Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Left Behind

The Trouble with Euphemism

Nancy Isenberg

Mother and daughter, Hazard, Kentucky; Roger Tiley/Alamy Stock Photo.

When J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was the toast of the media, journalists and editors repeatedly landed on “left behind” as the most apt description for the kinds of folks Vance grew up around. As a recent Netflix film, the Vance story returned with its message magnified. But as we focus on poverty in America, we must be careful with our metaphors. The euphemism “left behind” is ambiguous, especially if we actually aim to remedy the larger societal problem it intends to expose.11xJ.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016); Ron Howard (director) and Vanessa Taylor (screenwriter), Hillbilly Elegy [feature film] (Beverly Hills, CA: Imagine Entertainment, 2020).

“Left behind” most often evokes sorrow, in pointing to survivors after a loved one’s death. An early use of the term appears in the caption of a Harper’s Magazine illustration shortly after the Civil War showing a grieving widow and her baby beside a casket. In the Vance context, the left behind are those who have been excluded from society’s benefits, from opportunity, who have been ignored, marginalized, abandoned. In the political environment of 2016, when Hillbilly Elegy topped the bestseller lists, the familiar term was ostensibly meant to provide insight into those folks who were attracted to presidential candidate Donald Trump for promising the rebirth of American industry while flinging insults at the elites who lorded over the “swamp” in Washington.22xFor the Civil War image, see “Left Behind,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 12, no. 610 (September 5, 1868), 569–70.

I have a personal investment in understanding all of this. Because my book White Trash and Vance’s were so often paired, I resisted reviewing Hillbilly Elegy until asked to do so, along with two other contemporaneous publications, in the New York Review of Books. The editors, of course, titled the piece “Left Behind.” As I thought further about the topic––class and regional inequality, death and despair among the rural poor––something didn’t quite sit right. At the end of 2016, Vance and I were once more paired, this time in Politico’s annual list of fifty “influential thinkers.” He’d taken on the critical question of the moment, “Does America need to be made ‘great again’?,” and ventriloquized his answer in the voice of Trump’s base: “No, but it needs to recognize that many of its citizens feel left behind.”33xNancy Isenberg, “Left Behind,” New York Review of Books (a review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte, and Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, by Steven Stoll), June 28, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/28/left-behind-hillbilly-elegy-appalachia/. For Vance’s use of the term, see “Our Annual List of Thinkers Transforming Politics,” Politico Magazine 3, no. 5 (September-October 2016), 22. The New York Review of Books used the same title a second time: see Helen Epstein, “Left Behind” (a review of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, and We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America, by Jennifer M. Silva), March 26, 2020, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/03/26/left-behind-life-expectancy-crisis/.

I do not fault Vance for the easy recourse to this euphemism. He did not coin it. By “euphemism” I mean here a form of intellectual evasion, giving a seemingly positive gloss to the process of becoming poor, which sidesteps the active agents of class exploitation. In a strange and disturbing way, “left behind” functions like the old “vanishing Indian” trope, in which causes and struggles are muted or erased. Indians just disappeared. The poor just fell behind. It seems nonjudgmental, but polite evasion gives way to ahistorical explanations of fate, destiny, inevitable decline.44xThe OED defines euphemism as “That figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended.”

The fact is, it’s our ubiquitous media environment that revived “left behind” as a convenient shorthand to promote a story. Vance engaged multiple usages of the term in his memoir, introducing another contradiction for his readers to ponder: What is left behind is actually never forgotten. It’s what Sigmund Freud called the “uncanny” in describing the irrepressible traces, or ghosts, of memories from childhood. Vance confessed, “I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” It’s the cage we carry inside us, and it has become a familiar trope of modern autobiography.55xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 2.

