The best-selling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Harper Collins, 2016) is about fierce loyalty within Appalachian families, including those displaced to Ohio, Indiana and Michigan for lack of jobs in Appalachia proper. These close-knit families are a source of love and fidelity. In support of this pro-family theme Vance says, for example: My grandparents “were, without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me”
Hillbilly Elegy would not, however, be a bestseller without its companion theme, as anticipated in its subtitle: A Family and Culture in Crisis. It doesn’t take too many pages to conclude that Appalachian families are plagued by physical and psychological violence, by lethargy, by habitual avoidance of reality, by addiction, by low education attainment, by a high cancer death rate and more. An over-reliance on family closeness, one can conclude, actually inhibits stability and progress. One might further conclude that a clannish subculture abets poverty.
Each immigrant group to our country struggled with balancing the protective strengths of family closeness with the necessity to launch children into the wider society.
Herbert Gans lived Boston’s West End neighborhood (around the Bruins hockey arena) in the late 1950s. In The Urban Villagers (The Free Press, 1962) he writes about what happened to its Italian-American residents when so-called urban renewal was declared. He sets the scene with observations about the younger parents there. The “vital center” of adult life for these Italian-Americans, Gans says, was “a routine gathering of relatively unchanging peer group” that met even “several times a week.” This get-together, which often included dinner, was the purpose “for which other everyday activities are a means.” There is no formal invitation; people, including children, implicitly know when to arrive. The conversation is not really “give-and-take of discussion,” Gans continues. “There is little concern with politics.” The content is almost entirely gossip. Strong connection to an extended family is a resource, Gans concludes. But it is not enough to successfully negotiate with bigger forces, like non-Italian employers when seeking a job, much less with urban developers.
Joseph Luzzi makes the same point in his affectionate memoir, My Two Italies (Farrar, Straus, 2014), particularly in a chapter titled “No Society.” A slogan like “family comes first” sounds OK. But to presume that the family is an exclusive form of socialization actually erodes its strength. Unless an ethnic group moves beyond the family as an end in itself, harmful influences and bureaucracy will actually have greater and more direct access to family members, particularly to children. That is because too much family, as it were, leaves no competency for the good outside of family, for civic life, for the common good.
Peter Skerry, in Mexican-Americans: the Ambivalent Minority (Harvard University Press, 1993), says the same: Strong family ties are the greatest “resource of Mexican-Americans,” yet those ties can also be the “greatest liability.” During the initial phase, Mexican-Americans tend to think of their extended family and close friends as their political agent. But that is asking too much. Such an expectation, says Skerry, causes extended family “relationships [to become] unstable, subject to arguments and bickering.” Effective entry into the wider society occurs only when Mexican-Americans and other groups actively “distinguish private and public roles.”
At their best, local institutions—the parish, labor local, school assembly, precinct and the like—act as a halfway house. They provide a dress rehearsal. They have a balance of informality (everyone needs a feeling of belonging, a sense of community) and formality (everyone wants to move up in the wider world and make a difference). These buffer organizations are a unique mix of the familiar and the challenging.
Unfortunately, our society’s mediating structures have withered. Most young adults assume they can make it without the obligatory, five-course Sunday dinner at grandma’s home and certainly without participating in parish groups, union meetings and precinct events. Consequently, most young adults are equipped only with ragged individualism as they move through an economy of global competition, in and around a health care system of changeable specialties, and deeper into an impersonal cyber-world where, for example, customer service means waiting for the next available recorded message.
There is loyalty and pride in Appalachian families. They have not gained traction, however, because those families often don’t act together for the common good. Even religion’s window to the world is absent. “Despite its reputation,” Vance reports, “Appalachia has far lower church attendance than the Midwest” and elsewhere. Appalachians, Vance implies, are not disposed to aggregate, agitate and then negotiate for any purpose beyond the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family.
Nowadays many of us in the Midwest, the Plains, the Great Lakes areas and elsewhere likewise experience powerlessness. We have an immediate circle of family and friends. Then we come up against a big world, with no effective society in between. Demagoguery only perpetuates our isolation. A march here and a rally there is not the way. We need to arduously build our own launching pads. These likely will not be exact copies of 1950s-style institutions (parish clubs, precinct groups and the like). But with discipline and a creative mix of the private and the public we can craft ways of participating in the wider world without forsaking our compassionate roots.
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)