It Takes a Lot of Money to Look This Cheap
It Takes a Lot of Money to Look This Cheap
From Dolly Parton to J.D. Vance, rags-to-riches stories obscure as much as they inspire, reinforcing the notion that poverty can be solved by dreams and gumption.
Last summer, a seventy-year-old Dolly Parton took the stage at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, her tower of blonde hair and sparkly white mini-dress at dazzling odds with the title of her latest album and tour, Pure and Simple. Parton fans from across the spectrums of age, hipness, and the Kinsey scale were represented in the audience—a testament to how thoroughly she has crossed into the mainstream from the country charts. Midway through her first set, Parton played “Coat of Many Colors,” which recounts growing up so poor that her mother sewed her a winter coat from scraps and rags. Despite the ridicule her classmates hurled at her, she wore the garment proudly. “I know we had no money, but I was rich as I could be,” the song ends, “in my coat of many colors my mama made for me.” Upon finishing the song, Parton dissolved into giggles, remarking how nice it was that the song had made her so very much money. The banter echoed her 1994 memoir, where she wrote, “It was also a big hit, and that did a lot to help me forget that early pain. It’s amazing how healing money can be.”
Parton’s image relies in equal measure on her obvious material success and her self-proclaimed “hillbilly, white trash background.” She grew up in rural eastern Tennessee, in a mountainside shack without running water. Her mother and father married when they were fifteen and seventeen respectively, and had twelve children by the time her mother was thirty-five. Her father was a sharecropper, a situation she explains bluntly: “That means we didn’t own the land we lived on. We farmed it for somebody else in return for a share of the crop. In a hard land that is stingy about giving up much of a crop, that share doesn’t come to a whole lot.”
Today, a life-size model of the little wooden shack stands inside Dollywood, a theme-park-cum-museum near the ridge where she grew up. Only a few visitors can fit inside at a time—each one no doubt wondering how such a large family could be created in a place affording such little privacy. Right outside, a kiosk sells giant, insulated souvenir mugs for $14.99, which can be refilled for free at soda stations around the park. That short walk from the cramped hovel to the Coca-Cola® Fill & Chill Zone is the American Dream, fizzily encapsulated.
In an election year that brought class concerns front and center, and in which Donald Trump’s gilt-edged, funhouse-mirror rendition of the American Dream captured voters’ imaginations (even though his story is not so much rags-to-riches as it is riches-to-Chapter-11-and-back-again), two new books examine the myth in the context of Parton’s people: the white working class, particularly in the south and Appalachia. In Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance traces his own arc from a Rust Belt childhood marked by family chaos—his mother was an addict, his father mostly absent, his hardworking, hard-living grandparents his main source of stability—through the military, Yale Law School, and all the way to a Silicon Valley investment firm. “I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels,” he writes, especially how “for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.” What is unusual about Vance’s story is his ambivalence about his trajectory—a kind of social mobility survivor’s guilt. He now shops at Whole Foods, attends classical concerts, worries about racial prejudice—everyday activities completely foreign to the people and place he comes from. The crisis of upward mobility is that “everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”
Parton’s memoir likewise tells the story of money buying entry into a new world. One of the most striking personal changes she experiences is in the way she thinks about food. In her memoir she describes her early, hardscrabble days in Nashville, when she walked the hallways of local hotels at night, looking for room-service trays from which she could pluck a half-eaten sandwich or piece of chicken. “I have always hated to see food wasted in a world where so many people are hungry,” she writes. Several pages, years, and income brackets later, she describes an eating plan she calls the Dolly diet, which involves ordering all the entrées she has a craving for, and eating just a bite or two of each. Unlike Vance, Parton is untroubled by these changes. She feels a moral obligation to give back to her community, but also to enjoy the privileges of her new life—to do otherwise would be “an insult to God,” she says. Or, as she puts it in a more irreverent moment: “Every day I count my blessings. Then I count my money.”
While Parton’s rosy recollections gloss over violence with euphemisms (a friend’s abusive father was “a moonshiner who sampled his own wares and could be pretty nasty to live with when he had done a little too much tastin’”), Vance puts such problems front and center. Ambient violence, omnivorous substance abuse, and a rotating cast of stand-in father figures trouble young Vance at every turn. Not even his grandparents, mostly described with tenderness and gratitude, are spared: “Mamaw told Papaw after a particularly violent night of drinking that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him,” Vance recounts. When he next came home drunk, Mamaw “calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.”
In spite of their tempers, Vance maintains that his grandparents were “without question or qualification, the best things that ever happened to me.” They did what they could to ensure that Vance would “get a fair shot at the American Dream.” This faith in the American Dream was delivered colorfully, and with the vein of anger that runs through the cultural landscape Vance describes: Mamaw often warned him to “never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them.”
Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash shows that the deck has, in fact, often been stacked against the white working class—specifically, those in the South and Appalachia who’ve been known by a series of nasty epithets: white trash, hillbillies, crackers, clay-eaters. The dynamic stretches back to the first European colonists to arrive in America. Writing against the popular mythology of opportunity and religious freedom, Isenberg reminds us that the American colonies—especially Virginia and the South—were treated as “England’s opportunity to thin out its prisons and siphon off thousands . . . an outlet for the unwanted, a way to remove vagrants and beggars, to be rid of London’s eyesore population.” Mixed in with the pilgrims we remember so well were thousands of petty criminals, indentured servants, and the vagrant poor.
