[Note: In 2016, J.D. Vance published Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his growing up as a child in a later, Appalachian white, version of the “Great Migration,” a youngster who accompanied his mother and her extended family from a “holler” in Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, in search of work and a future.
Vance’s book appeared just as Donald Trump had begun his ascendancy in the quest for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And, as events unfolded, members of the “commentariat,” well-educated, well-paid, and generally cocksure newspaper columnists, tried to steer their readers in the proper, anti-Trump, direction, but there was a problem: those “in the know” kept missing what was going on, and Trump’s candidacy continued to gain strength, despite the efforts of op-ed writers nationwide to make it go away.
Vance’s book became a hot item, a volume recommended as at least a partial explanation of Trump’s candidacy. And yet, those who specialized in American politics continued, despite Vance’s views, to misunderstand the Trump phenomenon. Yes, lots of writers cited Vance’s work, but once Trump was elected in November 2016, where Hillbilly Elegy fit into the political debate no longer seemed important, at least until the 2018 midterm elections.
Vance himself made the rounds of television interviewers, even gave a TED Talk, obviously enjoying his moment in the sun, regardless of whether people actually understood his book. And then, perhaps inevitably, came a movie version of Hillbilly Elegy (2020), directed by Hollywood notable (and veteran of “The Andy Griffith Show”) Ron Howard, which earned lukewarm reviews, perhaps saved from disaster by the bravura performance of actress Glenn Close as Vance’s grandmother.
Yet, although Vance’s book fell from the lofty heights it had occupied on the New York Times–and other–best-sellers lists after Donald Trump entered the White House, some observers continued to read–and review–Hillbilly Elegy.]
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Reviewing books is an art, not a science, and how one does it depends upon both the genre to which the book belongs and the audience for which it is being reviewed.
This post offers reviews of Vance’s book by two historians who approach the memoir from different perspectives but still try to give readers an idea of both the book and the larger context in which it fits.
First up is Joseph Kitchens, who spent a good part of his career doing “public history” after a stint teaching history in a college classroom. Joe recently retired from the directorship of the Funk Heritage Center at Georgia’s Reinhardt University, a jewel of a museum that emphasizes the impact of the Creeks and the Cherokees on Georgia, and vice versa.
Joe’s approach, in a post at his blog, Longleaf Journal (August 2020), is to review Hillbilly Elegy, but also to enmesh the book in a broader historical context, ranging from colonial Georgia to the election of Donald Trump. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but I think Joe does a fine job with it:
While you’re visiting Joe’s blog, “Longleaf Journal,” I invite you to explore other posts there. Dr. Kitchens is a skillful writer of “Southern stories” with a vivid imagination and a great sense of humor, as a trip through his blog’s archives reveals.
My review of Hillbilly Elegy, originally posted on this blog in August 2017, focuses on the memoir, but also attempts to place the volume in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign:
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[Note: It is important to keep in mind that these reviews of Hillbilly Elegy were published in a blog, not in a historical journal or a newspaper. What that means is that the authors of those notices–and, as it happens, the creators of those blogs–could set whatever length they wished for the reviews.
Normally, a book review in a historical journal is limited to somewhere between 250 and 750 words, and the reviewer must adhere to that standard. In “Retired But Not Shy,” the upper limit I set for each post is around 2000 words. This allows me to examine a subject at greater length, but it also risks boring a reader whose interest in a particular book might not be as strong as that of the proprietor of the blog. In the case of Vance’s book, though, each reviewer believes the volume was important enough to merit extended consideration, even if their emphases differed.]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: