By Devon Shuman, Culture Editor
Since the release of his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” on June 28 of this year, Middletown native J.D. Vance has often been referred to as the “Trump whisperer.” His book, which paints a hauntingly honest and personal portrait of the white, working class, has been looked to as an explanation of the widespread appeal of presidential candidate, and now president-elect, Donald Trump.
But, as Vance explained to a crowd of hundreds gathered in Armstrong on Wednesday, that wasn’t his original intention with the book.
Having come from a culture in which upward mobility is close to impossible, Vance takes issue with the data-driven, ideological arguments coming from both political sides when discussing poverty. While the right often blames the poor for not working hard enough, the left sees a lack of available jobs as the main issue.
Vance considers both narratives incomplete.
“I wanted to answer, or explain, this lack of upward mobility,” he said. “If I put personal faces on these ideas, they might be easier to digest, to understand.”
Dr. Richard Campbell, Chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film, said that he received “Hillbilly Elegy” as a gift from his wife and was very impressed with it.
“I thought, ‘Here’s a sensible conservative,’” he said. “And I don’t often use those two words together.”
When he looked in the acknowledgments, he recognized the name of one of his students, Bonnie Rose Meibers. When he had an advising meeting with Meibers the following day, he discovered that she is Vance’s cousin, and he discussed with her the possibility of bringing him to Miami.
On Wednesday, Meibers had the honor of introducing Vance to the crowd.
“He’s always gonna be my dorky cousin,” she said. “But you all know him as a brilliant author and hillbilly scholar.”
In his book, and in his speech on Wednesday, Vance stressed that there is a distinct divide between the poor, who struggle to move up in life, and the educated elite, who often tend to cloister themselves off from the rest of the country.
“Kids who grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks feel like they can’t get ahead,” he said.
Vance believes we need to stop viewing this as a conservative or a liberal issue. While there are certainly some white, working-class citizens who are too cynical to even try to move ahead, there are others who truly try and struggle to find better jobs.
“We have to be better in this country at striking a balance between these two forces,” he said.
A common theme throughout “Hillbilly Elegy” is the significant cultural divide between classes. While Vance’s family was able to find work and improve their lives financially, they were never able to fully feel comfortable in their new environment. In one instance, his grandparents trashed a pharmacy after the clerk kicked out their son (Vance’s uncle) for playing with an expensive toy.
In his speech, Vance paralleled that moment with a fancy dinner he attended while at Yale Law, trying to impress a potential employer. Despite being at a prestigious Ivy League school, Vance was still completely unfamiliar with high-class social norms. He had to call his girlfriend to figure out what all the different utensils were for, he spit out the sparkling water because he didn’t realize it would be carbonated and when asked what type of wine he would like, he responded, “I’ll take the white.”
His point with both of these anecdotes is that the cultural divide between classes has become so gaping that even when upward mobility is possible, it rarely makes for a smooth transition.
“Just because you go from poor to middle class doesn’t mean you can just flip a switch,” he said.
When asked about what gave him the resilience to successfully cross that class divide, Vance credited the people who helped to raise him.
“I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps,” he said. “A lot of people in my extended family pulled on my bootstraps as well.”
This is a message that resonated with Amy Bartel, an Oxford resident who attended the event with her husband, Lawrence.
“I found that I wondered the same thing about myself,” she said. “I recognized elements of my upbringing in his… It made me want to ponder the sources of resilience in my own life.”
Moving forward, Vance believes that we must do more to begin understanding those on the other side of the “proverbial tracks.” He encourages college graduates to resist the allure of the big cities and consider moving back to their rural or suburban hometowns, and he urges traditional media to stop relying solely on quantitative data to tell stories about the rest of the country.
“In order to understand others,” he said, “you need to go out and talk to people.”