I think you have raised questions related to the role of extended family (clan?) in American life. We have mainly transitioned to a family of a few children, or even none, and it makes a different extended family as it plays out down the line. I am an economist, and we are familiar with the end of dependence on family as people become more self-sufficient in their own financial resources. Partly because of these two trends, we have a tendency to substitute friendships for blood relationships, and Vance seems rather quiet on the subject of friendship.
SusanRO wrote:
Another interesting passage was the assertion that white Ohioans found the hillbillies upsetting for the fact that they were white and acted in a manner so foreign to Ohio natives' own belief systems around "whiteness". This rings really true for me. I grew up in CA and many of my relatives live in rural FL and TX. Even though we are related, I feel utterly different from them.
Maybe related to the problems of lack of friendships? In the dysfunctional parts of my family, rebellion against authoritarian ways plays a big role. I have a feeling my family, like Vance's family, did not have the cultural resources to deal with the 60s and its rebellions. But we did not have much violence - "never hit a woman" was a mantra with my father, and none of us were drinkers.



Tue Jan 09, 2018 7:32 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
I was completely engrossed reading about the author's family and what he loved about them. I grew up in northern Ohio, but don't remember meeting any hillbillies. I thought it was interesting how the author's grandparents still lived like they did back in the holler even when they lived in a nice middle-class home in Middleton. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants and I remember the fierce family loyalty growing up, similar to but not nearly as extreme as the hillbillies. That family loyalty seems all but gone in my children's generation. I felt sorry for those 8 starving kids with a father who was proud of being unemployed - so sad!



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Wed Jan 10, 2018 11:17 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
We talked about Sebastian Junger's Tribe a while back. I'm wondering if anyone thinks displacement from the "homeland," where presumably the sense of belonging and connection was strong, handicaps the native Kentuckians in the new land of Ohio, which is more alienated. Or was the expression of this tight contact already unhealthy in some ways, inclining the migrants to get off on the wrong foot in the land of opportunity?



Thu Jan 11, 2018 6:01 am
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
I didn't read "Tribe", but it does stand to reason that the very insular, clannish ways of the Kentucky hillbillies would not serve them well in Ohio. Extended family was not there, and in a world of Hatfield-McCoy feuds and explosive violence at any insult, extended family would be important.

They migrated as a larger tribe, so that there were many hillbillies where they went in Ohio, but not as a clan, so that when he needs to turn to uncles and aunts they are not really nearby.



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Thu Jan 11, 2018 2:41 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
I reread the chapters and see that Vance is clear on the liabilities of the Scots Irish Hillbilly culture, whether indigenous or transplanted. However, he still relishes the memories of his strong ties with family back in the holler. That's an advantage he can be said to have had over kids who grew up in more typically middle-class families. At least, that is what my experience would tell me. I never had very close relationships with cousins and aunts and uncles, though I did see them for holiday picnics. We never had relatives come and stay with us for extended periods, as Vance says would happen with his people. Perhaps as families become more affluent and educated, there is less need to help the relatives, families have enough money to do things like take vacations and be entertained by things other than socializing with kin, and tribal ties become weak.

Then, too, if you grow up in environments with real local government, the family is less likely to function as a body unto itself, its own little fiefdom that members protect from insult.



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Fri Jan 12, 2018 12:17 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
The question is why hillbilly culture has shifted from Democrat to Republican.

In telling the story of his grandparents, Vance says they had “an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream. Neither was under any illusion that wealth or privilege didn’t matter in America… Papaw became a committed Democrat … ‘not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich.’.. Losers think the deck is stacked… You can do anything you want’ … Their community shared this faith.”


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Sun Jan 21, 2018 4:32 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
Robert Tulip wrote:
The question is why hillbilly culture has shifted from Democrat to Republican.

In telling the story of his grandparents, Vance says they had “an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream. Neither was under any illusion that wealth or privilege didn’t matter in America… Papaw became a committed Democrat … ‘not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich.’.. Losers think the deck is stacked… You can do anything you want’ … Their community shared this faith.”

What are you suggesting, Robert?

Vance's use of anecdote to support his conclusions lead to inconsistencies. In Chapter 5 he cites a Kentucky man with an allergy to work.