Looking for a way to explain the Trump phenomenon, especially his white “working-class” supporters, the media were less focused on childhood trauma than on the seemingly less sensational and more sociological: the images Vance presented of family dysfunction rooted in industrial and cultural decay. As Vance wrote about his Appalachian roots and the crisis that rocked the inhabitants of his “Rust Belt” hometown of Middletown, Ohio, he echoed William Julius Wilson on black poverty in The Truly Disadvantaged (1987): “When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large population with high-quality work. Those who could––generally the well-educated, wealthy, or well-connected––moved on, leaving behind communities of poor people.” Instead of white flight, Vance had rediscovered white plight for liberal readers, and for conservatives he offered ample evidence of white blight. It is, I would argue, this double vision that made his memoir so popular. His emotional story spoke to both sides of the partisan divide.66xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 144. Joshua Rothman highlighted the William Julius Wilson quote in his review, see “The Lives of Poor White People,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-lives-of-poor-white-people. For a conservative review, see Geoffrey Norman, “Hillbilly Elegy’s Unsparing Look at Those Left Behind,” Washington Examiner, September 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/hillbilly-elegys-unsparing-look-at-those-left-behind.

So, who are the “left behind”? Are they the hapless poor in dying cities, towns, and rural counties? Those fallen prey to economic and cultural forces beyond their control? Is “left behind” a place, or a state of mind? Let’s hope that those left behind are not, as conservative commentator Kevin D. Williamson harangued in National Review, wretches engaged in “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog,” welfare wastrels who should simply pack up their cars, hit the road, and find work elsewhere. Until 2016, they were, as the media repeatedly declared, in shocking language, nameless and faceless and pretty much ignored.77xKevin D. Williamson, “The Father-Führer,” National Review, March 28, 2016, https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2016/03/28/father-f-hrer/. The left behind theme persists, as one reviewer of the 2020 Netflix film of Hillbilly Elegy concluded, crediting Vance for offering compelling “pronouncements of how an entire generation of Americans were left behind.” See David Sims, “Hillbilly Elegy Is One of the Worst Movies of the Year,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/11/hillbilly-elegy/617189/. For other examples of the pervasiveness of this term, see Guy Standing, “The Precariat Are Not the Left Behind,” World Economic Forum, January 21, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/who-exactly-are-the-left-behind-2018/; Clara Hendrickson, Mark Muro, and William A. Galston, Strategies for Left-Behind Places: Countering the Geography of Discontent, Brookings Institution, November 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018.11_Report_Countering-geography-of-discontent_Hendrickson-Muro-Galston.pdf; and Laura Silver, Shannon Schumacher, and Maria Mordecai, “In the U.S. and UK, Globalization Leaves Some Feeling ‘Left Behind’ or “Swept Up,’” Pew Research Center, October 5, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/2020/10/05/in-u-s-and-uk-globalization-leaves-some-feeling-left-behind-or-swept-up/.

What I call the “Vance effect” is still with us. The 2020 Netflix production of Hillbilly Elegy was directed by Ron Howard, who started his show-business career in the 1960s playing Opie, the young son of the title character in The Andy Griffith Show, a popular television series set in a small town in North Carolina. New memoirs with resonant themes have been published: Chris Arnade’s Dignity, Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, Cassie Chambers’s Hill Women, and Eliese Goldbach’s Rust. Vance also triggered a backlash, with such publications as Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to “Hillbilly Elegy,” a multicontributor volume providing more diverse voices and rich insights. Academics, too, are riding the wave—see, for example, sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America.88xOn the new spate of memoirs, see Gracey Olmstead, “Ron Howard’s Disappointing Hillbilly Elegy,” First Things, December 1, 2020; and Bill Schwab, “Review: Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit,” emissourian.com, April 29, 2020; on the backlash argument, see Dwight Garner, “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Had Strong Opinions about Appalachians. Now, Appalachians Return the Favor,” New York Times, February 25, 2019; and Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

But will the “left behind” ever be more than a stereotype or statistic? We may be at a crucial juncture in the effort to break the cycle in which rural poverty is suddenly seen as a national disgrace and then just as suddenly forgotten and ignored. Scholars such as Cynthia M. Duncan, Max Fraser, and Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shed light on the complex conditions responsible for perpetuating unemployment and inequality. The danger, now that Trump is out of office, is that the mainstream media will revert to its default position of downplaying rural disparities and class divisions.

