“Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance speaks at XU

Newswire photo by Ryan Kambich | Author J.D. Vance spoke about the themes in his memoir regarding the working class and the American Dream. Vance discussed poverty, self-efficacy and opportunity and how they relate to political discourse in America.


The Stephen S. Smith Center for the Study of Capitalism and Society hosted a luncheon which featured keynote speaker J.D. Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer and author of the widely heralded Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Sept. 29 in the Duff Banquet Hall. The book describes Vance’s upbringing, family life and tumultuous formative experiences in Middletown, Ohio, as part of Appalachia’s hillbilly culture.

Published in June 2016, the book received nationwide notoriety during last year’s presidential election.

Many took it as a way of understanding the White working class voters who were a crucial part of President Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The Economist called it “possibly the most important recent book about America.”

Within the memoir, Vance illustrates a culture in crisis: An Appalachian demographic alienated from economic opportunity and largely unable to climb the ladder of upward mobility, effectively sealing itself off from living out the supposed promise of the American Dream.

Vance spoke on those themes in a private gathering prior to the address.

“I think these questions of what is the American Dream and what’s driving it (have) been and will continue to be a big part of the political conversation for the next 30 years,” Vance said.

When asked about the root causes he sees behind the decline of the American Dream, Vance said, “I think what’s really driving it is concentration of poverty, a decline, broadly speaking, of social capital and the rising tide of family instability and family trauma (in Appalachia). I feel as though it’s something we’re not super comfortable talking about as a society.”

Vance later explained his motivations for writing Hillbilly Elegy which included his realization of the frailty of the modern American Dream in a fundamentally aspirational country and that many in Appalachia are unable to achieve economic mobility due to social and structural barriers. For him, the book functioned as a cultural memoir through which he hoped to explore this failure of mobility in a very concrete and personal narrative.

“When I started at Yale, I didn’t understand the hidden social networks…I realized that I was a bit of an outsider,” Vance said. “Why is it that kids coming from where I come from aren’t doing so well? Why are so many of us trapped at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder?”

The political left and right in the United States seem divided on the question. Those on the right argue that individual failings and the personal choices of those who have fallen into deep poverty are to blame, while those on the left point to structural barriers which extinguish self-efficacy and erase an individual’s chances to succeed, regardless of effort.

Vance believes there is some truth to both perspectives, that individual failings inherent in hillbilly culture have hurt Appalachia’s ability to get ahead, but structural failures such as the death of American manufacturing have also made opportunities scarce.

Regardless, one conclusion resounds throughout Vance’s work: Hopelessness is abundant in Appalachia.

Vance has not gone without criticism. Many have argued that no single narrative can fully explain the psychology of White rural America. Critiques have come from Xavier students as well.

“My main criticism of Vance before the talk was that he left the place that he had written about and gotten rich off of, and I felt that was somewhat manipulative or predatory,” Matt Miller, a junior PPP major and critic of Vance, said.

However, Miller was somewhat placated by Vance’s presentation.

“After seeing him speak in person it’s clear that he does very much care about that place,” he said. “Meeting him in person fleshed out his thoughts in a way that made me more sympathetic to his line of thinking. As someone who hails from rural America, it’s encouraging to see that the academic world is paying more attention to that sector of America.”

Dr. Steven Frankel of the philosophy department was also encouraged by hearing Vance speak.

“I was very pleased with the fact that the presentation was so balanced and nuanced and took into account the best arguments of the right and the left,” Frankel said. “That’s the kind of thing that will encourage more civil discourse and real conversation which is what we need in this country.”


By: Ryan Kambich ~Copy Editor~