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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
DWill wrote:
What are you suggesting, Robert?


The ethos of success through work was previously associated with the politics of the Democrats, but over recent decades this ethos has been supported more effectively by the Republicans, who have sought to portray the Democrats as a party for spongers. Hence the hillbilly shift.


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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
Robert Tulip wrote:
The ethos of success through work was previously associated with the politics of the Democrats, but over recent decades this ethos has been supported more effectively by the Republicans,

I don't think that is a very good characterization of the alignments. Both Democrats and Republicans have at times been identified with small business and farmers, for example. The Democrats put forward a version friendly to labor unions, and succeeded in blaming Big Business for the plight of ordinary farmers. Only when the Republicans also joined this bandwagon in the time of Taft and Teddy Roosevelt was anything done, and that was mainly about limiting the power of corporations rather than empowering workers.

The industrial power of workers was held off by brutal suppression and by higher pay, most notably as led by Ford. The stick and the carrot. When the Great Depression hit in full force, all bets were off and labor was at last given the power to bargain collectively. At that point the nation was something like 60 percent Democrat, but Republicans yielded the issue, as well as Social Security (the government old-age pension) and made a comeback on other grounds.

Astonishingly, the Republican establishment is still trying to oppose Social Security (and its upstart cousin, Medicare) by portraying any government assistance as "sponging". That is where Ted Cruz and the "Liberty Caucus" is coming from, though they know enough not to say it explicitly.

There is a strong belief in self-reliance in American working class culture. But outside the South this was not seen as in any way limiting labor unions or de-legitimizing them. My understanding is that in the South the elites were successful in portraying labor unions as pro-black, and this combined with the independent streak of the Scots-Irish culture among the less educated to make an ethos against unions take root.

My parents make an interesting case. My father, working class to the bone, was a bus driver with a strong union. As a result we were able to move to a suburb with good schools. But my strongly Republican mother (although not so much since Reagan) never stopped believing there was something not quite legitimate about striking for higher pay. She blames union overreach for the demise of the company's high pay, but corporate takeovers and union-busting clearly played at least as strong a role.
Robert Tulip wrote:
who have sought to portray the Democrats as a party for spongers. Hence the hillbilly shift.

Research recently cited by Thomas Edsall in the NYTimes shows that people are much more likely to oppose government assistance when they perceive it as going to "other" groups. Thus the Fox News axis of evil works their dog whistles relentlessly to use anecdote as "evidence" that "those other people" are the ones that government assistance is about (and of course, that "those other people" are undeserving.) It's all about the wedge. The fact that welfare benefits have gone mainly to whites from the beginning, along with the fact that it has always had a high rate of "graduation" to getting along without welfare, get conveniently swept under the rug in their construction of reality.

That said, welfare reform in the 90s was not such a terrible idea. In execution is was too rushed and not supportive enough (Northern states who actually provided transition support achieved high rates of employment for former welfare indigents). The Southern states just wanted to punish "spongers" (which, in their ideology, means anyone getting assistance and most certainly any person of color getting assistance) and they have also reduced the welfare rolls, but with less happy results.

The politics have been shaking out differently since about the time of Ross Perot and Bill Clinton's first election. Unions opposed globalization, and globalization well and truly destroyed the power of industrial unions, as it was forecast to do. But automation has played a large role, probably at least as large (though I am suspicious of the economic studies behind these conclusions) as imports, in undermining that way of life. It is easy to point to anecdotes about the jobs moving, but the numbers say machines have taken at least as many jobs.

Self-reliance now has no rewarding path to turn to. If you are going to make it by learning coding, you are at minimum going to have to move to a big city, and probably you have to move to the coast. Neither traditional Republican nor traditional Democrat policies offer any underpinnings of a self-reliant life for the Middletowns of the old industrial landscape. Even a strong turn against free trade, which would cause lots of trouble with the international economy, would not bring very many jobs back to those small towns across what used to be the Industrial Heartland.

Trump tapped into the frustration over that case, aided by eight years of the longest and deepest slump since the 30s by a long shot, but those communities will not see any improvement. The young people will move out before they are trapped in houses with falling values, and the older folks will find opioids strangely consoling.