In rural America, where poverty is greatest, many of the hardest-hit areas have endured the same pinched economy for more than fifty years. Right now, two thirds of these poor are white Americans who rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program subsidies and Medicaid. Rural America is in the midst of a devastating health-care crisis, which the pandemic has only made worse. The problem is exacerbated by private equity companies that are buying up vulnerable rural hospitals as distressed assets, reaping profits from bankruptcy and hospital closures.99xSee Cynthia M. Duncan, “Persistant Poverty in Appalachia: Scarce Work and Rigid Stratification,” in Rural Poverty in America, ed. Cynthia M. Duncan (New York, NY: Auburn House, 1992): 111–133; Cynthia M. Duncan, Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock, Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong about Poverty (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, March 2021), 22, 33–34. Rather than blame high mortality rates on poverty alone, Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that it is inequality that makes society unhealthy; see Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 139; see also Max Fraser, “The Disease Map of Rural America,” Dissent, Summer 2020, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-disease-map-of-rural-america; and Max Fraser, “Public Health, Private Equity, and the Pandemic,” New Labor Forum, September 2020, https://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2020/09/04/public-health-private-equity-and-the-pandemic/.

None of this is new. Class inequality has been a constant throughout American history. A lack of social mobility has always been more pronounced in rural areas. We can best appreciate the “Appalachian condition” by recalling the last time a major federal effort was made to address rural poverty: the 1960s. The “Vance effect” may have brought attention to family dysfunction, but if it was J.D. Vance’s intention to expose the enduring structural inequalities of our economy, his memoir falls woefully short. Moreover, its success in reviving the slippery “left behind” euphemism suggests that older ways of stigmatizing the poor will linger on.

Recovering Caudill

The administration of President George W. Bush chose the slogan “No Child Left Behind” for the 2003 policy aimed at remedying poor educational performance among low-income students. In 2007, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm instituted “No Worker Left Behind,” offering job training to move displaced workers into “knowledge-based industries.” In the first instance, “left behind” resonated as a substitute for “left back a grade.” In the second instance, the use of the euphemism suggested that America as a whole lagged well behind European countries in job transitioning assistance. “Left behind” here served as a catchall for anyone who was unemployed or unprepared to compete in the modern economy.1010xSee Katharine B. Stevens, Still Left Behind: How America’s Schools Keep Failing Our Children, American Enterprise Institute, September 21, 2020, https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/still-left-behind/; “Fact Sheet: No Worker Left Behind,” Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth, May 2010, https://www.michigan.gov/documents/nwlb/NWLB_Fact_Sheet_Final_203216_7.pdf.

More historically relevant to the euphemism’s deployment is the 1967 report by President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty, titled The People Left Behind. Maximum employment was the thrust of this document. The author stated that fourteen million impoverished people had been left “largely oblivious” to the life of the nation. Those worst off were a “residual population” in rural areas comprising the elderly, the disabled, and children left behind after men and more mobile families migrated to northern cities. Even before this mass northward exodus, southern laborers had faced obstacles in organizing unions or securing even basic assistance from local governments that proudly claimed to “operate as they have for 100 years.” Willing to work, even willing to migrate, many in the rural South were wary of big metropolitan areas, preferring smaller cities and towns where there was “less to overcome, less to unlearn, less to apologize for not knowing.”1111xEdward T. Breathitt, The People Left Behind: A Report by the President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty (Washington, DC, 1967), ix, 6–7, 11, 13, 17, 19; see also James Ziliak, Restoring Economic Opportunity for “The People Left Behind”: Employment Strategies for Rural America, Aspen Institute: Economic Strategy Group, February 4, 2019, 101–26, esp. 120, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/longform/expanding-economic-opportunity-for-more-americans/restoring-economic-opportunity-for-the-people-left-behind-employment-strategies-for-rural-america/.

Rural poverty became a national issue with the mass exodus that ensued. Two divided worlds were now suddenly linked. Vance’s grandparents were part of this wave of migrants along the “Hillbilly Highway.” Appalachia occupied a central place in the War on Poverty, a key element of President Johnson’s Great Society initiative. Johnson made a tour of the region, building on Eleanor Roosevelt’s reform efforts in West Virginia. The rural poor had been left out of many New Deal programs, including Social Security, which until the 1950s did not cover farm workers. In the 1960s, the “poverty ditch” became the operative image, as the left behind dug themselves a living grave they couldn’t escape on their own.

