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Augie Reads: Hillbilly Elegy

The following is a list of high-quality web resources, organized by broad theme, curated by Augustana librarians to help incoming first-year students as they read the 2017 Augie Reads book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance.

What Is a Memoir? What Is an Elegy? • 

• History • Economy • Geography and Environment  • 

Politics • Addiction and Public HealthPsychology

• Reviews of Hillbilly Elegy • What Sources Does Vance Cite? • 

* * *

What Is a Memoir? What Is an Elegy?

What's the difference between an autobiography, biography or a memoir?
Vance calls Hillbilly Elegy a memoir, not an autobiography. Why? Here a librarian from Sacred Heart University provides definitions of various forms of life writing and what makes each distinct. (Note: When you read this, focus on the text, not the links to various resources. Several of the links on this page won't work, because they go to resources paid for by the university and, therefore, limited to their students. Augie has similar resources that you'll have access to when you get here!)

My mother wasn't trash
Joshua Wilkey, a historian at a liberal arts college in North Carolina, posted this article about the life of his mother on his personal blog, This Appalachia Life. His post has some of the qualities of memoir, including his focus on a personal topic and the way that topic connects to broader social issues. As you read Wilkey's story you will notice that the circumstances of his mother's life are very similar to those of Vance's mother. Yet, Wilkey and Vance reach very different conclusions about Appalachian culture and social conditions. What does this say about memoir and the process of making meaning from personal experience?

Elegy (poetic form)
This brief article from the online Encyclopedia Britannica defines "elegy" from a literary standpoint. What elements of the elegy as it is described here do you think Vance employs in his book?

This page comes from, an online dictionary that collects definitions of words from various sources; on this page, you will also see several examples of the word "elegy" being used in sentences. Think about how these definitions and usages compare to the way Vance uses the word in the title of his book.


A short history of Kentucky/central Appalachia
This brief history provides context for a 2006 PBS documentary, Country Boys, about two boys growing up in Floyd County, Kentucky. (Floyd County is right next to Breathitt County, which Vance writes about in Hillbilly Elegy.) This overview addresses some of the same historical events that Vance mentions in the book, and places them in a broader context.

A brief population history of central Appalachia
This Medium post looks at population trends in central Appalachia from 1800 to the present; it provides context for the migration away from eastern Kentucky that Vance's grandparents were part of. Keep in mind as you read that the author--an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture--is arguing for his own particular view based on evidence he has collected.

Rust Belt
A brief definition and overview of the Rust Belt (which includes Middletown, OH). This page is part of a website called Ohio History Central, which is provided by Ohio History Connection, the state's historical society.

Hillbillies, rednecks, crackers and white trash
Vance refers to himself and his family as "hillbillies," but what does that actually mean? Do people from Appalachia use that term to speak about themselves? Is it okay for outsiders to refer to people from Appalachia as "hillbillies"? This article by historian Anthony Harkins, from the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, explains the history and origin of the term "hillbilly," as well as other, related terms. (When you click this link you will first see a cover page; scroll down to read the article itself.)


Why abundant coal may have 'cursed' the Appalachian economy
An exploration of Appalachia's coal-mining-based "resource curse." Often, areas abundant in natural resources suffer from greater poverty and lower growth; what does it mean when a region is dependent on only one industry for decades?

Beyond coal: Imagining Appalachia's future
As the influence of coal mining as a driving force in many Appalachian economies recedes, what industries and opportunities are being explored by long-term residents and newcomers?

The rise, fall, and rebirth of America's Rust Belt economies
Blog post about the economic trends and forces that led to poverty and unemployment in the Rust Belt. This blog comes from the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University Fullerton, and it cites a Mihaylo economics professor.

Geography and Environment

Where is Jackson, Kentucky?
Where is Middletown, Ohio?
Some of the criticism of J.D. Vance's memoir originates from debate regarding whether he's actually "from" Appalachia. Compare the boundaries of Appalachia as defined at different times and in different eras with the geography of J.D. Vance's life; note also the distance between Middletown, OH, and Jackson, KY. Where do you think Vance is "from"? Other than simple geography, what other factors help determine the place(s) a person calls "home"?

Centre insensitive to Appalachia with J.D. Vance commencement address
An editorial written in the Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY) by a recent graduate of Centre College, a liberal arts college in Danville, KY, criticizing the school for its decision to invite J.D. Vance to give the school's 2017 commencement address. The author condemns Vance not only for his perpetuation and dissemination of the region's stereotypes, but for his implicit suggestion that the best thing an individual from Appalachia can do to achieve success is move away.

