J.D. Vance on Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis – Full interview | VIEWPOINT


Charles: We’re happy to have J.D. Vance, the
author of the best selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” in the studios today. I guess I gotta start, J.D, such a trite question,
did you ever expect anything like the response you’ve gotten with “Hillbilly Elegy”? Vance: No, definitely not. I told my wife a couple of weeks before the
book came out that I just hoped that it wouldn’t be embarrassing with how few people read it. And I think that I surpassed that so I totally
feel pretty good. Charles: How many are in print at this point? Vance: A little over a quarter million, so
it’s going pretty strong. Charles: Those are numbers that policy wonks
like me only dream about. J.D., give us a thumbnail sketch of what this
book is all about. Vance: Yeah, so the book is really a very
focused view of what it’s like to grow up white working-class in America, specifically
with a Scots-Irish background. And so my grandparents went from Kentucky
to Southern Ohio, had a lot of optimism about their lives and their future, but as I write
in the book, that optimism didn’t necessarily pan out. So we’ve been in some cases a family that’s
experienced a fair amount of downward mobility but also obviously, in my case a lot of upward
mobility because I eventually went on to the Marines and then to Yale Law School. So it’s really an exploration at a very personal
level of why there aren’t more kids who are living lives like I’ve been able to live. Charles: Listen, I am as Scots-Irish as you
are. I have, you know, given the mixed American
heritages, I think I’ve got a pretty direct lineage. Vance: Sure. Charles: My Scots-Irish aren’t anything like
your Scots-Irish. J.D., I don’t use the word hillbilly, you
know? I always talk about country people and that
sort of thing and I’ve always felt kind of shy about using it, and then you used it proudly. Tell me, what is a hillbilly? Vance: Yeah, well, so as my grandma said,
“A hillbilly is something that we can use in the family, but if somebody else calls
you a hillbilly then you have to punch them in the nose.” And the idea is that it’s an insider’s term
of endearment and the way that we used it in our family is one, that you had some connection
to the land of Appalachia or Appalachia, depending on where you’re from, how you say it, that
you really love that land and you love the people who live there, and I do think that
there’s a sort of country element to it. It’s not just about Appalachia itself. It’s sort of about loving the rural lifestyle
and having some connection to it, either familial or otherwise. Charles: You’ve had the book out for a while. You’ve had all sorts of people do exactly
what I did, tell you about how, oh yeah, they came from a similar kind of family and the
rest of it. To what extent do you still see the hillbilly
culture in which you grew up to be distinct from other white working class environments
that people have talked to you about? Vance: Yeah, so that’s a very interesting
question. I think the answer is that it’s still somewhat
distinct, and a lot of what we think of as white working class culture, I still think
that what we’re really talking about sometimes is sort of Scots-Irish or Appalachian rooted
culture. Obviously there’s been so much assimilation
that it is sometimes hard to figure out where one stops and the other begins. But there is this interesting argument that
we ought to just call it the United States of Appalachia because a lot of what we think
of as sort of classically American values are really rooted in Appalachia in different
ways. There’s a really good book to that effect. But I think that it’s important to sort of
recognize, and one thing I’ve tired to do is recognize that a lot of these issues agree
in the broader white working class, but I do still think that there is a lot of connection
to Appalachia. Charles: Well, you know, in the census responses
the group of people that responds to the question of “What is your ethnicity, background, your
ethnic background?” the ones who say, “I’m American” are the Scots-Irish. Vance: That’s exactly right, yeah. Charles: Which in my case, I’ve always bragged
about my Scots-Irish background and I have said, “Well, we were violent and we were drunk,
but we made great pioneers.” I didn’t know the half of it until I read
your book, in terms of all kinds of stuff that goes on in the culture you describe. Question, to what extent… you’re a child
of the 90s, right? Vance: That’s right. Charles: You basically were growing up then. As you listen to your parents and your grandparents,
to what extent has the hillbilly culture evolved since 1960? Vance: Yeah, well, I think it’s definitely
evolved almost because it’s been forced to evolve, right? So one of the things my grandparents, I think,
realized after they moved to southern Ohio was that a lot of the values that they brought
with them didn’t necessarily translate into sort of middle class American life. Charles: No kidding. Vance: I think because of that, especially
among sort of upwardly mobile folks who have some connection to Scots-Irish or Appalachia,
there is definitely an impulse to sort of discard your hilllbillyness. There’s recognition that it’s maybe something