The War on Poverty existed outside of traditional politics, as a close adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson concluded, for the “poor had no lobby.” They did have a hard-nosed champion in Michael Harrington, author of The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962). They also had Homer Bigart of the New York Times, and Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1963). Edward R. Murrow’s television documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) brought the hardships of migrant workers to suburban living rooms.1212xNancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), 262–63; Bruce Weber and Kathleen Miller, “Poverty in Rural America Then and Now,” in Rural Poverty in the United States, eds. Ann R. Tickamyer, Jennifer Sherman, and Jennifer Warlick (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2017), 38-39; Breathitt, The People Left Behind, ix; Thomas Kiffmeyer, “‘We Are Ordered to Do Everything’: The National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty, Social Thought, and the War on Poverty,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 107, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 339–69, esp. 340–43, 368; Ian C. Hartman, “West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Frontiersman: Race, Manliness, and the Rhetoric of Liberalism in the Early 1960s,” Journal of Southern History 80, no. 3 (August 2014): 651–78, esp. 655.

We need to recover Caudill—heeding both what he got right and what he got wrong. He was the most influential and, at times, angry advocate for the hillbilly. A World War II veteran who returned to his Kentucky home and served in the state legislature, Caudill, a lawyer, had a wry, contentious manner of speaking and writing. We get a taste of his pungent style in a 1963 Times article that quoted him about the tens of thousands unemployed in eastern Kentucky: “This is what happens to a great industrial population when you abandon it, give it just enough food to keep it alive and tell it to go to hell.”1313xFor Caudill quote, see Homer Bigart, “Kentucky Miners: A Grim Winter,” New York Times, October 20, 1963, https://www.nytimes.com/1963/10/20/archives/kentucky-miners-a-grim-winter-poverty-squalor-and-idleness-prevail.html; on Caudill’s background and influence, see Hartman, “West Virginia Mountaineers,” 669, and John Cheeves and Bill Estep, “The Making of Angry Book About Exploited Appalachia,” Lexington Herald-Leader, December 17, 2012. https://www.kentucky.com/news/special-reports/fifty-years-of-night/article44393280.html; for the best summary of the criticism of Caudill’s analysis, see Bruce E. Tucker, “Rethinking Harry Caudill: An Angry Voice Muted,” in a Roundtable: Persistent Misconceptions: Rehabilitating Jack Weller, Reevaluating Harry Caudill,” Appalachian Journal, Vol. 44, no.1/2 (Fall 2016/Winter 2017): 111–117.

Caudill helped shape both the national narrative and federal strategies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations by addressing holistically the violation of the land, debilitating unemployment, and the corrosion of family bonds. Devastation was wrought by the coal industry in shutting down underground mines and shifting to strip mining. Caudill painted a vivid picture of the scarred mountains, resembling a carpet-bombed and uninhabitable war zone. Beyond lay the tarpaper shacks and homes ruined by mudslides, creeks filled with runoff and garbage, a lack of the basic facilities that contribute balance to a community: libraries, schools, indoor plumbing, paved roads. “The greed and cunning of the coal magnates,” he wrote, “left behind an agglomeration of misery.” Children were sickly, shoeless, and poorly fed; schools were rickety, leaky, and dilapidated; “squalor, ignorance, and ill-health” were widespread. The inhabitants of coal country were outcasts of a mining colony, certainly not full citizens. This abuse would “not be tolerated in a civilized country,” Caudill insisted.1414xHarry M. Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 1963), xi, xiii, 271, 325–26, 333, 339, 342–45; also see Caudill quoted in Bogart, “Kentucky Miners”; and for Caudill’s powerful testimony before Congress in 1968, on how strip mining earned tremendous profits while leaving the eastern Kentucky counties as the poorest in the nation, see Edward R. Schmitt, “The Appalachian Thread in the Antipoverty Politics of Robert F. Kennedy,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 107, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 389.

Vance’s grandparents grew up in coal country, part of the Cumberland Plateau, but none of that imagery appears in his memoir.

Caudill bemoaned the human erosion, the loss of self-respect and self-reliance, the “fierce independence” of the vaunted American frontiersman. A “listless, hopeless” pall had replaced male ambition. Hardworking men who once had jobs were learning to lie, cheat, and sometimes abandon their families in order to get their wives on the dole. Towns became “Widowvilles,” with women on meager subsidies fending for large broods of children. Many in the new male army of the unemployed became “symptom-hunters,” scheming to plead disability. Caudill compared them to soldiers trying to avoid combat. The proud descendants of Daniel Boone wallowed in self-pity and rationalized their dependence as “welfare malingerers.”1515xCaudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 12, 280, 287, 325, 333, 346, 374; also see Bigart, “Kentucky Miners.”

