Monday, May 20, 2019

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper, 2016)

From where does the drive for excellence come? J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy — a coming-of-age memoir of a man raised in poverty — offers a perspective rooted in the culture of desperation endemic to the former coal fields of Appalachia.

This is not just a “poor boy makes good” story, though Vance manages to move gradually beyond the limited expectations of his upbringing and ultimately finds himself at an elite law school (something that the authors of this blog know a little about). This is, as one might expect, partly a paean to hard work and individualism, partly a criticism of well-intentioned government programs that actually undermine their purposes.

On the other hand, the book also makes it clear that success is not just a matter of personal effort and ability, but also a matter of personal support — which enables Vance to rise above limited horizons — and, to a greater extent, luck.

Why does one person succeed while another fails? Why does one follow a path of aspiration and another a path of desperation? Tough questions. 

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