Introduction & Chapter 1

Summary: Introduction

J.D. Vance was raised by his grandparents in an economically depressed town in Ohio. He had a parent who struggled with addiction. Few members of his extended family attended college. Vance himself almost failed out of high school, but he was rescued by a few caring people. Vance wants to explain what it is like to live in despair, to escape that despair through “upward mobility,” and to be haunted by one’s former life even after one has left it behind. 

The people Vance grew up with are known as “hillbillies.” (This is a term that some believe is offensive and some—including Vance—embrace.) Their home region, Greater Appalachia, reaches from Alabama and Georgia to Ohio and New York state. They are working-class whites with no college degrees. They are poor, and of all population groups in America, they are statistically the most pessimistic. 

Some of this pessimism is due to lack of economic opportunity, but the culture of Appalachia, Vance writes, “encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” To explain what he means, Vance will sometimes quote academic studies, but he is offering a personal recollection of his own life and the other people in it. Vance has changed some names, but he has tried to be truthful to the facts as he knows them. While some of his views—including those about the causes of poverty and addition—are controversial, Vance feels he has come by his beliefs honestly.

Summary: Chapter 1

As a boy, J.D. Vance spent his summers and much of the rest of the year in Jackson, Kentucky, at his great-grandmother Blanton’s house. In his mind, this was his home. Middletown, Ohio was where his father abandoned him and his mother took up with one man after another. In Jackson, J.D. was the grandson of two respected people, his “Mamaw and Papaw.” His uncles taught him that in Breathitt County, people did not need the law’s help in punishing a criminal or defending family honor. Mamaw supposedly shot a cow thief when she was only twelve. 

However, while the Blanton family always had enough to eat, not all families did. Today, conditions are much worse. Nearly a third of the town lives below the poverty line, but people are content to be unemployed. An epidemic of drug addiction has brought with it a rise in crime. Vance believes that Appalachians are in denial about these problems. They dismiss negative media portrayals of the region as lies and distortions. This mix of toxic behavior and denial is spreading over a wider area, as people migrate from the poorer parts of Appalachia out into the larger Great Lakes region, bringing their problems with them. According to Vance, “Jackson’s plight has gone mainstream.”

Analysis: Introduction & Chapter 1

In the beginning of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance proposes the idea that a person’s home isn’t just the place they live but rather a way of life. In describing Jackson, Kentucky, his hometown, Vance points out the difference between an address and a home. His address changes often, but his home is always his great-grandmother’s house in Jackson where he experiences hillbilly culture. Vance expresses his fondness for Jackson by emphasizing the positive qualities of the town, such as the residents’ willingness to help neighbors or stop for a funeral procession. He also mentions the negative aspects of Jackson, such as the high poverty rate and the prescription drug addiction epidemic, suggesting that poor white Americans in rural areas sometimes struggle with the same problems that plague inner cities. Vance furthers this comparison by contrasting the beautiful natural landscape with the litter left behind by residents. Vance suggests that the problems he witnessed in Jackson are becoming a national issue. Vance’s experience of growing up in hillbilly culture and graduating from an Ivy League school gives him unique insight into the generational societal problems of poor white Americans and how hillbilly culture helps perpetuate them.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance attempts to paint a more complete picture of hillbilly culture by combining stories of his own experiences with statistics and facts. Vance explains that working-class white people with ties to Appalachia often face problems such as addiction, lack of educational opportunities, reliance on welfare, and the sense that they have little control over their lives. Vance also emphasizes the prevalence of violence in hillbilly culture, as evidenced by Mamaw almost killing someone and the family’s overall lack of concern for the law. Vance suggests that while these problems are widespread, too many Americans have an over-simplified view of hillbilly culture that ignores its positive qualities. As an example, Vance highlights the importance of loyalty within hillbilly culture by describing how his social network of hillbillies rescued him and made it possible for him to achieve the success he enjoys today. Vance also celebrates the stories of hillbillies when he describes his uncles as the gatekeepers to the family’s oral tradition. Vance points out that hillbillies tend to glorify the best things about themselves and ignore the worst, but these negative aspects cannot be addressed until they are faced directly.