Men required strenuous and productive labor. They needed to regain respect by feeding their families by the strength of their own hands. Caudill issued a powerful caution: Modern America should not “leave huge islands of its own population behind, stranded and ignored,” because “idleness and waste” defeated “progress and growth.” The decimation of the Cumberland Plateau and Southern Appalachia was “an anchor dragging behind the rest of America.” The old frontier thesis of outmigration was not the solution anymore. It was the problem.1616xCaudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, xii–xiii, 326, 374; Hartman, “West Virginia Mountaineers and Kentucky Frontiersman,” 672–73.

Caudill’s poverty theory was more robust than Vance’s diagnosis. In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s aim is not to analyze structural conditions in the Kentucky coal mining industry, nor to scrutinize the politics of deregulation, globalism, deindustrialization, and the weakening of unions that contributed to the sorry conditions his family faced in Middletown. Caudill’s meaning of “left behind” had three layers to it: coal companies leaving behind workers; state and local governments, riddled with corruption, failing the poor; and finally, evolutionary decline, the extinction of the admirable frontier character of free-spirited men. Vance calls this a “crisis in masculinity.” More recently, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have arrived at similar conclusions about the connection between loss of work and loss of dignity among working-class men.1717xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 4; Case and Deaton, Deaths of Despair, 6–8; Caudill emphasized the “bitterness” of unemployed men over being left out of the country’s progress, feeling “useless.” See Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 285.

Although generations apart, both Caudill and Vance conjured a mythic past that Appalachian people had left behind. Salvation was to come from looking backward, from, in Caudill’s view, reimaging the muscular, patriotic Kentucky frontiersman, or, in Vance’s view, the proud, protective, rough-hewn Scots-Irish personality.1818xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 3; Caudill descrbed the Kentucky frontiersman as “mainly English with a rich dash of highland Scotch and enough Irish to give it flavor.” See Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 106.

What Men Need to Know

Running through both Night Comes to the Cumberlands and Hillbilly Elegy are the twin pathologies of dependency and dysfunction. The ruses Caudill’s men used to get on the dole are repackaged as alcohol and drug addiction in Hillbilly Elegy. Young Vance donates a urine sample so his mother can pass a drug test and keep her job; he lies in court to protect her from going to jail and losing custody. Deception and self-deception are his themes. Vance is most like Caudill when he chastises the white working class for “learned helplessness,” that culture of excuse making, of working less while boasting of working harder.1919xCaudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 280; Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 7, 57, 78, 130–31, 144, 163.

Vance’s story is ultimately about reclaiming manhood. His grandmother is the matriarch of the family, but no Mrs. Santa Claus. She has a cigarette dangling from her lip; she’s “pistol-packing,” cursing, dressing like a man. After promising to kill her husband if he came home drunk again, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire, eventually banishing him from the home. Vance’s abusive, suicidal, drug-addicted mother is the most damaged family member. As a boy he witnessed a revolving door of boyfriends and stepfathers; meanwhile, his biological father’s drug of choice was evangelical extremism. On a visit to his father, Vance read a popular fundamentalist fiction series on the Rapture, sorting saved from sinner, titled, appropriately, Left Behind.2020xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 15, 32, 43–44, 46, 74–75, 89, 98, 136–37; Vance discussed the Left Behind novels in his interview with Terry Gross; see “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Recalls a Childhood Where Poverty Was a ‘Family Tradition,’” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, August 17, 2016, https://www.npr.org/2016/08/17/490328484/hillbilly-elegy-recalls-a-childhood-where-poverty-was-the-family-tradition.

Self-reliance comes to Vance after he joins the army. He subsequently acquires discipline, a fitter body, and a strong work ethic that propels him through college and law school. His grandmother looms as an enigmatic symbol of hillbilly values and gender confusion. (Caudill, too, tagged his people as an “enigma,” with their mix of fierceness, fecundity, and folly.) Mamaw, the “tomboy” who shot a man at the age of twelve and was pregnant at thirteen, is his drill sergeant in drag, telling him, “Never be like those fuckin’ losers who think the deck is stacked against them.” Yet he needs those men from her side of the family, the Blantons. His uncles were the “living embodiment of the hills of Kentucky”—his version of Caudill’s proud mountaineer stock. “I never had a dad,” Vance recollects saying at the age of thirteen, when his grandfather died. “Papaw was always there for me, and taught me the things that men need to know.”2121xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 17, 27, 32, 36, 109, 163. Joining the military is a fairly common choice for young men and women seeking to acquire skills, obtain a college education, and escape impoverished areas. See Jessica D. Ulrich-Schad and Cynthia M. Duncan, “People and Places Left Behind: Work, Culture, and Politics in Rural United States,” Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 1 (January 10, 2018): 67.

