Five days after Election 2016, New York Times Publisher Pinch Sulzberger penned an apology of sorts to his readers, with an excuse built in to the foundation of his admission that they were embarrassingly wrong:
After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters? What forces and strains in America drove this divisive election and outcome?
Since the summer of 2016, the most talked about—and relevant—non-fiction book to address the last sentence above was easily J.D. Vance’s family and cultural memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.
In fact, the New York Times’s own review of the book rather narrowly reviewed it in terms of the Trump phenomenon, with a headline proclaiming it an “Analysis of the Poor who Love Trump.”
But when the time came on Thanksgiving weekend for the New York Times’ annual (always a month too early) rundown of the year’s 100 notable books, included was: a book on how the Right created the unjustified term of ‘Limousine Liberal’ and transformed politics; another on how the Koch brothers subverted democracy; a screed on how the War on Poverty became the War on the Poor by way of the War on Crime; and several new books on slavery… and… and… you get the idea.
Oh, yeah, they did find one American memoir for their list—that of Bruce Springsteen, the faux voice of the white working class, who is part of the New York Times’ echo chamber that is the very epitome of their befuddled failure to understand.
But Hillbilly Elegy, the most talked about book of the election season, the book that could help them get it? Nah. Maybe it came in 101st?
No, the New York Times is hardly going to promote a book that delivers such a blow to the term “white privilege,” by pointing out in compassionate but brutal detail that generational poverty and family disfunction transcend race, that the emigrant and immigrant experiences are so similar, and that white liberal elites are just fine with the way things are.
Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, part of the migration of “hillbillies” that moved from western Pennsylvania to work in factories. His grandmother, “Mawmaw,” was a member of a particularly violent clan, who was feared for her own fierce temper, while Pawpaw was an alcoholic whose own rages led to his moving out of Mawmaw’s house, though he spent most of his waking non hours there.
And compared to his addict mother, a nurse who ran the kids through a succession of father figures (Vance took his father’s last name before entering the Marines) Mawmaw and Pawpaw were the stable figures in his life.
In two remarkable and memorable passages of the book, Vance also illustrates that just being “white” is meaningless when it comes to hillbilly culture, that ethnicity is more than melanin.
Vance’s first flash of ethnic identity, that not everyone lived in the kind of family chaos and drug problems that he and those close to him did, was when as a pre-teenager, he ran from his mother’s rage to a home where the people called the police. When Vance went to court, he noticed something:
I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen families all around, and thinking that they looked just like us.
The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.
By the time he reached high school, the intellectually curious Vance was reading everything he could get his hands on from the library about the working poor. He stumbled across a book called The Truly Disadvantaged, by William Julius Wilson.
As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile. When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the “truly disadvantaged”—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.
Vance wanted to write to Wilson to say that Wilson had captured his family and neighborhood perfectly, but there was one problem. Wilson was describing blacks who had migrated North, not hillbillies.
Also problematic, was that Vance knew that his family’s tendency toward violence and self-destruction stretched back to when they still lived in relative prosperity and the plants were humming. Poverty, he felt, didn’t answer the main question:
Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom?
But if conservatives merely present Hillbilly Elegy as putting a face on sociologist Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, they are also missing the point. That would be like saying Homer Hickam’s great memoir Rocket Boys (the basis for the movie October Sky) is about the plight of the coal miner, or that Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life is about domestic violence in the 1950s.
Hillbilly Elegy is also a spiritual memoir. Looking for stability and peace, Vance sought out his biological father, who enthusiastically embraced him, and offered him a home. Unfortunately, he found a brand of overly politicized fundamentalist Christianity that was more eager to expose sinners than to save them.
Most of the elite reviews of Hillbilly Elegy, however respectful, looking for insight into why Trump captured a certain segment of society avoid one aspect of the book—the one where Vance holds the mirror to them.
Vance recounts a few Tom Wolfe-worthy accounts of life among the mostly white liberal elite, when after a hitch in the Marines and graduating Ohio State, he is accepted into Yale. But without the mentoring of a few sympathetic friends, he would have been eaten alive by not knowing why there were so many forks and other social niceties.
At one point, a clueless professor speculates in front of him that Yale shouldn’t even consider accepting students whose educational and personal profile were exactly like Vance’s.
Eventually, Vance makes peace with both his past, and quits feeling like he has gotten “too big for his britches” through his achievements—another parallel to the black experience in modern America.
And like many conservative black authors, Vance is long on self-improvement and short on government solutions. He concludes:
I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.
Most impressively, Hillbilly Elegy clocks in at a brisk 257 pages, is deeply personal while providing insight for sociologists on a multitude of topics—and the author is never self-congratulatory, and is as tough on himself as he is on anyone he observes.
In the meantime, the New York Times’s snubbing of this book can also help them answer the question “Why Trump won.” Look in the mirror, Pinch.
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