More than three years after its publication in 2016, Hillbilly Elegy and its author J.D. Vance continue to be lightning rods. A recent Washington Post opinion piece caused an uproar by insinuating that Vance lamented the declining white birth rate in a recent speech. Meanwhile, Ron Howard signed a $45 million deal with Netflix to create a film version of the book starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams.
While the book has received its share of positive reviews, critiques of Vance and his memoir abound, taking different forms and tones. Many of those critiques are reacting to claims about the book’s explanatory power, especially the idea that it provides insight into Donald Trump’s election. Indeed, the New York Times named it to a list “of six books to help understand Trump’s win.” Critics have not only rebutted the arguments Vance makes about white, working-class people and his claims of authority derived from having grown up as a member of its ranks. They have also pushed back on how the book gets taken up, as in John Russo and Sherry Linkon’s charge that “critics who think it explains Trump are misreading both the white working class and Trump’s support.”
As thoughtful and insightful as many of these rebuttals are, they lack the punch of memoir that helps make Hillbilly Elegy so powerful. I am convinced that part of what has driven the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy is that it offers middle-class readers a window into the experiences of a white Appalachian working-class family and community, in the form of first-person stories. It also doesn’t hurt that these stories of working-class life are packaged within a bootstraps narrative about upward class mobility that follows the outlines of a Horatio Alger story. I don’t agree with Vance’s politics, but I can see why people are drawn to reading about his growing-up years. As Jack Metzgar noted, Vance deserves praise for “telling nuanced stories about the complicated people who inhabit his life and memory,” and presenting “unsparing but affectionate portraits of his family members.”
Narrative is a great vehicle through which to engage readers, and it can raise awareness about class inequality and the lives and experiences of working-class and poverty-class people. That’s why I’ve been recommending Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country in the World, to everyone I know. While Heartland has sold fewer copies than Hillbilly Elegy, it has received significant critical acclaim. It was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize. Originally published in September 2018 and just out in paperback, Heartland tells the story of Smarsh’s growing-up and young adult years. Like Vance, Smarsh roots her memoir in place and family; the particulars of her life story are inextricable from the fact that she is a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side.
Smarsh is, to use Al Lubrano’s term, a class straddler, and she uses that liminal position to try to bridge the vast geographical and class divides in the U.S. Writing in Heartland of her college years at the University of Kansas, Smarsh notes that “The distance between my world and my country’s understanding of it had been growing because so few people from my place ever ended up on a college campus and beyond to tell its stories. It was a distance I wanted to make smaller” (263). Making that distance smaller has arguably been the central focus of Smarsh’s career as a journalist; she has been writing about class inequality and working-class politics, people, and culture for over decade, and just this month launched a new podcast, The Homecomers with Sarah Smarsh. The podcast features “intimate conversations on class, race, policy, labor, wellness and the earth” with six people who came back home to their rural communities and are now “fighting for areas where the common narrative of American success would have them ‘get out.’”
While Smarsh, like Vance, tells a story of upward class mobility, her memoir differs because she focuses on questioning the common narrative of American success. Rather than embracing bootstraps ideology and lauding the American Dream, she forcefully rejects both, writing “How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so?” Smarsh acknowledges that she came to this view later in her life. She was “raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps with which she ought to pull herself up. But it’s the way of things that environment changes outcome.” She also calls the question, “How did you get out?” “deeply flawed.” As she explains, “You don’t really climb up or down, get in or out. Mine isn’t a story about a destination that was reached but rather about sacrifices I don’t believe anyone, certainly no child, should ever have to make.”
She also shows that while achieving middle-class status brings gains, there was also a “loss in success.” In moving out of the working class and into the middle class, she writes, “I’d left where I was from and who I once was in irreversible ways, no matter where I chose to live or how I did it.” Alongside that sadness, however, she retains a fierce pride and determination to claim her place in the lineage of strong, working-class women in her family, even as she is grateful to have the expanded life chances and choices that are a result of moving into the middle class via education.
And finally, Smarsh’s aim of bridging geographical and class divides leads her to poke gently at liberal Democrats, particularly those who pin blame for Trump’s win on rural, white working-class people, fueled by classist stereotypes. She writes,
People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy,’ and for us there was no more hurtful word. Within that framework, financially comfortable liberals may rest assured that their fortunes result from personal merit while generously insisting they be taxed to help the ‘needy.’ Impoverished people, then, must do one of two things: concede personal failure and vote for the party more inclined to assist them, or vote for the other party, whose rhetoric conveys hope that the labor of their lives is what will compensate them. It’s a hell of a choice. . . .
I have deliberately chosen quotes from Heartland that foreground Smarsh’s political commentary, but what moved me to tears were her fiercely loving renderings of the people and places of her rural, working-class childhood. So you can take your pick: come for the political commentary and stay for the beautiful storytelling, or vice versa. At the end of the day, the two are of a piece and come together in a coherent whole. So run, don’t walk, to your local bookstore to get your hands on a copy of Heartland, and when you’re done with it, pass it along to your neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers. And while you’re at it, subscribe to The Homecomers podcast and follow Smarsh on Twitter, where she regularly offers pithy commentary. We need more Sarah Smarshes in the world — thinkers, writers, and doers who are dedicated to bridging the class and geographical divides that are tearing our country apart.
Christie Launius, Kansas State University
Christie Launius is Associate Professor and Head of the Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies Department at Kansas State University. She is the book review editor of the Journal of Working-Class Studies, and co-editor of the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies. She has written extensively about narratives of upward class mobility.