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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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Harry Marks, LanDroid, Robert Tulip
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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Chris OConnor, Harry Marks
Fri Jan 12, 2018 12:17 pm
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