It isn’t a reinvention of the wheel to observe that in the more capable of hands, boilerplate constructions like obituaries, ballgame recaps and book reviews (among others) can become probing, insightful essays in their own right, ranging beyond the expected into complementary areas of inquiry.
Aaron Renn’s review of Hillbilly Elegy moved the book’s author, J.D, Vance, to acknowledge Renn in a tweet: “Thanks to Aaron for a thoughtful review (not entirely positive, btw, but I learned something in reading it).”
You get the conclusion …
Hillbilly Elegy nevertheless remains remarkable for its first-person portrayal of Appalachian culture from someone who has affection for its people—indeed, still sees them as his people—but also the courage to admit its flaws. The larger problems come less from the book itself than from the way in which educated readers have seized on it to confirm their own negative impressions of the white working class—and, by extension, to flatter the superiority of their own cultural values and their sense of moral entitlement to the success they enjoy.
… and the opening paragraph. Don’t stop here. Read it.
Culture, Circumstance, and Agency: Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy, by Aaron M. Renn (City-Journal)
In his bestselling new memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance takes a blended view, recognizing the role of economic and personal circumstances in poverty and life dysfunction but also stressing the way that the culture of his own working-class Appalachian tribe has crippled its response to life’s challenges. He comes down firmly on the side of individual agency and the ability of people to overcome obstacles through hard work and adopting the cultural habits of successful groups. He writes, “This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” And: “The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves.”