“Breathitt County in east Kentucky is the only county in the United States not to have had selective service enforced during the Second World War. That was because there were so many volunteers.”
Since I have long been convinced that the Appalachian South embodies a grounded yet radical alternative to the American mainstream, I got my hopes up recently when I learned that a young man from Breathitt County is garnering national attention as a spokesman for his native eastern Kentucky. Under the stern hand of his formidable grandmother—Mamaw, as he affectionately remembers her—J.D. Vance broke the self-destructive mold set by his drug-addicted single mother, completed a successful enlistment in the Marine Corps, and earned a diploma from Yale Law School. These experiences form the basis of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir described by its publisher as “a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans.”
Vance’s analysis begins auspiciously enough, with his forthright defense of the honor culture whereby his native county acquired the nickname “‘Bloody’ Breathitt.” “The people of Breathitt hated certain things,” he observes, “and they...