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Who Wrote It Better? Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash

You may have heard of the theory of multiple discovery, when two independent scientists make the same discovery at nearly the same time. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the polio vaccine, developed in Pittsburgh by Jonas Salk and in Ohio by Albert Sabin in the mid-50s.

You may have also heard of the concept of “twin movies,” where two remarkably similar movies are released around the same time–Armageddon and Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak and Volcano, The Prestige and The Illusionist.

Well, the same thing happens with books. Last year’s notable “twin books” were Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance and White Trash: the Secret 400-Year History of Poverty in America by Nancy Isenberg.

The first is a memoir and the second a volume of history, but both examine the plight of poor and working-class whites in America. Hillbilly Elegy has been on the NYT Bestseller list for 39 weeks now, along with making the rounds in media and landing on several lists that purport to explain Trump’s successful run for president to those who thought a Clinton victory was in the bag.

While I enjoyed the memoir aspects of J.D. Vance’s book, I found the sociopolitical analysis to be slightly tone-deaf and somewhat lacking. The first half of the book details Vance’s unstable childhood, which he spent shuffling between his drug-addict mother and his fierce, sometimes violent grandmother. All the usual problems that accompany poverty make an appearance: low grades/issues in school, his mother cycling through partners, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, under- and unemployment.

photo of author JD Vance

What makes this part of the book stand out are the utterly distinct characters that populate both Vance’s native Kentucky and Middleton, Ohio, where he grew up. His grandparents, Mamaw and Pawpaw, were allowed to be themselves on the page–no saints, to be sure, but full of love for their grandchildren and hell-bent to help them succeed. I appreciate that Vance didn’t sugarcoat his Pawpaw’s violent drunkenness or his Mamaw’s rages and occasional cruelty.

Once Vance joins the Marines and eventually gets into Yale Law School, though, the pace slackens. This is where Vance attempts to add his sociopolitical analysis, that mostly amounts to “poor white people are angry because they feel abandoned/forgotten.” Perhaps it is because of my own working-class background that this was no revelation to me.

Worse, though, is the way in which Vance tries to reduce a complex system of identities and power structures–race, class, sexual orientation, gender, religion–to “poor” versus “everyone else.” Poor white people don’t like Barack Obama because he is well-educated and uses a large vocabulary, Vance argues, and his race has nothing to do with it. The problem with this argument is that Vance himself undermines it earlier in the book when he calls out hillbilly culture for being racist (though he doesn’t explore or analyze this in any substantial way, which is a missed opportunity).

photo of author Nancy Isenberg

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, on the other hand, does an excellent job of situating poor whites in the larger social, economic and political reality of the United States. Isenberg is a scholar, but her writing style is clear and direct (and not devoid of wry humor). She begins her book at the very beginning of white settlement of North America, and traces the history of poor whites back to criminals the British government shipped to the colonies in lieu of executing them, as well as the indentured servants who sold their labor for a chance at a better life.

Then as now, though, that better life was elusive. Most wealthy landowners who relied on indentured servants worked them so hard that many of them died before the end of the contracts. Those who survived often found themselves trapped in poverty with no other options but to sell themselves back into a cruel contract.

In my opinion, Isenberg’s examination of Andrew Jackson’s rise to the presidency from the backwoods of Tennessee does more to explain the hillbilly resentment of the wealthy and people of color than Vance’s book. Isenberg also does a great job of explaining how wealthy southern landowners pitted poor whites against black people in a successful attempt to divert the attention, energy and resentment of poor whites away from them.

After reading Isenberg’s book, I felt I had a much better grasp on the whys, whens and hows that influenced my own working class childhood, whereas after reading Vance’s book I didn’t feel like I’d learned or gained much.

If you’re looking for a memoir that will either reveal a life completely different from your own or show you that your dysfunctional hillbilly family isn’t alone, by all means, check out Hillbilly Elegy–it makes an enjoyable memoir.

But if you’re looking for a more detailed and nuanced account of poor white people in America, though, I’d recommend White Trash.

Have you read either of these books? Which did you enjoy more? Let us know in the comments!


Curious about the history of poor white people in America?

Read White Trash

Kelly reads, writes and sometimes sews, always with a large mug of tea. She is the Managing Editor of Eleventh Stack and Clerical Specialist at CLP – West End, both of which give her plenty of ideas for stories that find homes in obscure literary magazines.

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