May 2017


I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “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.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

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I recently began a series of posts reflecting on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I noted in the first post, I’m particularly interested in Wallace’s perspective on the difficulty modern-day Americans have in living meaningful and genuine lives. The first post looked at the tendency of many of IJ‘s characters to be driven by powerful desires that can’t be adequately satisfied. This post is about another feature common to many of the characters, namely that they live inauthentic lives. One of the few characters who is open and authentic, Mario Incandenza, notices how difficult it is for others at the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the two main settings in the novel) to be real with each other:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” (p. 592)

Mario, who is developmentally disabled, disfigured, and quite unsophisticated, experiences life richly. His honesty and straightforwardness contrasts dramatically with his brothers. [I should note that some of what I write here could be a spoiler for those who are reading IJ and prefer not to know what happens.] Orin, the oldest, devotes most of his efforts to seducing women. He has developed a wide variety of facades that he thinks the “Subject” of his efforts will find convincing. He’s successful at getting women into bed, but, since he hasn’t been honest or vulnerable with them, there’s no prospect of intimacy. Thus, the aftereffects are disappointing at best:

“Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward–just an abrupt loss of hope. Plus there is the contempt he belies so well with gentleness and caring during the post-coital period of small sounds and adjustments.” p. 596

Mario’s younger brother, Hal, one of E.T.A.’s top tennis players, is highly intelligent and is literally a walking encyclopedia, having read and memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet his inner self is impoverished:

“Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being–but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne [a tennis player who is mechanically efficient]…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.” (p. 694)

Hal has progressively more difficulty functioning as the novel progresses, to the point that, when he attempts to speak in what is chronologically the last scene (but is placed at the beginning of the novel), all that others can hear are shrieks. What has happened to him? The DFW Wiki reports readers have theorized that Hal is suffering the delayed effects of mold he ate as a child or had a hallucinogenic drug put on his toothbrush. I’m inclined to a more psychological interpretation: Hal is a hollow shell, someone who has avoided having an interior life for so long that has lost touch with himself. His humanity is attenuated, and his speech is correspondingly compromised.

Gately and the Wraith. From http://www.brickjest.com, a site that retells Infinite Jest in Legos.

Don Gately, a staff member at drug rehab facility Ennet House, is visited by a “wraith” who is apparently the ghost of James Incandenza, Hal’s father. The wraith describes actors in TV shows like Cheers who fill out the bar’s crowd. These characters, called “figurants,” sit at tables with each other, their lips moving but “always having utterly silent conversations.” Only the stars could speak audibly. The wraith laments that he, “when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end.” (p. 837)  So years earlier, when he was alive, James Incandenza had already seen Hal, his youngest child, as a peripheral figure, appearing to interact like other humans but really a figurant, someone without a voice. It’s no surprise that Hal’s lack of an authentic voice eventually became evident to those around him.

Over at Ennet House, there is a corresponding lack of authenticity. Residents enter claiming that they will do whatever it takes to get better, but usually act contrary to this professed goal, all the while denying the inconsistency. For example, here’s new resident Geoffrey Day:

“Day is scanning the room for somebody else to engage and piss off so he can prove to himself he doesn’t fit in there and stay separated off isolated inside himself and maybe get them so pissed off there’s a beef and he gets bounced out, Day, and it won’t be his fault. You can almost hear his Disease chewing away inside his head, feeding.” (p. 275)

Residents regularly lie to one another or to staff. They also are quick to make excuses. They often see themselves as victims, blaming others for their substance use and terrible life choices rather than taking responsibility. In contrast, authenticity requires radical honesty, as with a speaker at one of the AA meetings who tells her story of  freebasing cocaine throughout her pregnancy, having a stillborn infant, then denying the child was dead and carrying around the rotting corpse as if it were a living baby:

“When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away.”  (p. 378)

Persons attaining such total honesty have achieved authenticity. This is where healing can start. But so few of the characters either at Ennet House or E.T.A. reach this place of vulnerability and openness, and thus they remain captive to their desires. They, like Hal, are figurants, people hollowed out by their persistent avoidance of their true natures. Their mouths may move, but nothing real comes out.