Chapters 12 & 13

Summary: Chapter 12

Vance applied at several top law schools and was accepted by his first choice, Yale. He benefited from generous need-based financial aid, which for low-income students typically makes private Ivy League schools more affordable than less-selective public universities. At Yale, Vance was awed by the people he ran into, and by the campus’s architecture and history. He was able to keep pace with his classmates academically and enjoyed their company, and he even impressed a snobbish professor with his writing. 

Vance felt out of place at Yale, however. Conversations with other students, about parents’ professions and about their own future incomes, reminded him that Yale was a different world from Middletown. Vance did not mind that his professors and classmates found him intriguing: a tall former marine with a Southern twang, at Yale law school. However, when fellow students became friends, it took him a while to share the more embarrassing aspects of his background. At the same time, back in Middletown, his loyalty to the people there made him reluctant to tell anyone, even a stranger, that he attended Yale. Vance had discovered the downside of upwardly mobility. It means not only movement toward a better life, but also movement away from the culture one grew up in. Vance felt torn.

Summary: Chapter 13

For his first major writing assignment, Vance was assigned a female classmate, Usha, as his writing partner. Soon they were dating. She was Vance’s guide about the finer points of law school life and culture, and about matters like dinner etiquette. His professors helped him, too. One of them vouched for him to a prospective employer after a disastrous interview. Another professor, Amy Chua, explained to him that the value of acceptance to the law journal depends on one’s career plans afterward. She also counseled Vance to steer clear of a clerkship with a particular judge, because he was notoriously demanding, and working for him would put Vance’s relationship with Usha at risk. 

Vance and Usha ended up clerking together elsewhere and then married. All the advice and help Vance received, from well-informed and well-placed friends and mentors, illustrates the concept of social capital: a set of social connections with economic value. For anyone seeking a successful career, Vance observes, lack of social capital is a serious handicap. Vance arrived at Yale with very little social capital. His success at Yale and afterward was made possible by the people who helped him along the way.

Analysis: Chapters 12 & 13

In earlier sections, Vance describes his need to fit in, but by the end of the book, he has formed his own identity, separate from hillbilly culture. Vance feels out of place at Yale even though he is part of the majority as a straight white male. He attributes this to his social class and military experience, so he lies about his past to his fellow students, and he lies about his current status as a Yale student to a stranger who might be a hillbilly. These lies reveal that Vance continues to struggle with his identity, just as his grandparents did. At job interviews, Vance struggles to strike a balance between being authentic and trying to impress his would-be employers, and he views the interviews as a test to see if he can “pass” as a member of the upper class. Two events demonstrate that Vance is beginning to overcome the problem: firstly, he accepts that he is not responsible for his family’s mistakes, and secondly, he acknowledges that Middletown no longer feels like home. Vance begins to feel more comfortable with his success as he sheds the belief that hillbilly culture completely defines him. 

Vance illustrates the privilege that comes with higher social class by offering a view of his life after Yale, which is starkly different from his childhood. Vance’s current health practices (he no longer eats sugar), financial situation (he can afford to shop at Whole Foods), and lifestyle (he attends orchestral concerts) stand in striking contrast to what he experienced growing up. Vance likens himself to a tourist among the upper class and describes privilege as a “mysterious force.” He views the inner workings of the upper class as particularly interesting because they are hidden to most people, including himself for most of his life. Having gained this new perspective, Vance reveals that society’s standard advice for getting a good job is false and ineffective. Networking and social capital are the actual keys to success, and they are reserved for the upper class. From his position as a member of the upper class, Vance has changed not only his life but also his views on social mobility.