a turn of the twentieth century Cleveland steel mill

a turn of the twentieth century Cleveland steel mill

I have a friend here in New York City who during the 2008 presidential campaign took an extended leave from work and went Ohio to work in a local campaign office for one of the two candidates. He stayed with a relative and ventured to the campaign headquarters each day as a volunteer staffer, answering phones, sending emails, and greeting people who came in to the office to lodge any complaint, share any idea, or unburden themselves in any way about what they felt about the state of the nation. It was challenging work, but my friend is a bright, articulate person with a strong sense of emotional intelligence. He needed all of those powers because, though just one of a few volunteers in a campaign office in some rust belt community, to whoever walked through the front door at that moment he very much represented the Full Faith and Power of the National Government. This came back to me over the week as I was reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Published late this past June, Vance’s memoir caught a wave, or struck a nerve, when it hit bookstores just a few weeks before the first presidential primary. It has been a bestseller ever since. Vance is the progeny of Scots-Irish with long roots in Appalachian Kentucky, though he himself was raised in Middletown, Ohio. Vance explains that his family history is not unusual; the migration from Kentucky to Ohio began just after World War One, when hillbillies like his ancestors made the move to work in the steel mills and factories. It is almost a case study in the old song’s great question: “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” At least according to legend Breathitt County, Vance’s family homeland, was the only county in the United States to fill its WW1 draft quota entirely with volunteers. Vance’s family and neighbors did well for themselves in Ohio in the ensuing decades, even if some of the social problems–drinking, family violence, academic underachievement–from back home did not disappear entirely. The downward spiral came in the 1980s and after, with factory closings and the economic and social problems related to that. It’s the usual rust belt story.

Broken homes, Family drug abuse. Violence. All of these and other problems were things Vance had to overcome. Vance clearly loves his family, enough to tell their story in all its drama and complexity. He eventually graduated from high school, served in the Marines, did his undergraduate work at Ohio State, and earned his law degree from Yale. He explains that as he was transitioning to his new life he often felt, and sometimes still feels, like a “cultural emigrant.” The power in Vance’s story is in the showing of how complicated the whole thing is, and that personal and societal problems, at least as he experienced them, are a stubborn mix of nature and nurture. How to parse the two out is the difficult part. Vance has his own thoughts on these issues. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy captures our historical moment in a way that few books or articles have managed to do.

(image/New York Public Library)