New 606 contributor Melanie Zuercher offers her thoughts on two of the most important memoirs of white America in the last few years: JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland.
Over the past two years, two young(ish) writers – one born in 1984, the other in 1980 – have published memoirs that caught my attention: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.
I grew up in Appalachian western Maryland and eastern Kentucky, but I am not from Appalachia. My parents are westerners/Midwesterners – my father was born and raised in Idaho before leaving it, forever, for college in Kansas and Indiana; my mother was born in Missouri but only weeks old when the family moved to Iowa, and she was raised there and in western Nebraska before leaving it, forever, for college in Kansas and Indiana. My family has been going to south-central Kansas to visit relatives since I was middle school age. My parents have lived there (in a small town about 30 miles north of Wichita) since the early ’80s and I have been eight miles away since the late ’90s.
I loved Heartland. Not so much Hillbilly Elegy. Why is that?
It could have to do with a female vs. a male writer. Especially when it comes to memoirs, I tend to prefer the former – no surprise, I relate to them more closely. It’s certainly tied to Smarsh being the superior writer. To be somewhat fair, she was trained as a journalist. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate (as he reminds the reader several times), didn’t and maybe still doesn’t necessarily see himself as a writer. He’s competent but not compelling. She definitely is. She began developing her writer’s imagination early, though given her family and economic background, she might not have started to see it that way until she went to college.
But that’s the English major in me coming out. There has to be more.
These books have a lot of similarities. In addition to their ages, both writers are white and culturally rural. Vance mostly grew up in Middletown, Ohio, population a little under 50,000, but spent significant time as a child and young adolescent visiting extended family in Breathitt County, Kentucky. Smarsh was raised on farms but was within relatively easy reach of Wichita, Kansas’ largest city, population just under 400,000.
Vance is the younger brother of one sibling, a sister. Smarsh is the older sister of one sibling, a brother. Both come from so-called broken homes, although Smarsh remained consistently in close contact with both her parents after their divorce, while Vance lived only briefly with his biological father, and his mother went through a series of husbands/boyfriends throughout his childhood and adolescence. Both had significant relationships with their maternal grandparents – for Smarsh, her Grandma Betty and step-grandfather Arnie (the only grandpa she knew), for Vance, the Mamaw and Papaw he credits for raising him.
Both Smarsh and Vance are conscious of class and how it underpins their stories. When Vance writes of Mamaw and Papaw and their move from eastern Kentucky to southern Ohio, he says, “[B]oth of my grandparents had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.” That statement could come straight out of Smarsh’s book. But here the paths begin to diverge.
Though neither one ever graduated from high school much less went to college, Mamaw and Papaw built a comfortable middle-class life for themselves and their three children in Middletown. Vance’s mother, even with her violent behavior, unstable relationships and addiction, managed to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing and maintain a professional career.
Smarsh’s grandparents along with her parents, Nick and Jeannie, were monumentally hard workers, without a college degree to their names. Early in his marriage to Jeannie and the lives of their two children, Nick worked almost literally night and day to build a house for them – a house he would later lose despite all his labor. Or maybe, in some sense, because of it. Combine the residue of the ’80s farm crisis (the emptying out of rural America), the melding of the for-profit hospital system and health insurance and pharmaceutical companies into one juggernaut, a fire that destroyed Nick’s pole barn, and chemical poisoning and ensuing neurological damage he sustained while working one of his many off-the-farm jobs – and the result was that ultimately he couldn’t hold onto the house he had built for his family.is
Essential to who Smarsh is has been her knowledge from an early age of what it meant to be the daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother. In this, of course, she treads into territory where Vance will never have to fear stumbling. As white people in America, both of them inherit privilege whether they want it or not and regardless of economic status or class, then or now. But what may truly be at the root of my different feeling for these two books is that Smarsh is aware of her privilege and at least names it. Her body, in the sense that it makes her vulnerable to repeating her mother’s and grandmother’s history, undergirds her entire story. Vance, however, seems oblivious to how many rungs up the ladder he is as a straight, white, cisgender male – by virtue of things he never earned.
Most egregious (and addressed elsewhere by others far more knowledgeable and articulate than I) is Vance’s apparent “blame the victim” attitude. He seems to think that because he made it out, anyone could if they had the will and put in the work. But just because that was true for his grandparents and most of the other adults with authority in his life, as well as for him, does not make it true now or universally, as Smarsh’s story illustrates well. She doesn’t eschew personal responsibility – but she also names the corrupted reality of America in the 21st century.
Hard work can’t overcome an unaffordable, unsustainable health-care system, a labor hierarchy that does not value actual hard labor (paying, and rewarding in other ways, least those who work the most), or the lingering effects of so-called trickle-down economics and tax breaks for the wealthiest (bailing out the corporations “too big to fail” while farmers, blue-collar workers, federal employees, and small businesspeople face fiscal ruin). History shows that that same hard work has not led to fair treatment in terms of wages, housing, or education for America’s black and brown people. Hard work cannot penetrate the effects of global climate change on land, weather and people, or the biological and neurological choke-hold of opioids and heroin, perpetuated by a pharmaceutical giant grasping for bigger and bigger profit margins. And white supremacy has cynically and intentionally kept these groups of people – poor white, black and brown – who are treated the same by the wealthy elite, divided from each other when together they would outnumber and could overpower that same elite.
To my surprise, comparing Hillbilly Elegy and Heartland did leave me with some appreciation for the former, plus even more for the latter. It reinforced my personal commitment to reading non-white writers of both fiction and memoir or nonfiction (Ta-Nahesi Coates, Keise Laymon, Tommy Orange, Roxane Gay, Edwidge Danticat, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jesmyn Ward, and many more – and if you only ever read one book about race in America in the 21st century, let it be Isabel Wilkerson’s truly monumental The Warmth of Other Suns).
But mostly it hammered home the truth of one of the basics in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy, white privilege and white patriarchy – that we live in a racist and patriarchal (indeed, toxic) system, that our institutions are those things by nature, and that true change must be systemic. Yes, J.D., it will take hard work – but it’s work we have to do together.