Photo: Josh Howard.

Appalachia is more than just a region in the eastern United States. For some Americans, it’s an important element in the story about why we have the president that we do. A case and point: Hillbilly Elegy, the 2016 bestselling memoir set in Appalachia, was proclaimed by the New York Times as one of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” But for Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and activist from Appalachia, it’s a place that many people just get wrong. The popular image of Appalachia as a home to a backwards, white population that’s trapped in a culture of poverty is a falsehood that people believe to avoid taking responsibility for social problems, she says. “I think it’s a basic kind of psychological desire that there is a place where everything that’s toxic and not progressive can be compartmentalized.”

Catte grew up in East Tennessee, and writes about an Appalachia that we outsiders don’t hear much about in the news. It’s a place rich in diversity, with communities whose members include LGBTQ and people of color, and where the working class is not just made up of white male coal miners. Catte knows the region has problems, but says they are only made worse by false views of Appalachia that have a long history rooted in racism. And when Hillbilly Elegy, a book that Catte argues only perpetuates these dangerous stereotypes, became a national bestseller, she decided to write her own book to correct the record. Her work, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a short, compelling read, steeped in history, and serves as a wonderfully intelligent antidote to the untruths of our political moment. Also, depending on your notion of Appalachia, it can be transformative.

I spoke with Catte recently over the phone about these “imaginary Appalachias” that bewitch our nation, why they have power over so many people, and the racism that underlies them. We talked about why she’s hopeful about the region, and how she, a person deeply interested in the history of the underrepresented, can help. “What is often lost to the public is that history is not really an organic process. It’s strategic, and shaped by people with power who tell us what we should remember and what should we forget. But I wanted to be somebody who busted silences and complicated history.”

Regan Penaluna for Guernica

Guernica: What motivated you to write this book?

Elizabeth Catte: The story of how this book came into being is that I moved from Tennessee to Texas about the same time that the last presidential election really started to heat up. I was a new person in a new environment, meeting loads of people in the university and business leaders and doing awkward small talk, and people were filling the silences with praise for the book Hillbilly Elegy. They were using it to convince me of this bigger conversation about the presidential election, and what Appalachia might do to the country.

I began to notice more and more a sort of genre taking shape [in the media], which I call a “Trump Country” genre, that you also see reflected in Hillbilly Elegy. The Trump Country genre uses Appalachia to explain various manifestations of toxic politics and self-defeat, which were thought to be the side effect of the presidential election and the symptoms that called it into being.

I thought that I saw a new pattern emerge, and I wanted to study it from the ground up. I happened to connect with a publisher based in Ohio who was having similar feelings about her region and the Rust Belt. And so we decided to run with a digestible read about Appalachia, using the 2016 election and working backwards into some deeper history.

Guernica: Say more about the “Trump Country” genre and why it’s a problem.

Elizabeth Catte: There are a couple things that it’s useful to be aware of. The first one is just the sheer ratio of Trump Country pieces. We have to question why there are so many articles about Appalachia and Trump, and so few articles about progressive people in Appalachia.

Also, you see journalists going to the same places, and the same people get interviewed over and over again. I don’t know if the reading public is necessarily going to realize that. I call them minor coal-country celebrities, people who are very outspoken in support of Donald Trump, and who get recycled throughout these pieces.

Another facet of a Trump Country piece is that when journalists want to debunk things that people on the ground say—you know, like, “Coal’s coming back”—they’ll go to an expert in New England, New York, or Chicago. They’ll never ask one of the many environmentalists or scientists in Appalachia what they think.

Guernica: In your book, you challenge the notion of the white male coal miner as representative of the working class in Appalachia, and argue that there is also a “forgotten working class.” Who are they?

Elizabeth Catte: The working class of Appalachia is the working class of any region. It’s people who work in retail and hospitality. People who work in healthcare and are underpaid for that. People who are teachers and educators, who, again, are very underpaid. The working class are the people just like in California, who are trapped in what we call the gig economy. People who are trapped in unstable work contracts, temp labor, people who work at the Dollar General store. People who give you your flu shot. These are the people in Appalachia who make the region tick. Also, the emerging face of the working class is more likely to be a woman or a person of color.

