Released in 2016, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy was a near-instant success, receiving widespread acclaim for its sobering depiction of white, working-class Americans experiencing a collective identity crisis. It remains a controversial book, with...
Despite his numerous accomplishments, J.D. Vance remained a low-profile figure until the release of his book, Hillbilly Elegy, in June of 2016. As he himself writes in the first pages of the book, he had until then "accomplished nothing great in [his] life," but he declares he wrote the book because he had "achieved something quite extraordinary." By this, Vance refers to the fact that he overcame his poor, "hillbilly" roots and ended up in the Ivy League (Vance).
Little did he know at the time he wrote this that his book would appear at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in 2016 and 2017, thus adding yet another feather to his hat and setting him apart from his peers back in the Rust Belt ("The New Memoir 'Hillbilly Elegy'").
Vance was born in the factory town of Middletown, Ohio, but he feels his true home lies in the rural, coal-mining hills of Jackson, Kentucky. This is where Vance's grandparents, to whom he refers as Mamaw and Papaw, were born as "hillbilly royalty," descending as they did from the Hatfields (of the famed feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys). Vance spent many a summer there as a child. It is also the origin of the "hillbilly" roots that would both cripple and reinforce his family for generations to come.
Even so, Vance was largely raised in Middletown, Ohio, where his grandparents chose to settle after fleeing from Jackson due to a pregnancy scandal. There, he endured years of floating between various abusive households, as his mother navigated her own reckless temper and addiction to prescription opioids. As a result, Vance mostly spent time in his grandmother's home. Vance credits his Mamaw with encouraging him to succeed despite his circumstances, as she believed in the promise of the American Dream and upward mobility (Vance).
Doubling down on Mamaw's beliefs, Vance opted to join the Marines and fought overseas as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and learned the adult skills and work ethic that would prepare him for college at Ohio State ("J.D. Vance," Vance). Graduating college in just one year and eleven months, Vance prepared to enter law school.
At first, Vance applied only to middle-tier law schools, figuring he could not afford to attend—let alone be accepted by—the more prestigious schools. On a whim, he applied to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, the last of which accepted him on the first try. Vance, once a poor kid surrounded by violent family members and socioeconomic gloom, was on his way to the Ivy League.
It was in law school that Vance met his future wife and learned just how valuable "social capital," or the resources and know-how possessed by the wealthy or elite, can be. Even as he grew confident in his ability to succeed despite his hillbilly roots, however, Vance continued to confront his mother's drug addiction and recovery, providing for her when she was at rock bottom.
It was precisely this contrast between his Ivy League laurels and his rocky childhood and roots that sparked Vance's decision to write Hillbilly Elegy (Vance). Upon its release, the book was a near-instant success and soared to the top of prestigious bestseller lists ("'Hillbilly Elegy' is No. 1").
The book was also praised as a virtual handbook for explaining Donald Trump's rise to popularity amongst disenfranchised, working-class Americans in the wake of the 2016 presidential election ("J.D. Vance's 'Hillbilly Elegy' Provides a Window"). Some critics, however, questioned whether Vance's insights on his fellow "hillbillies" was either fair or sympathetic to working-class Americans, with The New Republic calling it "little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class" ("J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America").
After working at a large corporate law firm, Vance moved on to his current position as a venture capitalist. He also contributes to news outlets, commonly on the subject of the white working class' role in shaping American politics ("J.D. Vance").