by Hugh Gilmore
The current rush to the Presidential finish line coincides with the release of two important books that address the American dream that “We the people” don’t need luck to get by. Talent and hard work, the Great Dream says, will unfailingly lead us to live in that big house on the hill. And in that house we’ll have both modern appliances and happiness. And children – two or three at least. Our children will know no want, get meaningful educations, and grow up to live in even greater houses on greater hills. If they use their native talent and work hard to achieve their dreams.
Of those last two qualities, the “hard work” part matters most. Hard work, even without talent, is respected more than talent without hard work. Talent usually plays the villain in our movies and folk tales (e.g., “The Bad News Bears” syndrome).
There’s no room for luck in America. That’s what those who have risen say when they look back on their ascent: Luck had nothing to do with it. Read their memoirs. They’re crammed with Trump-ish insistence that talent, grit, and hard work alone led them to the top of the heap.
So they say. Two recently published books, written by successful men, would challenge that naive assertion about luck. In the first of these books, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” J.D. Vance, an ex-Marine and Yale Law graduate, looks back with brutal honesty at his childhood.
His hometown of Middletown, Ohio, had been sustained by the aluminum and steel industries for years. Its residents enjoyed generations of solid blue-collar jobs, homes and schools until the great eastern Rust Belt left so much of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky without jobs.
When the jobs left, the money left. Without jobs and money, the multi-generational social structure fell apart. With that loss went the notion of a deeply ingrained work ethic. In its place, according to Vance, a deep, vague anger against the establishment arose. In a swerve no one could have predicted, the average man (also known as the Appalachian man, the blue-collar man, the red-necker, the hillbilly, the poor white trash, the have-not man) directed his anger toward the Democratic Party and, particularly, Barack Obama. They turned to the conservative Keep America Great Republican party of tell-it-like-it-is Donald Trump.
Though Vance still bears a deep affection for all the family, friends and folks he knew back home, he is unsparing in his depiction of the lazy, aimless, drug-dominated, welfare-cheating nature of so many of the folks who remain. Not all of them, but too many. Most children born into that culture, Vance says, see no way out. Vance escaped, he admits, through luck.
His wild, cussing, gun-waving grandmother (who cared for him when his drug-addled mother – dad had been kicked out – was not around, believed in education and encouraged him to learn. After an embarrassing incident in elementary school math one day, his grandfather did sums with him at the dinner table nearly every night. Eventually, math became his best subject in school. When he was teen, and needed an advanced calculator to do calculus problems, his grandma found the means to buy him one – though he did not own a cellphone, or any of the other teen “necessities.”
Vance was a boy of the streets, but one whom teachers noticed every now and again. Whenever he concentrated on his work, his natural talents earned him rewards, but he lapsed as often as he succeeded. But his grandparents kept reminding him that the only way out of “hillbilly” life was through education.
He reached out and it worked. He was accepted to Ohio State University. But he felt unready, too uncertain of how he would comport himself. And also, how he’d pay. He joined the Marines instead, hoping that veterans’ benefits might help. After a four-year stint, that included a service tour in Iraq, he felt the Marines had taught him how to organize, control and steer his life. He returned to school and went on to earn a law degree from Yale.
Like so many persons who have ascended to another status through education, he now looks back at his former life with affection, anger and sadness. He offers no specific solutions for fixing the problems of the alienated white, blue-collar world who have become one of the pillars of Donald Trump’s support base. In fact, he’s a political conservative who is quite critical of the inertness of the culture he left. In a relatively few decades much of Appalachia and the American south have switched their political allegiance from Democrat to Republican. Vance counts himself as a political conservative now. He knows he turned his life around through talent and hard work. But he admits that if he hadn’t had a few bits of luck along the way, he’d never have had the chance to use his talents.
Vance writes, near the end, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.”
In next week’s column we’ll take a look at Cornell University Professor Robert H Frank’s recent book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.” Yes, the “myth” of an American meritocracy.
Hugh Gilmore is a seller of old and rare books who has written several novels and non-fiction works, available through Amazon.com. He resides in Chestnut Hill.