Streetwise Professor

December 7, 2020

Hillbilly Elegy–A (Very) Personal Perspective

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:29 pm

Saturday evening I watched Hillbilly Elegy, a Netflix original. I watched because I had read the J. D. Vance book by the same title, and it resonated deeply–for reasons I will detail below. I also watched because of the hailstorm of negative reactions directed at the film (as had been directed at the book and at Vance personally)–I wanted to see what triggered these adverse reactions.

The book and film resonate because there are strong parallels between Vance’s experiences, and those of my grandfather, in place particularly, although not so much in time. My grandfather’s story occurs in southeastern Ohio in the first two decades of the 20th century (he was born 8 months before the Wright Brothers’ first flight), and Vance’s in central Ohio and Kentucky in the 1980s-2000s. But in some ways, the difference in time makes the other similarities all the more remarkable. La plus ca change.

Most notably, the central character in Elegy, J.D.’s grandmother Mamaw (played by Glen Close) is eerily reminiscent of my grandfather’s mother, Laura D. Hatfield. (Mark the last name.) Both were fiery hellcats, with checkered and often tragic lives.

One scene made my jaw drop. Early in the movie, J.D.’s mother Becky is in a hurry to drive home from a family reunion in Kentucky. She yells at her mother to hurry up, and Mamaw responds by flipping her the bird and uttering a vulgar retort.

My grandfather was an avid amateur photographer, and was making home movies from nearly the time that hand-held cameras first became available. Blessedly, my uncle still has the movies, and we put them on DVD. In one clip, my grandfather impishly waited outside the outhouse at my grandmother’s farm (note that this was in the 1930s, and there was no running water). When she emerged from the privy, she saw him filming, and flipped him the bird. Just like Mamaw flipping off her daughter, right down to the same bad ass look on their faces. They even looked somewhat alike–there is an Appalachian look, you know.

Like Mamaw, my GGM had man issues and kid issues. No, she wasn’t knocked up at 13, but hers was not a romantic story. She worked as a waitress at a diner at a railroad depot (in Gloucester, Ohio, if memory serves), and was swept off her feet by a railroad man. They married–and then he promptly abandoned her.

He came back a year later for her father’s funeral. W. H. Hatfield had died from a ruptured spleen suffered at a 4th of July picnic held by his employer, the New Straitsville Coal Company, for which he cut roofing timbers. In a strength contest at the picnic, the 55 year old man successfully lifted a 6′ long green roofing timber (about as thick as a railroad tie) over his head–and then his spleen ruptured. (Try lifting a railroad tie sometime.)

In any event Laura and her husband reconnected after the funeral, my grandfather was conceived–and then Laura’s husband split again, never to return. My grandfather never even saw him until one of his cousins pointed him out on the street when my grandfather was 11 or 12. So like J.D., my grandfather was fatherless.

Single motherhood not being a thing at the time, out of desperation Laura married an older man (Bill Wilcox) who was financially secure (owning a farm and a business “shooting” oil wells with nitroglycerine)–but who was also a raging alcoholic. My grandfather suffered the fate of many stepchildren of that era–a life of beatings. (So although drugs weren’t a thing in 1910s Ohio as in 1990s Ohio, alcohol was. BTW, Bill ran moonshine in his “shooting wagon,” knowing people weren’t too anxious to go poking around a wagon full of nitro.) (J.D.’s mother also entered horrible marriages in attempts to provide a home for her children.)

My grandfather had to work both on the farm and off from a young age, including working in coal mines as early as 12 years old. To give you an idea of how tough things were, he suffered abuse at the hands of one of the miners. He complained to his uncle Frank (Laura’s brother) who was a foreman at the mine. Frank told him he had to take care of himself. Frank said he had a pick and an acetylene lamp on his helmet, didn’t he? So use them. So when next beset by his tormenter, my grandfather turned the flame on his helmet into a torch, pointed it right in the guy’s face, and while he screamed in pain, hit him in the kneecap with the pick handle.

Problem solved. But he had to solve it himself. (He told me this story years later to illustrate a point, which I will return to below.)