It’s noteworthy that this element of American history—so often forgotten or obscured—is one that Parton is familiar with. In her memoir, Parton justifies her decision to leave her seven-year partnership with Porter Wagoner, the country star who jump-started her career, by saying “After all, the indentured servants who came to the New World had to work seven years for their freedom. Seven years is traditional.” In fact those who paid their own passage to the New World were rewarded for bringing indentured servants with additional land, even if the indentured servants died en route. “It paid to import laborers,” Isenberg writes, “dead or alive.” Of 1600s Virginia, she observes that “the colonists were meant to find gold, and to line the pockets of the investor class back in England.” Parton, 400 years later, finds the basic situation unchanged: “It’s a rich man’s game, no matter what they call it. And you spend your life putting money in his wallet.”
Parton makes an appearance in Isenberg’s history as a harbinger of 1980s “redneck chic”—ushering in the rocky “transition to white trash acceptance or accommodation,” which marked the transformation of “white trash” from epithet to badge of honor. Although the term “white trash” emerged around the time of the Civil War, the scorn and hostility toward this group is older than the nation itself—“First known as ‘waste people,’ and later ‘white trash,’” writes Isenberg, “marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children—the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated.” America has offered this group solutions ranging from New World feudalism to forced sterilization. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court upheld the state of Virginia’s sterilization law in the case of Carrie Buck, a white woman who was subjected to tubal ligation for being “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that this was a way “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Isenberg writes that these ideas “sounded rational to those who wished to reduce the burden of ‘loser’ people on the larger economy.”
Vance concedes that “The reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness.” But he often displays exactly the attitudes that Isenberg wants to dispel. His book opens with an anecdote about a coworker with a pregnant girlfriend who ultimately loses his job because he loved to take long breaks. Vance is careful not to use the word lazy to describe anyone he writes about, but he does categorize this coworker as part of a larger problem he sees all around: “Too many young men immune to hard work.” This is just the first in a parade of ne’er-do-wells who have brought their misfortune upon themselves, like the “lifetime welfare recipient” neighbor who would offer to trade Vance’s grandmother’s food stamps for cash. One might choose to view such bartering as a form of ingenuity, but for Vance it is one more example of the way that “the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground.”
From Horatio Alger novels to Business Insider slideshows, rags-to-riches stories emphasize hard work: the only thing standing between the poor farm kid and the jet-setting CEO is sufficient pluck and elbow grease. Parton and Vance—who are both hardworking, smart, and supported by older family members as they work their way up—bear this story out in their lives, and add to it in their memoirs. In addition to hard work, these new bootstrap stories emphasize a more ethereal prerequisite for upward mobility: the big dream.
Just as the American Dream is shorthand for a particular lifetime trajectory—family, home ownership, gainful employment, comfortable retirement—the big-dreaming habit that Parton and Vance emphasize is shorthand for a certain texture of mind: the blend of confidence and imagination necessary to conjure up an image of oneself inhabiting a radically better life. If there’s no trace of the sought-after glamor or wealth or influence in the dreamer’s actual environment, well, that’s what makes the dream so big. Parton’s 1994 memoir describes her early years in show business as a time of “dream[ing] bigger and bigger dreams” and her school days as unwelcome interruptions from the free time that she could spend on her “all-important dreaming.” Once her career had fully taken off, she dreamt of writing a self-help book about dreams, a dream she fulfilled with the 2013 publication of Dream More, a book that sweetly invites readers to follow their passions, and which shares a name with her Dollywood-adjacent resort and spa. Vance’s memoir is similarly dotted with dreams—his grandparents have “an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream” his arrival at Yale marks his achievement of it. This is remarkable, since according to Vance, “Appalachian hills and single-room, K-12 schoolhouses don’t tend to foster big dreams.”
The problem with the focus on the big-dream story is that—like so many bootstrap narratives before it—it places the blame for poverty squarely on the dispossessed. If you cannot dream big enough, better get used to life in that mountain holler (that tenement, that ghetto, that heroin addiction).
Isenberg observes that the myth of big-dream, positive thinking has served the elite by “placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences whenever possible.” This dynamic was clear throughout the 2016 election, in which a billionaire real-estate developer and reality-show host told a crowd at a Pennsylvania rally that he considered himself “a blue-collar worker.” These lines may resonate with working-class voters (at least, when they’re not too absurd), but even the most plausible personal narrative does little to assist the real working class.
Isenberg thinks the myth of social mobility is both “bolstering and debilitating.” The bolstering effect is undeniable. Parton’s and Vance’s lives inspire faith that people really can shape their own future. And recognizing that neither paints the whole picture does not take anything away from Parton, whose spangly spiritualism is an almost supernatural source of joy, nor from Vance, who seems likable enough. It’s not their job as memoirists to uncover the policies and economic conditions that make social mobility difficult even as our society insists on it. But Isenberg is right that these stories obscure as much as they inspire, reinforcing the notion that poverty can be solved by dreams and gumption and that income is a reflection of character.
I can’t think of many cultural artifacts that balance class awareness and optimism about the future. One of the best examples is Parton’s own 1980 office-workers’ anthem “9 to 5”: “They let you dream just to watch ‘em shatter, you’re just a step on the bossman’s ladder. But you’ve got dreams he’ll never take away.”
Rachel Riederer is co-editor-in-chief of Guernica: a magazine of global art & politics.