Vance’s mother’s generation appears as the worthless neighbors who represent his version of Caudill’s “welfare malingerers.” One woman is obese, another a “naked druggie” passing out on painkillers as the bathtub overflowed. Another cares only about “breeding,” and yet another woman watches soap operas all day, ignoring her toddler. Vance bemoans their self-inflicted sins: “chaotic” homes, reckless spending, drugs, and violence, but most of all the lies, the “cognitive dissonance,” in blaming others for their failures.2222xVance, Hillbilly Elegy, 145–47.

He closes his rebuke of welfare dependency with lines that could have been lifted from Caudill: “My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”2323xIbid., 148. Here is Caudill: “The skills of their forebears have been lost.… They may laugh at the ignorance of their ancestors, but in a very real sense they are vastly more ignorant…the old, rough self-reliance bequeathed by the frontier yielded to an idle and vapid materialism.”2424xHarry M. Caudill, The Mountain, the Miner and the Lord and Other Tales from a Country Law Office (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1980), ix–x, as cited in Bruce Tucker, “Harry Caudill and the Problem of the Past,” Journal of Appalachian Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 114–46, esp. 117.

Vance protectively shrouds his grandparents in the frontier myth while blaming his mother’s generation for their declension and self-pitying poverty. In Vance’s elegy, the practice of separating the worthy from the unworthy poor is alive and well.2525x Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 147.

Although Caudill is less known now, his influence was pronounced in his day, and scholars admit that his interpretation continues to shape how Appalachia is understood in our century. As he aged, Caudill embraced a sinister kind of eugenics that reduced poverty and excessive breeding to a genetic dysfunction. This breeding theme surfaces in almost all discussions in which poverty is treated as a bad seed that sprouts every generation. We forget that more than 7.3 million white southerners had migrated north by 1970. They were mocked and vilified for their “hillbilly ghettoes,” pigsty dwellings, and “retarded” children. Vance mentions that his grandparents were “isolated” in a middle-class home and felt excluded from the educated middle-class community. This is not probed. For him, “hillbilly” is a personality type, an inherited set of behaviors, rather than an economically conditioned class identity.2626xTucker, “Harry Caudill and the Problem of the Past,” 124; Max Fraser, “The Hillbilly Highway: A Social History of Transappalachia, 1918–1972,” PhD diss. (Yale University, 2017), 155, 175, 179, 197–98; James Gregory, “The Southern Diaspora and the Urban Dispossessed: Demonstrating the Census Public Use of Microdata Samples,” Journal of American History (June 1995): 111–134, esp. 112. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 29.

The Secret Ingredient

Vance’s impressionistic descriptions of family and community reinforce well-established hillbilly stereotypes popularized by Caudill and others. But what makes his memoir far more than a diatribe by an elite snob is the soothing balm of nostalgia it evokes. An affection for his grandparents, hard-working types distinct from his mother’s generation, makes his story, as one reviewer noted, about “tough love.”2727xJennifer Senior, “Review: In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump,” New York Times, August 10, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html. On the problems and persistence of the hillbilly type, see Anthony Harkins, A Cultural History of an American Icon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Nostalgia is a powerful force. Caudill revived the frontier patriot, who ventured into forests and walked hundreds of miles to enlist in the army. Theodore Roosevelt painted a similarly heroic portrait in Winning the West (1889–96), in which fearless Anglo-Saxon cowboys and ranchers conquered the land and the Native Americans. In the 1950s, Fess Parker was the humble but valiant Disney version of Davy Crockett and later the star of the television series Daniel Boone. Wild, violent men can tame the wilderness, serve in the military, risk their lives in coal mines. They do not “fit” in urban or domestic spaces. Readers have always been fascinated by James Fenimore Cooper’s wilderness hero “Leatherstocking,” and the larger-than-life Crockett and Boone. These characters are heroic, yet at times comic, and even disarming.

