Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)

This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!

White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.

So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.

The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.

An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.

Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.

Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.

Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?

For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.

Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)

Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.

A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.



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27 thoughts on “Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

  1. This is such a good, perceptive review. I’m not especially happy with how JD Vance has become the “spokesperson” for a group of people, and that his memoir has become a kind of bible. This is so complex, and it would be so helpful if we could all put down our defenses, begin listening to each other, and understand that ultimately we are all responsible for one other.


    1. I think it’s unfortunate that Hillbilly Elegy was put on the NYT list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win” (which I purposely didn’t mention in the review for that reason). It’s a memoir, and as such represents the experience of one person. Many of these viewpoints would be needed to understand the experience of a whole population, as well as more objective historical and sociological analysis. There are other books that do a better job of this.


      1. “[Hillbilly Elegy] It’s a memoir, and as such represents the experience of one person. ”

        I was talking to my mom the other day, who mentioned her book club read this. They came to the same conclusion. This book was seen as some kind of bible that would explain this segment of society, when it is clearly the experience of one person and didn’t really help in understanding this population.

        The Isenberg book looks interesting to me despite the shortcomings you point out. It fascinates me that the abolitionists, at least some of them, had other motives, which I am not judging, just acknowledging the complexity. I sometimes think my knowledge of American history is stuck in the simplicity of grade school, when it is obvious the issues are more tangled than when presented then.


        1. It absolutely is not such a “bible,” and to be fair, I don’t think the author would have expected it to be taken that way. I don’t know why it’s been seized upon so eagerly, except that this population lacks serious voices in the mainstream. Something needs to be done about that, but it’s going to take more than one book.

          The first sections of the Isenberg book were really helpful in countering some of that grade school oversimplification. Highly recommended for that purpose.


  2. What a wonderful review, Lory: insightful in your analysis of each book, and thoughtful in the way you have contrasted the strengths and shortcomings of the two books. I also applaud your dedication to exploring the various strands that contribute to our current political and social climate.


  3. Great commentary on these books. I have had my eye on both. These books are not just very relevant in today’s world but they seem to cover issues that should have been, and have nit, been on people’s radar for a long time.

    I read Isenberg’s fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr and I thought that it was excellent.


  4. One of the problems 11st he,station college students face is not knowing, byond doctor and lawyer, just what to become. Vance is an inspiration to many now. He made it out. I get it–why a lawyer. But lawyer is a word people understand as successful, even though there are many, many more lawyers today who can’t call themselves that. Excellent reviews.


    1. I get it that “rich lawyer” is a touchstone for success in today’s world. I don’t blame Vance for that, or anybody who wants to make a better life for themselves. But I think it says a lot about the sickness of our society that we so highly venerate such an intellectual career, vs. actually making or building or growing things. We need both sides of ourselves, and it’s out of balance if both are not valued.


  5. I appreciate your perspective on Hillbilly Elegy, and agree that it represents the views of one person, and a person who is not an expert on many of the issues he discusses (such as payday lending). Still, his law school experience resonated with me, as it mirrored many of my own difficulties in law school, and I admired him for seeing that he needed help and getting it. I also thought his discussion of the impacts of childhood trauma at the end was thoughtful — while he’s not an expert, he is at least someone who’s directly experienced it, and he’s reaching a lot of people.


    1. The points you mention are aspects that stood out for me as well, and should have included in my review. The transformations Vance went through were tremendous and I’m sure they are continuing. It’s hard for a survivor of childhood trauma to communicate his experience, that being one result of such trauma, and his reflections were honest and touching.


  6. Excellent elucidatory reviews of these two books, titles I’m unlikely to get round to reading but which suggest parallels with much of what I’m familiar with in the UK — the perpetuation of the notion of an ‘underclass’ by a governing elite who have no intention of engaging with those at the bottom of the heap whom they purport to serve. The appalling situation conjured up by The Paradise Papers only serves to confirm public suspicions about the self-serving elite.

    On a different though not less chilling note, I’m reminded — with your discussion of early 20C eugenics and its influence on Nazism — that JK Rowling’s film ‘Fantastic Beasts’ touched on the dangerous fashion for this pseudoscience, being set in exactly that period when eugenics was being publicly touted. A situation, as you point out, not entirely dissimilar to today’s.


    1. The problem springs eternal, indeed. Only the clothing and language we put on it changes.

      That’s interesting about the Fantastic Beasts film, which I have not seen. Worth checking out?


    1. That’s an amazing list, Anne. So much to learn there.

      I do recommend Hillbilly Elegy (and it’s relevant to the mental illness topic as well.) I think you will find it a very moving story.


  7. Excellent reviews and analysis as usual Lory. I find I am wary to read anything like this…I don’t even like reading the newspaper so I applaud you and thank you for posting about these books. It makes me realize that I can and should educate myself.


    1. Oh, ugh, I know — the daily news is so depressing. But reading these books has helped me see things from a wider perspective and that is calming. The time and care that these authors have spent going into the issues helps to counteract the hasty, knee-jerk responses we all tend to make and that are so pervasive all around us. I’m very grateful to them for this service.


  8. Wow, can you imagine some sort of forum or panel, like at a book event, with the two of them together? That would be amazing! I have read Hillbilly Elegy, but not White Trash; I need to add that one to my list. Thanks so much for sharing this great perspective, Lory!


  9. This is a really smart pairing, I think both books have something important to say but can’t quite get all the way around the topic individually because their approaches are limited. I have both on my shelves to pick up, along with Strangers in Their Own Land, but haven’t started yet. Thanks for joining us for Nonfiction November this week!


    1. Yes, and each has something that the other lacks — Isenberg a deeper and wider historical perspective, Vance the personal experience. To put them together would be really interesting.


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