If you read my review of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, then you’ll recognize that Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia has done my work for me, though we arrived at similar conclusions independently. Catte is a historian with more than simply an anecdotal interest in Appalachia. Whereas Vance paints the region in broad strokes, tending to overload Elegy with the freight of clichés and caricatures, Catte adopts a more nuanced approach while insisting on an image of Appalachia that’s “far from monolithic, helpless, and degraded.”
Like Vance, the author offers two reasons for her book, ones in stark contrast to Vance’s efforts to answer what he considers two compelling questions: Why was Yale University Law School so culturally alien, and why do elite institutions admit so few students like Vance? (Hint: Vance is singularly special and part of eugenicist Charles Murray’s cognitive elite.) Catte’s reasons for writing What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia are essentially corrective, beginning with a statement about what contemporary essays and interviews omit in addressing the “Appalachian problem”:
According to the bulk of coverage about the region in the wake of Trump’s election and the success of Hillbilly Elegy, currently at fifty weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, I do not exist. My partner does not exist. Our families do not exist. Other individuals who do not exist include all nonwhite people, anyone with progressive politics, those who care about the environment, LGBTQ individuals, young folks, and a host of others who resemble the type of people you’ll meet in this volume. The intentional omission of these voices fits a long tradition of casting Appalachia as a monolithic “other America.”
Essentially, Catte’s book has two aspirations. The first is “to provide critical commentary about who benefits from the omission of the voices, using Appalachian history to push back against monolithic representations of the region, and to openly celebrate the lives, actions, and legacies of those ignored in popular commentary about Appalachia.” Her second aim is to call attention to “the spaces of openness and solidarity forged in the concrete experience of living in communities that were always present in radical spaces in Appalachia both then and now.”
Realizing that Appalachia attracts voyeurs, who derive assurance that they, at least, are not as poor, degraded, and depraved as the “white savages” (Ben Franklin’s phrase) of Appalachia, Catte understands the psychological safety net Appalachia provides the rest of the country. However, her book is nothing if not a manifesto imposing boundaries on who and what we let define us:
If you’re looking for racism, religious fundamentalism, addiction, unchecked capitalism, poverty, misogyny, and environmental destruction, we can deliver in spades. What a world it would be if Appalachians could contain that hate and ruin for the rest of the nation. But we can’t.
But we can’t. The author makes good on her promise, challenging the dominant narrative that media, Hollywood, and J. D. Vance perpetuate about us. In particular, she’s careful about what not to do, knowing the dangers of fetishizing “the presumed homogeneity” of the region while letting reductionistic thinking attempt to explain complex political and social realities:
Many of the people you’ll meet in this volume self-identify as Appalachian. I will not ascribe a culture to them, cohesive or otherwise, but I will locate them in shared experiences such as the struggle to arrest environmental destruction, to secure workers’ rights, to demand clean water, and to preserve folkways. These struggles are ubiquitous in Appalachia but are not unique to the region. The individuals you’ll encounter include Florence Reece, who fought mine wars with songs. Ollie Combs, a widow who put her body in the path of machines is here, and so is the Highlander Folk School, where civil rights leaders trained in nonviolent resistance. You’ll get to know the people and projects of Appalshop and WMMT, media organizations focused on Appalachian issues, and individuals like Eula Hall, who tirelessly promoted rural health care.
Catte Knows Appalachia’s heroes, just as she can spot a disingenuous self-promoter willing to transform his kinfolks into caricatures of themselves. (After all, fleecing family is Appalachian, right?) Catte lets Vance bloviate for himself, however:
This is the reality of our community. It’s about a naked druggie destroying what little of value that exists in her life . . . Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we are spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. At especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children.
Vance’s take-away from his family’s antics? Simply this: “. . . there is no government that can fix these problems for us. These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, only we can fix them.” Forget more than a century of exploitation by coal companies. The real culprit lurks in the stagnant water of the Scots-Irish gene pool. Such thinking qualifies Vance as a purveyor of “poverty porn,” like his predecessor, Harry Caudill, author of the 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Distressed Area, who enjoyed taking visiting reporters on “poverty tours” near his Whitesburg, Kentucky, home. Catte notes that Caudill “could be vicious toward the poor, particularly after federal assistance came to the region.” Rubbing elbows with leading eugenicists of the day, Caudill once wrote to one that
I once told a federal official that the best way to fight poverty would be to move an army camp into the region. My theory was that the soldiers would get the mountain girls pregnant to the everlasting benefit of the region as a whole. I still think the suggestion was sound.
Catte concludes that Caudill and other eugenicists of his era are the not too distant intellectual ancestors of Charles Murray and J. D. Vance. Caudill worried that poor whites were “breeding down to idiocy,” Murray that Blacks with demonstrably lower IQs threaten to drain available resources. Vance picks up the torch in support of Murray’s contention though flipping the text to focus on poor whites. Catte sees clearly the danger of Vance’s cozying up to what one social critic calls “the most famous racial determinist in contemporary America.” The author grasps, too, a lurking agenda pitting race against class and privileging one over the other:
In the age of Hillbilly Elegy, a book applauded by the National Review for proving that signs of white distress “have gone neglected as LGBTQ identity politics and Black Lives Matter antics” have monopolized the nation’s attention, we’re told to be grateful that Vance has returned Appalachia to the nation’s conscience. But I don’t want Appalachia to be used as a siphon to suck attention away from LGBTQ politics and Black Lives Matter, movements that also flourish here. I don’t want to lose race in discussions of class. I don’t want to keep talking about “brain drain” when millions of smart, capable, and good people still call the region home. I don’t want anything that Vance could ever give the region, which works out, because he’s far more interested in taking.
African American writer, Langston Hughes, understood the mantle of responsibility required of a writer who speaks for his or her people. To that end, he famously said, “I am both a part of the tribe and apart from the tribe.” What Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia demonstrates is the insufficiency of J. D. Vance to be a spokesperson for anybody but Appalachia’s political elite. His small investment in the region has yielded him huge dividends in money and fame. He is the intellectual equivalent of an absentee landlord, the sort, in Catte’s estimate, who “grants himself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects.”
At the end of the day, Vance and his public persona are inseparable. Catte knows that, refusing to indulge the hypocrisy of recognizing his status as a cultural savant or as anything other than a one-man carnival attraction. Hers is the righteous anger of someone who loves her land and its people, making no excuses, but ever vigilant to the existence of a threat in our midst:
Vance is a well-educated person of means with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for a region. Since he is such an enormous fan of personal responsibility, I am thrilled to hold him responsible for his asinine beliefs and associations. Appalachian blogger Kelly Haywood, in her essays on Elegy, objects to the individuals who claim that Vance isn’t authentically Appalachian because he migrated outside the region. I don’t give a damn about geography, but I’ll note that Vance has transcended one of the most authentically Appalachian experiences of them all: watching someone with tired ideas about race and culture get famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region.