The Muddled Message of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

The protagonist of the 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels is an earnest comedy director named John L. Sullivan. One day, Sullivan announces that he’s going to make a socially important film. It will be a film that has Something to Say, a meditation on labor and capital and dignity! 

“But with a little sex?” his producer urges. 

“A little,” Sullivan concedes, adding primly, “but I don’t want to stress it.”

But Sullivan has a problem. He lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills and doesn’t have the remotest idea what “hard luck” is. Guilt-stricken at his lack of victimhood, Sully dons a hokey “hobo” costume and hits the road with nothing but his wits, a small bundle of provisions, and the ability to—at any time—call on his network of friends to prevent him from suffering any real harm. Still wrapped in his invisible privileges, he declares, “I’m not coming back until I know what real trouble is.”

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