I recently read both White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. These two books address the same topic – the white lower class in America – yet have several notable differences. Here is my quick review:
- The topic may be the same but the method and genre are quite different. Isenberg covers 400+ years of history while Vance tells the story of his own life. This difference in genre matters: Isenberg has a lot to cover and has difficulty providing details at points. The early history of poor white settlers is particularly interesting as convicts and lower-class residents of England were sent to the colonies. At the same time, there is little depth for the most recent decades and the narrative tends to solely follow presidential politics. On the other hand, Vance is writing a memoir. While he hints at broader trends, occasionally speaks for all hillbillies, and cites some academic studies, he primarily focuses on his own journey in a geographic area including southeastern Ohio, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky. Together, these two books provide an outsider and insider perspective.
- Their political approaches differ. Isenberg provides some of this in the introduction as well as in the most recent history as she does not think the Republican party has much to offer working-class whites. In contrast, Vance does not think government is the answer to improving the lives of hillbillies and consistently affirms their agency and need to make good choices. Vance’s book is blurbed by prominent conservatives and he leans toward Republican or libertarian approaches. It would be interesting to consider the alternative approaches: an academic history that promotes a conservative approach and a memoir that pushes a liberal perspective.
- What they attribute the causes of the poor white or hillbilly life varies and hints at the complexity of this issue. Isenberg shows that the need for cheap labor has always been at the root of American social and economic life. Poor whites have been treated poorly from the beginning of the country. In particular, Isenberg highlights the interaction between poor white labor and slavery which foments resentment between blacks and poor whites even though both were exploited for centuries. On the flip side, Vance focuses more on the passing down of values within families and communities. In other words, hillbillies become hillbillies because this is the life they know and experience from their families and neighbors. Breaking this cycle is very difficult, even for someone who spends four years in the Marines and graduates from Yale Law School.
Even with (or even because of) these differences, I would recommend reading these two books together. There are clearly patterns in American history regarding poor whites (Isenberg) even as individual stories can differ with the influence of notable family members and contexts (Vance). While we do not have to go so far as Vance does in suggesting these problems cannot be solved, these two approaches do display the complexity of the situation. Those looking for a quick political fix in terms of helping Democrats appeal to poor whites again or looking for people to find family values and pull themselves up by their bootstraps will likely to be disappointed. This is a long-standing issue rooted in centuries of oppression and it still brings about much personal pain.