to be ashamed of or maybe just something that you don’t want to highlight. I think it’s been really interesting, actually,
since the publication of the book, to watch my cousins who both grew up in very sort of
middle class families, they’re both in college, one is 21, one is 19, and the way that the
book has sort of brought them back in contact with their roots, because I mean they knew
my grandma very well and they didn’t realize how much she was a sort of cultural figure
and how much they really are part of that culture even though they don’t necessarily
see it as something that’s broader than themselves. Charles: Are these relatives of yours who
are the children of the one…is it Milwaukee he went to? Vance: No. So Uncle Jimmy is in Texas. He went from Middletown to Texas to California
and back to Texas. These are children of Aunt Wee, who is sort
of a very important character in the book. Charles: And to what extent were they aware
of the heritage that they had? You said they didn’t know your grandmother
was the way she was? Vance: Well, no. They certainly knew the way that she was,
and I don’t know that they quite placed it in a broader regional and cultural context. And so one of the really interesting things
that my cousin did, she wrote this really beautiful piece about my grandma and about
sort of recognizing where she came from in the wake of the book coming out. But she even said she sort of tried to hide
her hillbillyness. She didn’t tell other people about these outrageous
family stories, and I didn’t either until I got older. I started to appreciate that they were maybe
something unique and interesting and not something to be just ashamed of. But it was only after I graduated from high
school, you know, as I said in the book, a lot of my very good friends heard about these
stories for the first time while reading them in the book. It’s not something I really bragged about
until I got older. Charles: Okay, now tell me though, you get
to Yale and you write about the ways in which Yale is a different world. Did you ever play the hillbilly card? Vance: Well, I don’t know how… I don’t think that I ever played the hillbilly
card. Charles: You know what I mean, where all at
once you’re talking with the deepest Kentucky accent you can come up with and you’re sort
of luring other people into having an opinion of you and then you smack them with some erudite
comment they didn’t expect. Vance: No. I never quite did that. I mean I think I tried so hard to fit in and
felt a little bit out of place so I tried to sort of, you know, maybe tried to hide
it at the very beginning and never played the hillbilly card. And one of the things I noticed is that it
was at Yale that I really lost any semblance of a Southern accent. So it’s something that people who knew me
when I was a first year student, not everybody, but they would say, you know, “You have a
certain way of saying things. Are you from the south?” And by the third year of law school no one
made those comments. So it’s interesting that maybe I played the
opposite of the hillbilly card. You know, I became, at least in the way that
I spoke, a little bit more like the elites than folks back home. Charles: I advise you to retain those skills. We have a friend from Macon, Georgia. She’s a female in her 30s and she is usually
crisp and snappy, you know; she can pass for a New Yorker almost. But if she’s in a situation where all at once
that sweet southern accent is really effective, it comes on in a flash and she gets great
mileage out of it. Okay, here’s something that as the author
of “The Bell Curve” I have to bring up. Dick Herrnstein and I spent a lot of time
documenting the relationship of IQ to impulse control, and delayed gratification, and thinking
ahead to long-term consequences, and those correlations are real. And your mother certainly was pretty smart. She reported to you, I guess, that she was
Salutatorian, and in that case, she was academically successful. You got through high school, just by not being
a model student in all respects; you got through the Marine Corp, through Ohio State, and then
up to Yale Law School. Vance: Sure. Charles: Impulse control doesn’t really describe
your family’s life in the book, and neither does delayed gratification. Vance: Sure. Charles: What was going on, with all of the
ability that was in that family, where so many strange decisions were made? Vance: Yeah, well, I guess impulse control
maybe is all relative and relative to some of my grandparents’ ancestors, they were probably
pretty good on that front. You know, I definitely think that a lot of
the people in my family were definitely really smart but I will say that they weren’t smart
in a way that I found especially unique in the broader community. And this is one of the things I’ve sort of
struggled with is, you know, did I just sort of get lucky and I had a smart family? I really don’t think so. I didn’t feel growing up that I was an especially
smart kid. I didn’t feel like an idiot. I felt maybe above average relative to the
people that I went to high school with. And one of the things that seemed to drive
success more than sort of hard IQ numbers was the delayed gratification and the impulse
