Choate Students Learn About “Hillbilly Culture” Through J.D. Vance Book and Talk

The “Trump Whisperer.” The “angry Rust Belt Translator.” Renowned author Mr. J.D. Vance has received these titles — and more — for exploring what he terms “hillbilly culture” in his first book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. On Wednesday, February 1, five Choate students travelled to Yale University to witness Mr. Vance’s insights firsthand.

Austin Huang ’17, Darby Saskas ’17, Lucas Ferrer ’17, Lily James ’17, and Pascale Huntsinger ’17 attended the speech. During his talk. Mr. Vance spoke about his childhood, his definition of culture, and the current political climate before giving his time to the audience for questions.

Growing up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, Mr. Vance never expected that a memoir about his life would be the No. 1 book on Amazon. Hillbilly Elegy began as a law school project about the white working class, but resonated with a much large audience.

Through his memoir, Mr. Vance aims to explore the complex factors that shape working class culture rather than only focusing on economic trends and government policies. Mr. Vance believes the cycle of domestic violence, addiction, and poverty in his community can be attributed to the growing “sense that folks’ choices don’t matter.” He cites the psychological term “learned helplessness” as the root of political shifts in Appalachia.

For many, Mr. Vance’s story helped explain the dynamics of the 2016 election. As the New York Times stated, “Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans.”

Choate senior Darby Saskas said, “Reading Mr. Vance’s book gave me a new perspective and appreciation for ‘hillbillies.’ The book also helped me understand why Donald Trump won the presidency; there’s this whole population of lower class white people in this country that feel left behind by college educated liberals and felt that Trump gave them a voice.”

However, Mr. Vance has admitted discomfort with having everyone look to him for an explanation. In an interview with Vox.com, he said, “I think that’s a little bit weird, frankly, given the fact that I really try not to talk about politics too much in the book, but I think folks are just grasping for something to try to understand this political moment, and my book is one of the things that they landed on.”

During his talk, Mr. Vance addressed audience questions about the current political climate, discussing government and technology, the problem Mr. Vance describes as the “brain drain,” and feeling like a cultural outsider. “Mr. Vance was very eager to answer everyone’s questions completely, even one that was straight up insulting,” commented Saskas.

Mr. Vance, however, is no stranger to tough questions. After all, his talk emphasized, as he put it, “having the tough conversations necessary to solve some of these problems and tearing down conversational barriers.”

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