Last week I outlined the more-than-slightly-unnerving parallels between J. D. Vance’s life and my own, as outlined in his remarkable book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” This week we’ll balance the scales by noting some of the profound differences.
The most obvious difference is that Vance and I are very different generations. He was born in 1984, by which time I’d been married for 16 years and had two kids.
If we push that difference back two generations, we find that Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw left Kentucky for Ohio in the late 1940s, while my grandparents left Kentucky for Ohio in the 1920s. Between those two dates a lot of important things happened — the Great Depression and World War II, just to mention a couple. But more important than the generational and time differences are the differences in the cultures into which Vance and I were born.
During the long economic boom that followed the end of World War I in the United States, the great industrial enterprises of the American Midwest prospered mightily. These firms were well-capitalized, well-managed, and their products were in great demand. The only constraint on their growth was labor.
With the labor supply tight — especially after the Johnson-Reed Act restricted immigration in 1924 — pressure on wage rates rose. Employers naturally looked around for a new supply of labor, and they didn’t have far to look. In the Appalachian Region of the U.S., just south of the Midwest, lived hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men, many of whom were un– or under-employed. Appalachia hadn’t yet industrialized, and jobs for returning veterans were few and far-between.
The largest industrial firms — examples would include the auto companies, Procter & Gamble, Armco Steel (where Vance’s Papaw worked), and the sprawling International Harvester truck assembly plant (where my grandfather worked) — sent labor scouts deep into the hills and hollows of Southeastern Kentucky to recruit workers.
These scouts were looking for just what you would expect: able-bodied men who worked hard, had no criminal record, and weren’t abusing alcohol or drugs. Ideally, they would have families with hungry mouths to feed, and they would take their responsibilities to feed those mouths seriously.
Tens of thousands of families from Southeastern Kentucky migrated north between 1920 and 1960, but the ones who left weren’t a random sample of hill people. In the first place, many were vetted and recruited by the industrial scouts mentioned above. In addition, though, people who were willing to pull up stakes and leave their friends and families behind — families who had lived in the hollows for generations — were different in important ways from the people who chose to stay behind.
The migrants were more adventuresome, more concerned about improving prospects for themselves and their children, and, most important, willing to do whatever was necessary to succeed in their new communities. The stay-behinds were more fearful of new experiences, less concerned about economic improvement, more set in their ways and attached to the hill culture.
My grandparents were more typical of the migrant group. They were in their twenties, already married and with a child. Prospects for employment in Barbourville, Kentucky were slim, and Grandad and Grandma already had relatives in Springfield who were employed and doing well. They settled their affairs in Barbourville and headed north, determined to succeed in that foreign land known as Ohio.
I believe, and I think J. D. Vance would agree with me (though I’m not sure), that Mamaw and Papaw Vance fell into the latter group — the stay-at-homes who were resistant to change. Mamaw and Papaw didn’t sit down and analyze the pros and cons of moving north, didn’t vow to make a success of the move no matter what. They weren’t simply drawn north by the prospects for a better life.
Vance himself tells the story. It seems that, back in Jackson, Kentucky, 17-year-old Papaw was dating a girl named Bonnie South. But at some point he cheated on Bonnie with a different Bonnie — Bonnie Blanton, i.e., Mamaw. Unfortunately, this dalliance resulted in Mamaw’s pregnancy. That would have been bad enough, but Mamaw was 13 years old at the time.
Even under the loose understanding of the age of consent in Kentucky in those days, 13 was way too young. Papaw was looking at a charge of statutory rape, or maybe worse. Perhaps even more alarming, Papaw had to worry about the reaction of Mamaw’s male relatives, who had already killed one man to avenge the honor of a girl.
In an increasing panic as Mamaw’s pregnancy began to show, Mamaw and Papaw held a shotgun wedding and then lit out for parts north, one step ahead of the law and half a step ahead of Mamaw’s male kin.
Next week we’ll take a look at what happens when a family relocates to the American Midwest — a quintessentially middle class world — while continuing to behave as though they were still living in Jackson, Kentucky.
Next up: On Hillbilly Elegy, Part III