In another parallel with the J.D. Vance story, my grandfather escaped this dysfunctional family life by joining the military. The Navy, in my grandfather’s case, the Marines in Vance’s. He was trained as an electrician, and served on subs (back when subs were scary AF). After leaving the service he tried to work his way through Marietta College by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and working in a shoe store. But there were no student loans in those days, and he couldn’t make it work, so he set out first to Detroit, where he worked for Ford Motor–and hated it. He then went to Chicago, got a job with Illinois Bell, where he worked for 40 years, eventually becoming the head of North Division in Chicago (i.e., he managed Illinois Bell’s operations north of Madison Street). After retiring from Bell, he became the president of a rural telephone company (DeKalb-Ogle Telephone: he arranged the sale of the company to Continental Telephone, and eventually it was absorbed into what is now Verizon.)

So J.D. Vance’s story and my grandfather’s stories aren’t the same, but they rhyme. Similarly, Mamaw and Laura D. lives were not identical, but bore strong parallels, as did their characters and personalities. So I have deep empathy for the characters and the stories.

But it is beyond obvious that many people don’t. In particular, our better-thans on the coasts and in particular in the media loathe the book, the movie, and J.D. Vance personally. So to my second issue: why this hatred?

I think the answer is overdetermined, but in a nutshell, it is a testament to modern American culture, and political culture in particular.

One part of the story that is deeply dangerous to our better-thans is that it is an utter refutation of the narrative du jour–white privilege. This is an organizing principle, and a fixed belief, on the left today.

Yeah. Watch Hillbilly Elegy, and you’ll just be amazed at all that white privilege. Similarly, look at my grandfather’s family’s life. Dang but whitey got it made, even in 1990s Middletown or 1910s Burr Oak! (My grandfather’s family’s farm is now many feet under the waters of Burr Oak Lake, by the way.)

Such an in-your-face refutation of a cultural “elite’s” treasured myth is a sure-fire trigger to its deepest antipathy.

Relatedly, Vance’s story–like my grandfather’s–is about how it is possible to escape hellish situations in America, and achieve a good life. J.D.’s and my grandfather’s lives were American Hells, but in the end illustrated the American Dream. In both cases, the military and crucially family–even dysfunctional ones–provided a way out. Mamaw impressed on J.D. the importance of family and helped him straighten out and escape. My great-grandmother also gave my grandfather a chance, first by marrying at great cost to herself, but then by telling my grandfather to run away and join the Navy–even accompanying him to the recruiting office to swear that he was 18 (he was barely 17). (He had no birth certificate, but that’s a story for another day. His grave marker, provided by the US government, dates his birth to 1902, not 1903, based on his service record.) And J.D. and my grandfather both repaid their debt, by helping out their families to the extent of their abilities.

Although they had help, J.D. and my grandfather also had to have the self–reliance and grit to want to escape, and put in the effort to escape. The torch and the pick handle are an extreme example: you have to look out for yourself, and never let yourself be a victim. That’s why my grandfather told me the story, although I am sure that it was deeply disturbing to him on some level, even 60 years after the fact.

The refusal to be a victim is also deeply threatening to the prevailing culture. Today, there seems to be a competition to be a victim. “I’m a victim! NOOOO! I’m a bigger victim than you!!! Uh-uh!” We live in a culture that celebrates victimhood. J.D. Vance rejected it. Hillbilly Elegy rejects it. My grandfather rejected it. These are deeply transgressive offenses against the culture.

Then there is the current political environment. The characters of Elegy–and my remaining family members in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia–and millions like them are one of the main bedrocks of Trump support. The Ohio steel industry died. The coal mines died. A hollow shell has been left. When it wasn’t ignoring it, the political elite in the US was sneering at it. Those people have pride–something that comes through in Elegy–and they resent the disdain and condescension.

Trump did not sneer at them. He did not dismiss them as bitter clingers. He embraced them, treated them as valuable individuals, and they love him for it.

And those who hate Trump therefore hate them, and everything that tries to portray them in an even moderately sympathetic light–like Hillbilly Elegy.

In sum, Hillbilly Elegy is a Rorschach Test. Show it to me, and it evokes the attributes and deep flaws and great struggles of my family–struggles that made it possible for me to have an unbelievable blessed life that has been able to grab the boundless opportunities America offers. Show it to the coastal “elite” and it triggers all they hate about America, and many who live in it.

Want to understand the deep fault lines in America today? Watch the movie, and mark the reactions. They speak volumes.