control and also just a sense of like willfulness. You know, a lot of people don’t think in these
communities that if they work hard they’re actually going to get ahead. And that was a really important component,
I think, of why so many kids didn’t do that well coming from the high school I came from. So I’m probably not providing a very satisfactory
answer, but it’s definitely the case, I think, that I benefited a lot from some of the impulses
of my grandparents especially, but I also think that what seemed to really count back
home was maybe what you might call non-cognitive skills as opposed to the more hard IQ numbers. Charles: Could I just observe that your experience,
I think, would be ones that some of your fellow students at Yale could use, which is to say,
yeah, you had a sense that you were maybe above average, but you weren’t paying too
much attention to that kind of thing, and you also did not convey that you had a sense
that you were surrounded by a bunch of people that you couldn’t talk to because they weren’t
smart enough, no sense of that at all. Vance: Right. Absolutely. Charles: And I think one of the problems we
have these days is that a lot of your fellow students at Yale have never known anybody
except the same kinds of people they were. Vance: Sure. Charles: And they think of a person who has
an average IQ or an IQ of 95, and they think, “Oh, they must be impossible to deal with.” And you can teach a lot in that regard. Vance: Yeah. I think I have sort of two responses to that
feeling that a lot of folks do have, and I agree with you. One is that common sense is really undervalued
in society and a lot of folks with an IQ of 95 or 85 have a lot of common sense, even
if they don’t have fancy degrees, and that’s really important. The other thing I’d say is that people maybe
overstate how smart they are when they get to Yale. I think that there’s this impulse to be a
little self-congratulatory about where you came from and one of the ways to do that is
to just say, “I’m more meritocratic. I’m smarter than the people who didn’t make
it. I’m better in whatever way,” however you want
to measure it. And my sense is that that’s probably not true. My general impression of the kids that I went
to Yale Law School with is that they were pretty smart, certainly above average, but
what really set them apart was that they were ambitious and very hardworking. That was what really surprised me and seemed
out of place. Their intelligence didn’t seem other-worldly
to me. Their work ethic and their ambition definitely
did. Charles: You are out in San Francisco now,
right? Vance: That’s right. Charles: Working for Peter Thiel, is that
correct? Vance: Yeah, I work at one of the venture
capital funds that he co-founded. Charles: You are in a very different world,
both from Middletown and Kentucky, and different from Yale. You are married. You are going to be successful. Charles: Are you going to be encased in a
bubble pretty soon, whereby you are a Silicon Valley guy and your children won’t know anything
about Middletown and Kentucky unless you take proactive steps? Vance: Yeah, that’s definitely something that
I really worry about. You know, the biggest culture shock that I’ve
had wasn’t at Yale; it was in Silicon Valley. And what was so shocking about it is how optimistic
people are. There’s just this sense of sort of boundless,
the world is always going to get better, and even we’re going to be the people who help
make it better. And that’s so weird and so different from
the place that I grew up in. And my answer to your question is absolutely
I’m worried about it. I’m really worried that my kids will share
really nothing about my background, will have no idea where they came from on that side
of the family, will have no appreciation for what a hillbilly is or why I might think it’s
a good thing and not just something to be sneered at and pointed at. And so, yeah, I think that I’ll definitely
have to take affirmative steps if I want to prevent that from happening and it’s one of
the reasons why I keep on asking my wife, “When can we move back to Ohio?” And the other thing I’ll say about that, that
living in the bubble, it’s not just about not appreciating where you came from; it’s
also a certain failure to recognize how truly blessed some of these people are who grew
up in these Ivy League families, these Ivy League institutions. It’s really, really easy to feel super disconnected
from how the rest of the country lives and I don’t want my kids to feel like that. I really worry about that and it’s one off
the things that I take as really a sort of blessing from the way that I grew up is that
I at least appreciate how other people are living their lives and hopefully I never lose
that and hopefully my family doesn’t either. Charles: I think a summer place in Kentucky
is what you’re going to need, where you go there every year and you don’t get in your
private jet; you drive and you stay at Motel 6s. I think the kids will work it all out. Vance: I’ve forced my wife to stay at a fair
number of Motel 6s and it’s because they’re outdoors so you can always, we always travel
with our two dogs, you can always sneak a couple of dogs into a Motel 6, so they have
their advantages.

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