And so it’s really kind of concerning to hear the region is emblematic of this special breed of white male working-class person, because there are so many people throughout the country who are trapped in the same economic circumstances, and have the same limitations on economic growth and ability. And nobody was really talking about them during this election.

The coal industry in Appalachia employs maybe thirty thousand people, and the reason that it’s so important is because it was one of few industries where you could leave high school and get a job making a living, and even oftentimes a comfortable wage. When people lose those jobs, it’s going to be a huge hit for the economy. But there also lots of people who already lost a well-paying job and then had to go work at the Dollar General store. The Trump Country stories are narratives of omission, and these are people who need to be restored to the conversation.

Guernica: A large part of your book is a takedown of the New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Elizabeth Catte: To understand Hillbilly Elegy, I think you have to first go to the subtitle of the book, which is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” I have nothing good or bad to say about the way that the story of this family is presented within the book. But what the hell is a memoir of a culture? This is not a thing that exists, and it’s not a thing that people write. So when I criticize and critique Hillbilly Elegy, I’m doing it specifically from that reference point.

What I do object to is the larger points that are made on the basis of his experience. It’s part of a very strong resurgence of ideas about the culture of poverty. The salient feature about the culture-of-poverty idea is the belief that the actions of individuals, and their moral failures, are what is impeding progress, not just for people, but for the country at large—rather than systemic issues.

Also, to understand Hillbilly Elegy, you have to understand a little bit about Charles Murray, too. And that’s not a good thing. Charles Murray is a very infamous conservative intellectual. I also would describe him as a white supremacist. He’s most famous for a 1994 book called The Bell Curve, which posited that African Americans were predisposed to lower intelligence, and this, in essence, was holding the country back in that various programs like welfare and public assistance were harming the country because they encouraged the over-breeding of the undesirable. The hallmark of Charles Murray’s career is trying to understand the genetic and cultural failings of poor people, specifically poor African Americans, but sometimes switching the script to poor whites to mitigate the racist origins and applications of his beliefs.

In op-eds and interviews, J.D. Vance references one specific Charles Murray book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, and it’s easy to see imprints of his work within Hillbilly Elegy. If we get back to the idea that what J. D. Vance has written is supposed to function as a memoir of a culture, then we look to see how he defines that culture. And what we find is that he has a particular obsession with the exaggerated qualities of Scots-Irish heritage and Appalachia. So he’s a subscriber to the myth that there’s a monoculture in Appalachia, that all the white people here have the same ethnic credentials, and that we have been shaped by this common heritage. His argument is that over time, this heritage has become degraded, and all the good things that were characteristic of this heritage—which are not true, but he says honor, bravery, that kind of thing—have given way to alcoholism, and addiction, and self-defeat.

In this particular moment, it’s also become an argument that there’s a deeper truth to poverty. That it’s not just something that is circumstantial or systemic, but rather it’s something that has to do with a deficient culture. And, again, that’s not a new idea. In the 1930s, there were a number of ethnographic studies about the deficient culture of “mountain people” that had significant consequences. I wrote about what happened in the wake of one such study, Hollow Folk. The authors presented mountaineers, who happened to be poor people living on very valuable land, as possessing a deficient bloodline and backwards culture and as such entangled the fate of at least two generations of mountaineers with the eugenics movement. I believe that arguments about deficiencies of culture never travel far behind arguments about deficient genetics, and it was alarming to hear those returned thanks to the popularity of Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance’s obsession with “hillbilly culture,” which obviously recalls unpleasant stereotypes but also a deeper and darker history.   

Guernica: You argue that Hillbilly Elegy’s underlying message that poverty stems from a defective culture promotes the broader argument that public assistance isn’t in the best interest of the country, which is also a conservative line of thinking. And so, you were astonished when liberals also read and recommended Hillbilly Elegy.

