Terry Teachout has been reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and reflecting on his own Depression-era ancestors, who came from the same kind of material poverty Vance documents, but who were morally courageous and solid. Excerpt:
What happened to the full-fledged hillbillies my grandparents left behind in Appalachia? Why did their great-grandchildren exchange their unselfconscious faith for self-ravaging hopelessness? I leave it to others to plumb the moral disintegration of America’s rural working class, for I know nothing of it at first hand. The small Missouri town in which I grew up, though far from wealthy, was nothing like Breathitt County, Kentucky. All I know is that Gracie and Albert lived at a time when the behavior chronicled in Hillbilly Elegy was, quite literally, unthinkable. I weep to imagine what they would have thought of it.
Yes, that’s right. My own late grandparents were more or less the same generation as Terry’s Gracie and Albert, and equally humbled by circumstance. But they had dignity and self-discipline and character. The only thing they lacked was money, and opportunity.
How is it that when America had far less in the way of material wealth, and families of the poor — black and white both — had far more pressures on them, they did not succumb to self-degradation as so many of the poor do today? There was never a Golden Age, but when I think about how so few people today, whatever their material lack, knew the poverty that my grandparents’ generation of country people did, yet they still held it together — well, to think about their history is to realize that the idea that social breakdown and dysfunction is entirely a matter of material causation is radically insufficient. It is absolutely part of the picture, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Not even close.
Here’s an earlier Teachout reflection on the character of his grandparents, and of the small Missouri town from which he comes.
By the way, the reason you’ve had trouble accessing this site in the past few days is because the response to my interview with J.D. Vance has been absolutely overwhelming. We’ve been struggling to keep the site up. Vance struck a deep nerve. In the wake of the interview going viral, Hillbilly Elegy has rocketed up the Amazon.com chart, such that Amazon is having trouble now fulfilling orders. If you want the book so badly, go to your local bookseller to buy a copy. They would appreciate your business. Otherwise, Barnes & Noble’s online store has it ready to ship today.