Toward the end of 2016, just when many Americans were looking for an explanation for how Donald Trump became a presidential candidate then president, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance hit stores and shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The book, Vance’s memoir and analysis of Appalachian culture and rural poverty, offered conservatives and liberals alike a perspective on the poor white America they held responsible for electing Donald Trump. It’s no mystery why the book’s release coincided with a flood of parachute journalism into “Trump Country” that, a year later, is still going strong.
Hillbilly Elegy was hailed from both sides of the political aisle, a rare accomplishment during politically divisive times, and it proved to be as popular as it was provocative. Whereas the New York Times praised it as “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion,” Elegy was also criticized by many for advancing a narrative of Appalachia as a homogenous white region crumbling under a poverty created by its own lazy culture. “Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class,” wrote the New Republic’s Sarah Jones. Despite the debate, Vance’s book was a hit and he along with it. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Vance became mainstream media’s go-to interpreter of Appalachia and Trump Country in general. Appalachia’s characterization in popular culture was recemented as stuck-in-time, poor (due to laziness), white, and undeserving of pity.
Throughout it all, Appalachians have spoken out against Vance becoming the mouthpiece for an entire region. Among those endeavoring to fight back against the narrative of Appalachia Vance promotes is historian Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, which is out February 6. In the new book, Catte, who was born and raised in East Tennessee and currently living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, dives into the historical imbalances of power that have led time and time again to America’s fascination with the horrors of Appalachia. Taking specific aim at Elegy, Cattee offers an insightful guide on thinking and talking about a region many only understand as a place to feel superior to.
Growing up, do you remember when you first became acquainted with the stereotype of the backwards, stuck in time time, homogenous white Appalachia?
That's hard to answer. I'm from East Tennessee but my family is from southwestern Virginia — Haysi, Dickerson County. It's Virginia's equivalent of coal country. When we would go up to visit relatives in that part of the world, even at a very young age I had this sense of discomfort and unease that the people I was visiting were people that people wanted me to be ashamed of — the poverty, the way that people lived, the way that they made money. The economy there was in decline, even then in the late 1980s. But I had a sense from very young that something was not right and that if anybody else saw it they would blame it on the people that lived here.
How did you feel when you first heard that Hillbilly Elegy was coming out and becoming successful?
The context for my discovery of this book is my partner and I had just moved from Tennessee to southeast Texas, a temporary move as it turns out. But we were [in] these situations that you often find yourself in when you're new to an area. You're struggling to make small talk with people, you're getting to know new coworkers, you're struggling to find things that you guys have in common to talk about. And everyone it seemed wanted to talk to me about this book. They weren't interested really in what I thought about it; they were interested in telling me everything that they knew and that they had learned about Appalachia.
It was an alienating experience. And for an extra layer of context, Southeast Texas is not a paradise. There's problems with racism, there's problems with the dominion of the petrochemical industry there. It's a really hard way of life, very similar to Appalachia in a lot of ways, from my point of view. And so to have these conversations with people that would keep re-occurring over and over — ‘What you think is wrong with Appalachia? Why you think that people there just give up?' — meanwhile, there's the largest oil refinery in the United States right across the street that's giving people poisoned water and cancer, like all the people that I grew up with, too. So people really wanted to kind of read this book and set themselves apart from the people in it that were described, and that was very alarming to me. That was my first awareness of this book. Later, obviously, I read it for myself and was just appalled at kind of the the narrative that was presented about the region.
And were you surprised at how well it was being received?
Yes and no. I was not surprised given the larger context of the 2016 election. I think what really surprised me is the number of liberal-leaning people, like the white people that I was interacting with in Texas who were university professors and business people and kind of quote unquote good middle class people [who] were really excited to see this argument and this narrative emerge. They bought it lock, stock, and barrel and not only found connections to it but were out there spreading the gospel of it, as well. They wanted to tell other people these things that they had learned about this region that, in their mind, concisely explained something very troubled about our political moments. So that was surprising to me and it's still surprising to me that so many people, smart people, people who think of themselves as progressive were excited to read this book and were very uncritical about it.
Why you think so many liberal and progressive people were. as you say, not super critical of it or just so happy to have that book in existence?