Elizabeth Catte: What’s really interesting about Hillbilly Elegy is that it aligns conservative and liberal thinking about the region. I think it was surprising to me, and it still is surprising, that so many smart liberal people bought stock into this narrative about Trump Country and about the power of poor people to make and create presidents. [Liberal] people, for example, who in my life as a former academic would never think of assigning anything by Charles Murray for their students to read, are suddenly consuming lots of analyses about Appalachia that have Charles Murray’s fingerprints all over them.

In general, Appalachia is a place that people project escapism onto, and they use it to compartmentalize away hard truths that the country shares. There is a history of doing this. A very grim example of this compartmentalization occurred around 2004, when news broke about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Media fixated on the crimes of Lynndie England, a woman with family roots in West Virginia and Kentucky, and she became a bad apple that had been poisoned by her “trailer trash” upbringing. This was the narrative preferred by those who didn’t want to talk about systemic problems in the military or the consequences of occupation. For me, understanding why people need the things they believe about Appalachia to be true is just as important as understanding how far they are from reality.

Guernica: That reminds me of a section of your book in which you talk about how people—especially upper-middle-class whites—use false notions of Appalachia to “convince them of the righteousness of their lives.”

Elizabeth Catte: False notions of Appalachia pick up a lot of baggage about class, but also about race. And what we see in these notions is that the experience of poverty is deeply racialized, even when the subject is presumed to be a white demographic. This is why, for example, when the National Review starts writing about Appalachia in 2014, they come out of the gate with an article called “The White Ghetto.” For those who like to indulge in that brand of self-righteousness, it is always the poor who fail our country, never a country that has failed the poor, and race and class work together in that regard to make poverty seem innate among certain populations.

Guernica: You write that the way that some people choose to think about Appalachia also unburdens them from thinking seriously about racism.

Elizabeth Catte: There’s an often-cited quote from Hillbilly Elegy that says something like, We need to think about class and get out from underneath the racial prism. And some people [who read the book] were like, “Oh man, this is great. It doesn’t always have to be about race.” But this is when my alarm bells start ringing, because whiteness is a race. And also, why do we need it to be true that there are some things we really can’t understand about American culture without also setting aside race?

Guernica: You say that a helpful—though not perfect—way to understand the region is to see it as an “internal colony.” What do you mean by that?

Elizabeth Catte: The internal colony model emerged in the 1960s and ’70s as an anti-colonial way of understanding power. In the 1970s, a number of circumstances prompted people to think very hard about land ownership in Appalachia. And activists discovered, with not much surprise, that most of the land in Appalachia was controlled by outside corporations. Mining companies, extractive companies, timber companies, the federal government, and cultural institutions like Harvard University owned a lot of land in Appalachia.

In terms of having control over their surroundings, people in Appalachia had very little power. To build power, they started thinking about themselves as an internal colony that was there to facilitate extractive capitalism. And it was important because it allowed people to think very clearly about power, and to articulate a version of power that is found in Appalachia.

Of course, the big caveat is that it’s not completely appropriate to talk about people who are white as colonized. Because Appalachia is part of America, we have a history of forced indigenous migration here, and if we’re talking about who owns the land, indigenous people should be the biggest part of that conversation. And the internal colony model didn’t really do that.

Also, [the internal colony model] has a tendency to say that things that are wrong in Appalachia have all been imposed upon us by people outside the region. But that’s not precisely true, because there are lots of compliant local politicians and business leaders who have facilitated extraction within the region. And, more broadly, the internal colony model doesn’t really help us address things like racism and sexism and homophobia that happen in the region.

So I prefer to say that Appalachia is the product of colonial logic. That is the belief that a people and a place can be used for a specific purpose in the accumulation of wealth. But [the internal colony model] did help me make sense of all the different types of power that are found here, and that are exerting pressure on our lives.

