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What’s Eating J. D. Vance?: Hillbilly Elegy as Hillbilly Horror

Thu, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Skyway 260, Skyway Level East Tower


This paper examines the memoir Hillbilly Elegy and its reception in the midst of the 2016 Presidential election. Published in August of 2016, the memoir has proved a cultural sensation. It peaked at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in its first month of publication, and its author, J. D. Vance, is now a media fixture. He appears regularly in print and cable news as a “red state” whisperer: Vance explains the struggles of Middle America to audiences ostensibly composed of coastal elites, and therefore he appears to “translate” the concerns of forgotten Trumpkins to baffled Blue State voters. This paper contends that the attraction of the memoir, and the subsequent media fame of its author, is tied to its merger of conservative “culture of poverty” hypotheses with horror genre depictions of malformed and queer forms of intimacy beyond the city. The monstrous rural family is a staple of contemporary horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 and 2003), The Hills Have Eyes (1977 and 2006), Wrong Turn (2003), and The Cabin the Woods (2012). In these films, malformed families, deformed by isolation and inbreeding, sate deviant desires by hunting, carving, and eating unsuspecting urbanites.

In a parallel fashion, Hillbilly Elegy focuses on the sadistic, violent, and self-destructive impulses Vance contends are genetically linked to hillbilly culture. The memoir tells the story of Vance’s narrow escape from an impoverished upbringing in Southeastern Ohio to the unlikely and lofty heights of Yale Law School (and a lucrative career as a corporate attorney that followed). The title is deceptive. Rather than mourning a hillbilly way of life that has died, Hillbilly Elegy is concerned with how Vance’s dysfunctional childhood continues to stalk him. In fact, Vance’s hillbilly past behaves like an undead horror film monster that menaces the living, a nightmarish trope Vance uses at various points in the memoir. At the center of this nightmare is Vance’s family: his absent, negligent, or violent father figures; his overbearing but loving grandmother; and his chaotic, drug-addicted mother. Vance presents his family as the extension of ancient Scotch-Irish family structures that have failed to adapt to modernity. A fantastic and essentialized hillbilly family—out of place and out of time—stalks the memoir, its grotesque and malformed dynamics continually threatening to drag Vance back into the hills.

In the age of Trump, the sensational image of the monstrous rural family helps some urbanites make sense of rural economic and political dysfunction. However, it does so by eliding the material and structural conditions of rural political economy, casting Appalachia as synecdoche for all nonmetropolitan America, exaggerating differences between rural and non-rural populations, and casting poverty as an outcome of malformed desire rather than material deprivation. In this sense, Hillbilly Elegy ironically produces the opposite of the reconciliation Vance’s status as hillbilly whisperer would suggest: it produces a dyadic, oversimplified understanding of rural/urban divides that assures its readers of the health and desirability of metronormative culture.


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