I read this book many months ago, probably last fall: post election season. Like everyone else, I was looking for answers. I was trying to get a better understanding of the rural population in flyover states (in this case rural Kentucky and Ohio) and why many of them voted the way they did. So I went into the book looking for specific answers. In that sense, I felt gyped. I left the last page with more questions than answers, more scrunched eyes than clarifications. But then I realized I was reading for such a specific purpose that maybe I wasn’t processing all the information openly. So I sat down and reread it a few weeks later with the attitude that I’d glean what I could from it rather than assuming it would magically clarify the tumultuous thoughts in my head. My second read was better at helping me listen and see, though it was not necessarily better at helping me understand. What I walked away with was a book of contradictions–but in a sense, I think that’s much of what Vance feels about his people and value systems: contradictions.
I found the introduction to be the most compelling part of the book. That’s where he lays out his background the most clearly. Here are a few snippets: “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children” (2). “I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition” (3). “Working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America…We’re more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children” (4). “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates makes it difficult to succeed in a changing world” (5). “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7). “There is a lack of agency here–a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America” (7).
This introduction led me to believe he’d more or less support these assertions/observations and possibly offer solutions that might improve the lives of those in his community. But the rest of the book merely relays a series of stories that seem to ramble on describing his “hillbilly people” and their “hillbilly values” in which they constantly glorify the good, ignore the bad, and refuse to look at the truth. A community in which, according to the author’s own observations, people don’t want to work hard and many are on government assistance, yet they despise people on welfare and see themselves as hardworking people getting screwed by the government. It felt depressingly repetitive without ever offering much insight or depth of analysis. Basically he offers a world of irrational behavior–and it seems like it’s a cycle that’s destined to continue. In that sense, I didn’t feel the “elegy” of the title. Maybe solutions are so complex and so hard to come by that he just didn’t have the energy to offer any. I just wanted a better sense of hope, I guess. The book reminded me of an article from the NYT about an Ohio farmer who’s lost two kids to overdoses: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/opioid-epidemic-rural-farm.html?mcubz=2