A reviewer noted that Vance’s grandmother is his “secret ingredient.” Another reviewer agreed, describing Mamaw as “imperfect, funny, reliable—and most of all loveable.” She is Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, or “straight-tongue,” garrulous and lower-class, who says whatever she is thinking and teaches Vance to separate himself from the losers around him. Some deserve to be left behind. She lambasts one of his mother’s husbands as a toothless hillbilly, a “fucking retard.” She blames the government for bringing welfare “deadbeats” into her neighborhood. She trashes the white trash, ensuring that the harshest lessons in Vance’s memoir come from a hillbilly, not a Yalie.2828xCaudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 39; on Theordore Roosevelt’s western myth of manliness, and Fess Parker’s Crocket and Boone, see Isenberg, White Trash, 190–91, 235; David Leverenz, “The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman,” American Literary History 3, no. 4 (Winter, 1991): 753–81, esp. 757–58; on Mamaw as Vance’s “special ingredient,” see Phil Christman, “Fanfares for the Common Man,” The Hedgehog Review 19, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 116–118; Florence Dore, J.D. Connor, and Dan Sinkin, “Rebel Yale: Reading and Feeling ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, January 10, 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/rebel-yale-reading-feeling-hillbilly-elegy/; Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 62–141.

“Left behind” has always been a metaphor for the residue of the migration process. In 1902, University of Wisconsin sociologist Edward Ross distinguished the weak, mentally inferior types who stayed behind in their rural backwaters from the smarter, more ambitious among them who moved to the city.2929xIsenberg, White Trash, 401, note 54. The metaphor also stands for dependence, war widows, or families without a male breadwinner. The “social ladder” effectively ensures that a majority will be left behind; only a precious few will make their way to an Ivy League school, join a high-powered law firm, and find acceptance among a ruling elite whose power generally derives from a privileged inheritance. Vance firmly believes in the American Dream; his life proves it can work. But we shouldn’t be surprised that those who remain trapped in the poverty ditch are suspicious of the meritocracy myth.

In “Hillbilly Elitism,” a review of Vance’s book in Jacobin, Bob Hutton wants us to be aware of who is missing from Vance’s story: the powerful families that dominated local industries and politics in Kentucky, and who manipulated New Deal and Great Society programs for corrupt purposes. Vance erases the history contained in Caudill’s writing and the work of numerous scholars. There are no elites in Vance’s book until he goes to college and has to deal with a “dipshit” with a silly beard who mocks the military. For Hutton, Vance’s real intention isn’t to mourn the hillbilly’s loss of grit but to retrain him to be a more compliant, dutiful, church-going worker.3030xBob Hutton, “Hillbilly Elitism,” Jacobin, October 10, 2016, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/hillbilly-elegy-review-jd-vance-national-review-white-working-class-appalachia/. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy, 186–87.

Hillbillies are always more appealing in memory’s sentimental haze—in fiction, television sitcoms, and country music—than as troublemaking neighbors. Taming the image, even with Vance’s “tough love” message, keeps the myth of the American Dream intact. Euphemistic terms such as “left behind” merely soften the caricature so as to make the middle-class reader comfortable. As Sarah Jones wrote in The New Republic, when you watch the “spectacle of white trash Appalachia,” you can see the poor as alien, a breed apart. This distancing act, as legal scholar Lisa Pruitt has argued, shields white educated elites from having to confront their own class privilege.3131xSarah Jones, “J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of the Blue America,” The New Republic, November 17, 2016, https://newrepublic.com/article/138717/jd-vance-false-prophet-blue-america; Lisa Pruitt, “What Hillbilly Elegy Reveals about Race in 21st Century America,” in Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to “Hillbilly Elegy,” ed. Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2020):105–133, esp. 123–25.

Vance’s story is personal, and his feelings are genuine. But he avoids the actual dynamics of class inequality. We don’t need safe words when we look at poverty and suffering. We need what James Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941): the ruthless honesty of the camera, “the cruel radiance of what is.”3232xJames Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), 9; also see, Isenberg, White Trash, 227–28. We need truth and compassion, not moral condemnation of the poor disguised as folksy frontier logic or “tough love.”