Quote 1

In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin—'black people,' 'Asians,' 'white privilege.' Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast.

In this quotation from the introduction, the author admits that though racial categories can be useful, they’re ultimately inadequate because they don’t take the details of people’s lives into consideration. Vance identifies as Scots-Irish rather than as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP), and he writes that this subgroup of Caucasians is generally poor and has low social mobility. Vance implies that white people of Scots-Irish descent have not benefitted from the history of colonialism, racism, and slavery in America in the same way that WASPs have, a concept which many sociologists argue is deeply flawed. Vance posits that the story of his family should be considered as entirely unrelated to their race. He believes that categorizing him as simply a “straight white male” fails to acknowledge his identity as a person who overcame great disadvantages to become successful.

Quote 2

The juxtaposition is jarring: Religious institutions remain a positive force in people’s lives, but in a part of the country slammed by the decline of manufacturing, joblessness, addiction, and broken homes, church attendance has fallen off.

This quotation, which appears in Chapter 6 after Vance describes the demographics of church attendance in the United States, reveals that the author is disappointed by the fact that the people he considers most in need of church do not attend. As Vance examines his success over the course of the memoir, he is critical of other poor, working white people for not doing more to improve their situation in life. Some of the specific issues he cites are family instability, inadequate parenting, and drug and alcohol addiction. In his view, a stronger adherence to religion could help to alleviate some of these problems. He later points out that his father’s church offers job assistance, parenting classes, and addiction counseling. Vance’s critique of the church attendance of working-class people is part of a larger critique of the overall behavior of the American working class.

Quote 3

Papaw’s rare breakdown strikes at the heart of an important question for hillbillies like me: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed our children?

This quotation, which appears in Chapter 14 after Vance recalls Papaw crying about failing his daughter, examines the thin line between family responsibility and personal responsibility. Vance spends a large part of his memoir criticizing bad parenting both in his own life and in the lives of those around him. He is critical of his own alcohol- and drug-addicted mother and of other mothers he knows who have failed their children in one way or another. He is also critical of hillbilly culture’s tendency to glorify violence and tolerate family dysfunction. In this quote, Vance sympathizes with hillbilly children who struggle because their families didn’t give them the proper tools to thrive and succeed. However, Vance also points out the ability of individuals to rise above their circumstances through hard work, citing his own success despite his highly unstable childhood. The quote suggests that children raised in hillbilly culture often must overcome immense difficulties in order to take control of their own fate.

Quote 4

We need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance. 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.

This quotation appears in the conclusion after Vance describes a young man from Kentucky who reminds him of himself. Although Vance admires certain aspects of hillbilly culture, such as loyalty, hard work, and tenacity, he finds more to criticize than to admire. He offers examples of hillbillies that don’t want to work, such as a neighbor of his cousin who has eight children and is proud of the fact that he doesn’t have a job. He writes about hillbillies who sabotage their own employment prospects but then blame their lack of work on the government or the economy. Vance also mentions faceless companies like Armco in Middletown that shut down and leave entire towns and cities in ruins. Vance challenges poor white citizens to ask themselves what they can do to improve their situation, instead of blaming government and big business for their plight.