The violent remaking of Appalachia
How have decades of coal mining affected Appalachia's landscapes, habitats, and waterways?


Why the poorest county in West Virginia has faith in Donald Trump: Anywhere but Washington
This video is part of a multi-part series produced by The Guardian during the lead-up to and immediately following the election, to "[explore] what America's most overlooked peoples and places reveal about a nation divided." [1] In this installment, journalist Paul Lewis visits the poorest county in the poorest state in our country to explore first-hand the power and appeal of Trump's message in the region.

Political geography: What if Appalachia were its own state?
Political journalist Stephen Wolf's "thought experiment" in which he explores how the creation of an Appalachian "superstate" would have impacted presidential elections throughout history. Includes an interesting deconstruction of the various ways in which the boundaries have been drawn for Appalachia at various times, with a reasoned explanation for the author's placement of his imaginary "superstate" boundaries. (Also check out this post-2016-election update: Forget 'imperial' California: Donald Trump only won the Electoral College thanks to Appalachia.)

Addiction and Public Health

Impact of substance abuse on families
Chapter 2 of the book Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy. [2] This chapter provides a well documented overview of the impact of substance abuse on families. Although it was published in 2004, the information still seems very pertinent.

What is addiction?
This website is available through Psychology Today magazine. It is easy to read and indexed into sections defining addiction and including pages on symptoms, causes, treatments, relapse, and compulsive and/or addictive behaviors. Two attributes of this website are particularly helpful. The first is a page of links to what they call Essential Reads on the topic; the second is its up-to-date blog posts about addiction.

The science of drug abuse & addiction
This webpage from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) gives a realistic look at addiction as a chronic disease and the stigma attached to it. It's easy to read and provides an extensive reference list.

Understanding drug abuse & addiction
A second resource from NIDA, this is a short pamphlet designed to be distributed to the general public.


How poverty taxes the brain
This article reports on a study by several economists and psychologists that found living in poverty has a direct effect on how a person's brain works, which, in turn, affects how they think and make decisions. The original study appeared in the journal Science. How does this view of the psychology of poverty compare to Vance's perspective in the book?

In Chapter 14, when Vance writes about the effects of his childhood experiences on his adult life, he uses a few terms from the field of psychology. Below are explanations of those terms, drawn from high-quality websites.

Learned helplessness
This definition is from the Encyclopedia Britannica's website. The Britannica is one of the most highly-respected English-language encyclopedias.

Adverse childhood experiences
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides this definition of "adverse childhood experiences."

Understanding the stress response
This article from the website of the Harvard Medical School explains the "fight-or-flight" response.

Reviews of Hillbilly Elegy

What Hillbilly Elegy reveals about Trump and America
Review from the magazine National Review.

In Hillbilly Elegy, a tough love analysis ...
Review from the New York Times, which praises Vance's book for being "intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans."

Hillbilly Elegy 
Review by Dwight Billings, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky; Billings is considered one of the foremost scholars of Appalachia. This review was written as a post on another scholar's blog.

For the good of the poor and common people 
Review by Elizabeth Catte, a public historian who writes frequently about underrepresented populations in Appalachia. This review appears on her personal website.

Hillbilly Elitism
Review in Jacobin magazine by Bob Hutton, a historian of Appalachia at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. For his PhD dissertation, Hutton did extensive research on Breathitt County, where Vance's grandparents lived.

What Sources Does Vance Cite?

At several points in Hillbilly Elegy, Vance cites studies by economists, psychologists, and sociologists. Some of those studies are freely available on the Web; they are linked here.

The Equality of Opportunity Project
This project, which is a collaboration among economists at a variety of universities, investigates upward income mobility in the United States and what it takes for families to overcome poverty. Vance cites it several times, first on p. 93, where he writes about religion and church attendance, and later on pp. 241-42, where he writes about opportunity and the American Dream.

Family instability and child well-being
Vance cites this article, by two sociologists at Johns Hopkins University, on the top of p. 229; this is the part of the book where he addresses how the relationships his mother had while he was growing up may have affected his adult life. The sentence Vance quotes comes from the very beginning of the article, which reports on a research study the authors conducted. This article uses fairly technical language; to get a sense of the authors' findings without reading the entire thing, try reading the Abstract (the summary paragraph at the beginning) and, if you want to know more, the Discussion section (which comes near the end).

Early childhood adversity, toxic stress, and the role of the pediatrician
On p. 228, Vance quotes a study by "Harvard researchers" about how the developing brain responds to stress during childhood. He does not say where the quote comes from, but it appears to be from the fifth page of this report from Pediatrics, a scholarly journal published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.



[2] Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy was published as part of the Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2004.


Updated June 2017.