Starting in early 2016, we began to see a phenomenon that later became the Trump Country profile: national (and international) news reporters, parachuting into some Appalachian small town, churning out a think piece about the despair, the poverty, the addiction, the desolation, the desperation that was turning voters toward Donald Trump.
Rather than tapering off, the genre only gained in strength through the 2016 election, and has renewed itself repeatedly since as a periodic exploration of How Trump Voters Feel Now.
On a similar track, J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” gained the ear of non-Appalachian conservatives and liberals alike who viewed it as a work of insight into the mind of Trump Country voters, while Appalachian scholars recognized in Vance another writer claiming insider status while making sweeping generalizations about how it is Appalachian people’s own fault if they’re poor.
If there is a plus side to having spent two years watching Vance and journalists talk about things they clearly have not researched, it’s that the experience has given us Elizabeth Catte’s new book, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.”
Catte has a Ph.D. in public history. Her book demonstrates the benefits of reading a book about Appalachia by someone who is both from the region and has actually studied it.
It’s a short and fiery denunciation of the many ways in which journalists and Vance have misunderstood and misrepresented Appalachian history and people. Both cast Appalachians as a vast, one-dimensional group, to fit their own narratives and suit their own purposes.
Catte puts the Trump Country stories squarely within the long history of narratives of Appalachia, representations created by those outside the region for purposes that varied over time, but never bent to the benefit of Appalachian people themselves.
“‘Trump Country’ pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” Catte writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 150 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions that only intelligent outside observers could see and act on.”
She points out that the narrative of Appalachia as the heart of Trump’s support serves a purpose for those who push it, but ignores some facts.
“For liberal political commentators there were no wealthy donors, white suburban evangelicals, or insular Floridian retirees responsible for Trump’s victory, only hillbillies, “ she writes.
Vance’s memoir also crafts a narrative around Appalachians that takes his own singular experience and projects it onto a group of millions. This generalized narrative suits his purpose — without it and his claim to writing a memoir of a culture, his book would be only a memoir of someone who escaped a tough life: nice but probably not a bestseller. His sweeping and inaccurate generalizations — in which all “we” Appalachians are angry, violent, lazy, and wasteful — bear little relationship to the actual experience of many people in Appalachia.
It does remind us, though, of something we’ve read before. Catte writes that what Vance is doing is a resurrection of “outdated theories about a culture of poverty in Appalachia, honed in the 1960s.”
I was not alive in the 1960’s but my mother and other family members remember clearly the painful and inaccurate portrayals of their home region that they saw in the national media during the War on Poverty years. “They just looked for the sorriest-looking house and the sorriest-looking people they could find,” my mother recalls of the news stories then.
Vance mines that old ground.
“Much like the visual archive generated during the War on Poverty, Elegy sells white middle-class observers an invasive and exploitative story of the region,” Catte writes.
But that isn’t its only sin, nor even its most egregious one. Catte puts Vance’s book even more directly into an even darker history. Elegy’s argument for being a cultural memoir relies on the premise that Appalachian people remain a cohesive culture descended from white Scots-Irish settlers. That in itself is factually inaccurate, but Catte writes that it’s also dangerously similar to arguments from eugenicists and white supremacists.
To demonstrate just how one-dimensional these narratives are, Catte describes a very different Appalachia than the one seen in Elegy or in Trump Country pieces — one that should not be left out of the story.
It’s a rebellious Appalachia, one where miners march, generation after generation, for solidarity, against the forces of corporate greed and destruction. It’s an Appalachia where women build health clinics because they’re needed, and one where civil rights-era figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks are pictured at a Tennessee training conference. It’s a place where people fight back.
“This too, is Appalachia,” Catte writes. “Appalachia is images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom. Our album is filled with images of people who suffered, but also people who fought.”
Catte’s book should be read by: everyone who is interested in Appalachia; everyone named J.D. Vance; everyone who read Hillbilly Elegy; everyone who recommended that book to anyone else; every reporter who parachuted into Appalachia to write about despair in Trump Country; every reporter who continues to do so despite its demonstrably shaky premise; everyone who has said of Appalachians “they all voted for Trump so let them die/drink foul water/suffer black lung”; every person who has said “why don’t they move”; every person who has said “why do they vote against their own interests.”
Catte packs a lot of punches into 132 pages, providing a crash course in the history of narratives and “othering” of Appalachia by outsiders. She isn’t here to lay out a long, dutifully footnoted academic argument. That has been done by other historians and writers, many of whom she cites as inspirations. You can, and should, read the likes of Ron Eller for a deeper dive into the history Catte mentions.
She’s not here for that. She’s here to deliver an impassioned yet educated defense of Appalachia, against these old, tired stereotypes, the old narratives that recycle themselves every generation. My mother saw the War on Poverty coverage and shook her head at the reporters hunting the sorriest looking people. I see the Appalachia as Trump Country pieces and fume at the reporters looking for the poorest laid-off coal miner in the poorest county in West Virginia.
The cycle never ends. Maybe if more people read Catte’s book, that will change.