“Glass House” posits Lancaster as an avatar for Trump's America

Eric Lyttle
Columbus Monthly

Brian Alexander made no bones about it. “I’m nervous as a cat,” he said to a standing-room-only audience of nearly 200 crammed inside the Lancaster library’s third-floor space.

Alexander was returning to his hometown to discuss his book, “Glass House,” on the day of its release—Valentine’s Day. Lancaster residents had heard about the book for months and obviously were anxious to see what all the fuss was about. All 60 copies offered for sale at the library were snatched up before Alexander’s talk even began.

His nervousness was understandable. “Glass House” portrays Lancaster and the decline of Anchor Hocking Glass Company, the city’s largest employer for a century, as emblematic of many of the nation’s ills, including the rise of the country’s so-called 1-percent economy, the loss of the symbiotic social contract that comes from local industry being run by local employees and the disenfranchisement—politically, financially and socially—of working-class America.

Alexander, a 1977 Lancaster Fisher Catholic High School graduate, had moved away shortly after graduation and built an impressive journalism career, with three previous books to his credit and bylines in such prestigious publications as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Outside and Esquire magazines. He told his hometown audience that he’d been contemplating American culture and the problems and changes it was undergoing for some time when, in 2008, his mother asked him to take her back to Lancaster. She retired to Florida years earlier and decided she wanted to revisit old friends. Alexander agreed. While she visited, he walked around, noticing the changes that had taken place in Lancaster in the years since he’d last visited. They weren’t good. He drove by his old house, his old swimming pool, the parks where he used to play. “It was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t find any kids playing anywhere.” He said he walked to the one of the Anchor Hocking buildings that had closed years earlier. “It looked like the guys had walked off the job five minutes earlier. Nothing had changed,” Alexander said.

Then it struck him—the book that had been rattling around in his head, the tale of the decline of America’s social contract—was right here in front of him. “I had been trying to write about a number of threads but lacked a way to bring those together coherently,” Alexander wrote in an email following his Lancaster presentation, “until I realized that many were running right through a town I know well, my hometown.”

Since its writing, “Glass House” has drawn comparisons to J.D. Vance’s national best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy,” as an examination of the white small-town America that put Donald Trump in the White House. Alexander says he was mostly finished with his book when “Hillbilly Elegy” was released, “and I deliberately did not read it until [Glass House] was finished,” he says. Though he started researching his book long before Trump’s campaign began, Alexander says, “I do think it is a look inside Trump’s America. But when I began, I saw it as a view into the ‘1% Economy’ and how that system has affected the country. The spirit of what became Trumpism was there and, as it turned out, carried the day in the election, and the book, I think, provides important insights into some of the undergirding of Trumpism. But the issues were there before Trump and will remain after Trump.”

While Vance’s book was a memoir of his life in Middletown, Ohio, and a look into the rebellious and staunchly independent hillbilly culture he grew up in, Alexander instead took the reporter’s tact of chronicling, through interviews and the historic record, how Lancaster’s rise and fall paralleled that of Anchor Hocking’s. A reviewer for Slate wrote, “Alexander’s book is less personal, less tortured, a work of journalism far more willing to indict forces larger than the stubborn, delusional pride of the with working class. This book hunts bigger game.”

Alexander sees the two books as complementing each other. “J.D.’s book is mostly more small bore,” Alexander says. “I am trying to use Lancaster as an avatar for big issues. . . . It tries to get underneath some of the stuff J.D. discusses.”

Alexander says, “One big difference is that J.D. focuses on the culture of ‘hillbillies.’ I focus on the forces that have affected the town and so the people in it, hillbillies or not (and there were a few ‘hillbillies’ in Lancaster.) So I think more attention should be paid to how the path walked by generations of working people, including hillbillies, collapsed, or were collapsed, leading to social erosion and dysfunction. It’s not just the culture.”