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  1. I enjoyed the film very much and still have a YUGE dislike for Trump. I have never had do deal with addiction in my very immediate family to where it affected me, but I could totally relate to a lot of the family dynamics. Both sides of my southern family are very large and we will all fight for each other even if we aren’t getting along.

    Comment by Tracie — December 7, 2020 @ 11:56 pm

  2. Really enjoyed reading that, thanks Prof.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but from the description above, I’d say that this kind of portrayal is hardly new in American pop culture: For example, I once read that Eminem represents America’s “white have-nots”, with all the vulgarity, pride and troubled lives that comes with it. I guess things have changed in the last 20 years…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — December 8, 2020 @ 6:20 am

  3. What about people who enjoyed the book and didn’t care for the movie, other than Glen Close’s performance?

    Comment by John Hall — December 8, 2020 @ 7:33 am

  4. Chuck Yeager as well, RIP.
    Something in the Appalachian water? If you can get the right stuff from such modest beginnings they. should bottle it.

    Comment by philip — December 9, 2020 @ 2:56 pm

  5. Hatfield. OK. That explains the red-hot commentary 😉

    Can the ancient animosities be traced to the four different cultures outlined in ‘Albion’s Seed’? The Puritans appear to have always detested the Scots-Irish types. Now that Puritanism has abandoned its god but none of its Manichean perspective, fire-eating and passion to punish, it seems natural that the poor whites should be on the receiving end once again.

    A personal anecdote: While at the Desorganisación de Valores Perdidos (you know, and I know you know, without needing a translation) one of my colleagues was a classy north-easterner. Inherited old central-European noble blood, along with the name, had studied at exclusive schools and colleges up in the north-east before entering an international career and eventually settling overseas. Back in 2017 she was reading Hillbilly Elegy because she wanted to understand something of the Trump phenomenon – why people had voted for him. She simply couldn’t fathom it. And while she had sympathy for Vance and the struggles of his family, my impression was that it still didn’t excuse in her mind their having backed someone like Trump.

    What makes this all quite bizarre/ironic is that Trump is a north-easterner himself and a child of privilege.

    Perhaps the cultures will never understand one another. In my much smaller country, we have provincial rivalries but they are friendly, resulting in not much more than needling while we play sport and drink together. The most marked difference – that between Irish Catholics and English-Scots-Irish Protestants – all but disappeared fifty years ago. There’s none of the religious passion or blood-libel that seems to happen in the US. Again, maybe what we’re seeing is just a new manifestation of the same passions, running along ley-lines that were marked into the American substrate long ago.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — December 9, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

  6. We have the same attitude this side of the pond, in England, and I don’t think it’s about “white privilege” here. I think that those in the Elite – however you define that – perpetually feel that they are at risk of being defenestrated from it and the ‘lower orders’ are like a tribe of embarrassing uncles who could, at any time, show you up. So they must be denied, denigrated, deplored and dismissed for fear that they might, in whatever way, infect their fellow ethnicity with their ‘stink’.

    Comment by Recusant — December 10, 2020 @ 1:13 pm

  7. “Show it to the coastal “elite” and it triggers all they hate about America, and many who live in it.”

    One is struck by the repeated deployment of the word ‘hate’ in this piece. Where is one to encounter love and joy and “the pursuit of Happiness” (you know the bit after “Life, Liberty …”?
    Perhaps America is no longer big enough for such elevated sentiments, which is … sad. So much bile, so much fury and rancor. If Americans carry on like this, you’ll end up killing each other (in numbers greater than at present, natch)

    Comment by Simple Simon — December 13, 2020 @ 11:09 am

  8. Your grandparents managed to impart a treasure for you, inherent in their stories. I’m often saddened when I ask people about their backgrounds and families, and they often don’t know much about their grandparents, and what they did.

    One of my grandfathers managed to write his memoirs for his descendants, and it is a family treasure today. It’s something everyone should think about doing. My grandfather’s memoirs are an aid to me, and while I don’t measure myself against him, I do find that his example is often inspiring.

    Ancient Chinese mandarins, at the death of their fathers, were often expected to take a whole year’s sabbatical off to mourn their fathers, and many used that time to write down their own biographies. Perhaps something like that should be adopted in the west.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — December 16, 2020 @ 10:18 pm

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