We used to send missionaries to the unfortunate; now we send a pundit, a historian, and a sociologist.
Those who write about the rural, white, poor South often alternate between disgust and empathy. I have a letter from my maternal grandmother, Dorothy Abnett Pugh, a missionary who left Pennsylvania during the Depression to save the benighted souls of Breathitt County, Kentucky. In it, she details a senseless killing fueled by moonshine, her tone wavering between amused contempt and real sorrow. Nothing else in it is as good as the opening lines—“I want to start with a tragedy. It is first we have had for a couple months”—two sentences that masterfully combine classical economy with understated irony (“for a couple months”) and a tang of the vernacular (“It is first”). Gordon Lish couldn’t do better.
We used to send missionaries to the unfortunate; now we send a pundit, a historian, and a sociologist. Three recent books—J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land—have been pressed carelessly into service as rise-of-Trump explainers despite varying widely in discipline, approach, and subject.
I opened Vance’s memoir expecting the typical new-pundit-in-town biographical self-advertisement: some self-serving anecdotes, a smattering of suspiciously crisp dialogue, and a facile policy solution or two. But Hillbilly Elegy has a secret weapon, and it’s Vance’s grandmother—a remarkable woman who manages several generations’ worth of other people’s emergencies with her sense of humor and her faith intact. At one point, the child Vance is with her when she makes the wrong turn onto an exit ramp. As cars swerve and the boy screams, she says, “We’re fine, goddamnit. Don’t you know Jesus rides in the car with me?”