What does self-reliance look like now? Learn Chinese. Not because they are taking over, but because filling in all the niches of interesting lifestyle options is the future of the service sector. My kids are great fans of manga and anime, for example, not because Toyotas are great cars (although they are) but because it's fun.



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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
What are you suggesting, Robert?


The ethos of success through work was previously associated with the politics of the Democrats, but over recent decades this ethos has been supported more effectively by the Republicans, who have sought to portray the Democrats as a party for spongers. Hence the hillbilly shift.

It'll be hard to generalize on this, of course. We can say only that Kentucky has tended to vote Republican for several decades. It went for Bill Clinton twice. The same goes for the another bedrock Hillbilly state, West Virginia. As for why these states are now reliably red, a changing ethos of the parties is going to be the most difficult to demonstrate. I'm not saying it wouldn't be in the mix.

What Harry said about the significance of labor unions also makes sense. Unions attract Democrat voters. Vance's grandfather always identified with Democratic support for unions and the working man (except for time he voted for Reagan). When unions declined in strength, along with the coal industry, Democrats found it difficult to maintain the loyalty of workers through other channels. I think we have to then consider the effect of Democrats taking up the mantle of civil rights for blacks (reluctantly at first, needing to jettison their own segregationist past). After that came support for the rights of other neglected groups. In the early stages Republicans weren't particularly averse to this movement, if my memory serves me. But for quite a while now, the Democrats have been the party of inclusion (or the party of identity politics, if the negative spin is preferred). Republicans constantly strategize about how to be less white in order to survive as a party.

What can't be avoided is the reality of racism and xenophobia in the culture of which the book speaks. This would help explain the switch over to the Republican party but especially it helps explain why Trump won so big in KY and WV. Note I said 'helps' explain.

I have read all of the book, but it was over a year ago. I do not recall how much Vance himself talks about racism and xenophobia. Nothing stands out in my mind, so I'll see as I reread.



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Mon Jan 22, 2018 1:15 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 1 through 3 of Hillbilly Elegy
DWill wrote:
I think we have to then consider the effect of Democrats taking up the mantle of civil rights for blacks (reluctantly at first, needing to jettison their own segregationist past). After that came support for the rights of other neglected groups. In the early stages Republicans weren't particularly averse to this movement, if my memory serves me.

Yes, the Democratic Party embrace of Civil Rights was somewhat reluctant. As far back as 1948, when Harry Truman let Hubert Humphrey give a keynote speech which denounced segregation at the Democratic party convention, prompting deep South Democrats to walk out and support Strom Thurmond on the "Dixiecrat" ticket, the Democrats twisted and turned in an effort to keep their racist white Southern backers while ending segregation and Jim Crow. In the end they lost the South, but the political result is still being played out.

Keep your eye on Nicki "take down the Confederate flag" Haley and Lindsey Graham. If they succeed in remaking the Republican party in the South from its dog-whistle racism to a responsible conservative party, they could yet outflank the Democrats in the suburbs.

Also yes, the Republicans supported Civil Rights in the 60s. Nelson Rockefeller was a notably enlightened centrist Republican, in the tradition of Willkie and the Tafts, not to mention Eisenhower. He was also Nixon's big competition in 1968. Afterward Nixon devised the "Southern Strategy" (based partly on Goldwater's success in the South, I expect) which succeeded in re-aligning the parties but has saddled the Republican party with the counter-culture of ignorance.

DWill wrote:
What can't be avoided is the reality of racism and xenophobia in the culture of which the book speaks. This would help explain the switch over to the Republican party but especially it helps explain why Trump won so big in KY and WV.
Apparently West Virginia is the state with the highest aversion to immigrants, especially of color. At least that's what I recall from one of the recent analyses of immigration effects on the election. If jobs for blue-collar men come back strongly, I think all the white supremacist b.s. will fade. If the crisis continues, as currently looks likely, hillbilly culture can be expected to continue blaming non-white competition.
DWill wrote:
I have read all of the book, but it was over a year ago. I do not recall how much Vance himself talks about racism and xenophobia.
I have read the whole thing in the last month. I don't think he addresses racism or xenophobia, but he succeeds in painting a picture of tribalism and sensitivity to insults (like the 47% or the Deplorables). I will watch as well.



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