25 Insightful Hillbilly Elegy Quotes

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Hillbilly Elegy is a controversial memoir (2016) by J. D. Vance that later was adapted into a movie (2020) directed by Ron Howard and starring Glenn Close as Mamaw. Vance was raised in Middletown, Ohio, but his family is from Breathitt County, Kentucky.

Note: you can buy the book here:

He maintains that a lack of work ethic and the instability of Appalachian families, as well as the influence of the protestant religion in the area, contribute strongly to the inability of “hillbillies” to achieve success, as well as to lean toward the Republican party. He concludes that extended family members have the ability to positively influence children to succeed. In addition, he questions whether social situations and poverty influence a person’s life more than their personal responsibility.

Pushed by his loving but tough grandmother (MaMaw), he is able to attend Ohio State University and Yale Law School. His story is the account of his reckoning with his Appalachian roots. Received with mixed reviews, “HIllbilly Elegy” has made an impact on society’s thinking about white working-class Americans with Appalachian roots.

Hillbilly Elegy Quotes

From the book by J. D. Vance:

  1. Their paper suggests that hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist. This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also makes it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly. We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves.”
  2. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
  3. “I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
  4. “I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”
  5. “The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.”
  6. “We were conditioned to feel that we couldn’t really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn’t indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives.”
  7. “In my worst moments, I convince myself that there is no exit, and no matter how much I fight old demons, they are as much an inheritance as my blue eyes and brown hair.”
  8. “The most depressing part is that relationship instability, like home chaos, is a vicious cycle. As sociologists Paula Fornby and Andrew Cherlin found, a “growing body of literature suggests that children who experience multiple transitions in family structure may fare worse developmentally than children raised in stable two-parent families and perhaps even than children raised in stable, single-parent families.”
  9. “The old adage says that it’s better to be lucky than good. Apparently having the right network is better than both.”
  10. “The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.”
  11. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability.”
  12. “Papaw’s rare breakdown strikes at the heart of an important question for hillbillies like me: How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”
  13. “In a paper analyzing the data, Chetty and his coauthors noted two important factors that explained the uneven geographic distribution of opportunity: the prevalence of single parents and income segregation. Growing up around a lot of single moms and dads and living in a place where most of your neighbors are poor really narrows the realm of possibilities. It means that unless you have a Mamaw and Papaw to make sure you stay the course, you might never make it out.”
  14. “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”“The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget—this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.”
  15. “There is nothing lower than the poor stealing from the poor. It’s hard enough as it is. We sure as hell don’t need to make it even harder on each other.”
  16. “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites.”
  17. “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget—this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.”
  18. “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.”
  19. “Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society.”
  20. “Part of the problem” is how state laws define the family. For families like mine—and for many black and Hispanic families—grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles play an outsize role. Child services often cut them out.”

From the movie:

  1. (J. D. Vance) “Things could get tough down in Jackson in a heartbeat, but Mamaw and Papaw taught me that you never start a fight. But if someone starts one with you, you better make damn sure you end it. If you can’t end it, your people will always have your back. And that was our code, and to me, our code was everything.”
  2. (MaMaw) “I don’t give a rat fart what you’re smoking kid. If you think you’re hiding it honey you’re dumb as a bag of hair.”
  3. (JD Vance) “When I was a kid, I couldn’t make sense of it. Imagining Mamaw at almost my same age just running, pregnant, from everything she knew, every scrap of family she had. I felt lke I’d stumbled onto something. A puzzle piece, an answer to a question I had barely begun to ask about our family and what became of us.”
  4. (Mamaw) “You can’t have a goddamn hissy every time you have an off day. You got to think about these kids.”(Bev) “What do you think I’ve been thinking about since I was eighteen-years-old, huh? I never had a life where I wasn’t thinking about the kids.”
  5. (Bev) It isn’t easy, alright? Just wait till you get pregnant.(Lindsay) “I’m not having a kid.”(Bev) “What, you think you’re special? That’s what happens to girls.”(Lindsay) “Only girls that are stupid.”
  6. (Mamaw) “Everyone in this world is one of three kinds. A good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral.'(Young JD) “You’re a good Terminator.”(Mamaw) “Well, I wasn’t always. I had to learn. Now, you could be too, if you don’t f*** it up. You’re like me.”
  7. (JD Vance) [at the rehab center] I respect your need to follow procedure. I know she messed up. And she’s had a history of it, but she also has a history”y of being a pretty good person. She put herself through nursing school as a single mother, and now I’m at law school. I just, I really, ma’am, I really think that if my mom had somebody to believe in her. You need to understand that I can’t leave here. I can’t, until I’ve done everything humanly possible. Alright? This is my family. So until you drag me out of here, I’m going to keep giving you reasons.”
  8. (J. D. Vance) “So you’re a soccer mom.”(Lindsay) “Such a fake.”(JD Vance) “I don’t know. I think I got you out-faked by a mile.”
  9. (JD Vance) “You couldn’t get to Yale on Route 23, but I’d come closer than any of them to that dream of something better. I could see it right there in front of me. But a part of me knew the road from here to there is rocky. There’s no way around but through.”
  10. (Bev) [to Young JD] “You think I’d give these losers the time of day? I mean, what do you think that I do it for? So you and Lindsay will have everything that I never had. You have no clue. I was second in my whole class, out of four hundred people. Did you know that? I could have done whatever I wanted. But I didn’t have somebody taking me to the library, and telling me I could go to college, and going to help me pay for it.”

Hillbilly Elegy Quotes – J.D. Vance interview with the Hoover Institution

 

This is one of the best interview’s JD did to promote his book on the Uncommon Knowledge YouTube channel which is from the Hoover Institution that is part of Stanford University.

In the book, J.D. Vance chronicles his life and the history and issues of hillbillies in America. Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, writes about growing up in a poor Rust Belt town and how his family never fully escapes the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma in their lives. Vance paints a broad, passionate, and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans.

 

Hillbilly Elegy – Netflix trailer

In 2020, the book was turned into a movie and premiered on Netflix. You can see the trailer of the adaptation below.

Summary

J. D. Vance’s memoir and the associated movie give us a lot to think about in terms of social inequality. The white working-class is not by any means limited to those will Appalachian roots, but is widespread.

Many of the issues of urban white workers are different, but many are the same across America.

We hope you have enjoyed these 25 insightful quotes from Hillbilly Elegy.

Image Credit: New America, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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