People in the region—not just people like J. D. Vance—have tried really hard to make a case for a kind of coherent Appalachia culture, and I’m not a person who would make that case. I would say that what we share is that many of us have been put through the same kind of historical forces and systems of power, and that’s what we have in common and can use as the basis for a shared identity or experience. And so, the internal colony model is not a perfect example of looking at Appalachia, but it is a good way to start thinking power, as opposed to culture.

Guernica: You write that moving away from Appalachia and living in Texas helped you see that some of the deepest problems in Appalachia were not region-specific, but more universal struggles for power, right?

Elizabeth Catte: My husband and I ended up in southeast Texas, which is the oil, petrochemical, and gas hub for not only the state of Texas, but also much of the country. And it was just so eye-opening for me because I’m from a region where we have lots of environmental issues from the coal industry. We also have lots of activism related to the coal industry. And you sort of think—and I think people want you to think—that the problems in Appalachia are unique to our region. I don’t think I could’ve written this book unless I had that experience of living in the middle of another ongoing environmental disaster. It helped me really think about the connections between the environment and capitalism in a way that I had not been thinking them because my ideas were so region-specific.

What we experienced was almost a mirror image of what we were experiencing in Appalachia, except that most of the people trapped in poverty, and experiencing the worst effects of environmental toxicity, were African American. And that was really profound for me, to learn about environmental racism, and also to see and speak to people who were trying to take on these big corporations like Exxon and Valero. I felt solidarity with those people, because in Appalachia we try to do the same with our current industry leaders. And we were just, like, holy wow. Imagine the power that can be built among people if they just realize that they have these connections.

Guernica: How did growing up in Appalachia inform your understanding of the region?

Elizabeth Catte: I grew up in east Tennessee, which is central Appalachia. My first awareness of having a regional identity was just as sort of a generic Southerner, but I quickly learned that I was Appalachian, and what people would call a hillbilly, because I grew up very close to the Smoky Mountains. If you’ve never been, it’s the site of a fantastic national park, but it’s also the site of this kind of unprecedented tourist creation that started in the 1930s, where you have really sophisticated folk arts programs with the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts next to very commercialized Appalachian culture in the form of hillbilly stereotypes. I grew up playing hillbilly put-put, and having dinner at Hillbilly Hank’s Café, and stuff like that. I processed my identity as this Appalachian person, often and early, through the lens of these very sensational tourist attractions that were meant to be consumed by other people.

So, that, I think, more than studying Appalachian history, sent me down the road to thinking about identity, and consumption, and tourist stays, and things of that nature which served me well when I actually did start learning about Appalachian history.

Guernica: Are you hopeful about the future of Appalachia?

Elizabeth Catte: It is incredibly hard to be hopeful about anything right now, but if I try to be more Zen about what’s happening, I remind myself that my grandparents’ generation thought they would always be under the thumb of the coal industry—an industry that tells us that we are disposable, that our bodies are less valuable than minerals. And that’s a grim way to understand yourself and your identity. They never imagined a day where we might be having conversations about the end of coal.

So I am excited that the end of coal is a thing that I will probably see in my lifetime. We are still here trying to work together to advance solutions that are not only really good for the region, but for the rest of the country, too. If we can find a way, for example, to create solutions for healthcare shortages and gaps in healthcare access, that will benefit people in lots of regions. If we find a way to arrest some of the environmental degradation left behind by the coal industry that will help people in other regions, too.

Really, I’m just happy to be here in the region, and it’s a place where I think I can do the best work that I can do.

Guernica: Imagine you meet someone who’s never been Appalachia, and they ask you to tell them about it. What impression do you want to leave them with?

Elizabeth Catte: My advice is to go and see it for yourself. This is the best advice that I can give to anybody who wants to understand Appalachia. Drive through it. Experience it. Come to your own opinions, and then go from there.

Regan Penaluna

Regan Penaluna is a senior editor at Guernica. You can find her @reganpenaluna.

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