On one of the recent long flights, I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I’m late to this phenomenon, I know. Although it probably doesn’t bear the weight of analysis brought to bear on it in all the many column-inches (or digital equivalents) written about it, I thought it was a well-written insight into the knot of economic and cultural barriers facing many ‘left behind’ families. As the title indicates, it’s about the specifics of the white working class in a now economically depressed part of the US – including the catastrophic drink and drugs epidemic. However, there is here a more universal picture of the interplay between loss of economic opportunities, the poverty, and certain social norms (or if you prefer cultural habits) that matter less in good times and become dysfunctional in bad times. The resulting vicious circle is hard to break into. A few especially driven or lucky individuals – like the author – manage.
The later chapters on Vance’s time at Yale Law School rang especially true for me – the dawning realisation of how little you know about how the world of privilege works. I remember well arriving at Oxford as a 17 year old and being just as utterly baffled about the number of knives and forks set out at dinner. What on earth were you supposed to do with all of those? And as for artichokes??? Every working class kid arriving at an Ivy League School or Oxbridge has in some form a tremendous culture shock experience.
So I thought the book well worth a read. It doesn’t have Big Solutions, but then there aren’t any. It does give readers a window into a certain kind of life most of them will not have experienced directly, and that’s valuable.