That's the million dollar question, why people needed what Hillbilly Elegy said about Appalachia to be true. Some of it is escapism. People in regions like Appalachia, poor white people, have always received the projected angst of more comfortable and stable white Americans. There's a long history of that in Appalachia and I think there's lots of parallels in our current political moment about that, certain regions and certain people just absolving all of the country's sin so people can continue to feel self-righteous and progressive.
It's a concise narrative. It is a confident narrative. And it's been deployed quite successfully by J.D. Vance himself. He's accepted roles as a political pundit talking head, doing Ted Talks, and a really ambitious public speaking agenda, so it's a really multipronged platform that this book has. One of my favorite things to see people do is compare J.D. Vance to Ta-Nehisi Coates which happens a lot in conservative publications, like the American Conservative. And I think it's incredible because there's an idea at work that people from groups that are under-represented can only have one spokesperson and one translator at a time. You see that within African-American literature and journalism. This is a role that J.D. Vance has assumed as well, the tour guide, the interpreter, the translator to a misunderstood culture. That has a lot of resonance for the kind of readers that Hillbilly Elegy enjoyed.
You really want to be wary of narratives that offer you all the answers in a bite-sized package.
In the book you talked about how the same narrative was deployed in the ‘60s during the War on Poverty. Has it evolved since that time?
It's not exactly the same. There's a famous Appalachian educator named Don West who co-founded the Highlander Folk School in the 1930s and he often wrote that there's a rediscovery of Appalachia that happens each generation, sometimes more so, where people discover or rediscover poverty and social problems in Appalachia and go to war with themselves above our heads about whether or not we deserve their solutions. And then interest will fade out until the next time that poverty or the problems of Appalachia are discovered. From that perspective there's a lot of similarities between the War on Poverty and what's happening now. The sense that, ‘Oh we've discovered a problem, it's a new problem. These are very very unique social issues and cultural issues and Appalachian economic issues,’ when really they are the same issues that are found in many other places in America.
I think in the 1960s there was a more benevolent attitude behind this rediscovery. There was this faith in social reform and new pathways in social sciences and new approaches to poverty work. This is the time that we get the idea that assimilation is what is going to help the poor. If we can get them educated and embracing middle class values and attitudes, that's what they need to lift them out of poverty. I think now there's much more of a sense of retribution attached to Appalachia. More people are very interested in letting Appalachia die, letting it reap what it's sown. In the 1960s there is more affluence generally in America so people were had this sort of reformist attitude that was looking out on countries like Africa and saying, ‘We're helping people come out from the shadow of their colonial past. We're helping disadvantaged countries move towards development. We should apply that same sort of generous spirit to people in America that are left behind.’ Then of course the primary targets were poor African-Americans in urban centers and poor Appalachians, which are always almost always coded as white. So there was a spirit of can-do-ness to the War on Poverty that's just not found in America today.
Why did you feel like it was important to address Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance specifically?
Because I'm a historian, I'm less interested in debunking stereotypes and what I instead want to do is make power more visible. I want to talk about power. And so I think it is a very powerful thing when a single person can reshape the almost entire narrative of a region in such a way that you know it says to me that either this person J.D. Vance is particularly powerful, which might be true, but probably more true is the fact that we in Appalachia don't have a lot of power. So that's the relationship that I wanted to talk about when I started digging into Hillbilly Elegy. The other thing I wanted to introduce in regards to this book is the fact that Appalachia has had many interpreters and translators. Sometimes they call them "cultural interventionists" — the people who assume and often have some connection to the region the task of explaining misunderstood people to the world. Sometimes these are liberal figures, sometimes they're conservatives, but generally speaking they have an enormous impact on the way that people think about the region.
The example I've used in my book is a couple of photographers: Harry Caudill who was an attorney in Whitesburg, Kentucky during the war on poverty, who changed completely changed what people thought of Appalachia as a kind of problem area. He really played into the kind of superficial, although he didn't mean to at the time — the superficial narrative of of a region that's just sort of trapped in poverty. Later, he came to advocate some pretty disturbing solutions to that. So I wanted to talk about the powerlessness that we sometimes are forced submit to, when a new translator or interpreter comes along and take those liberties and is endorsed as a spokesperson and the kind consequences that have followed.
When you were studying particularly communities of color in Appalachia did you come across anything new or surprising or that struck you?
What was most in my mind when I wrote this book regarding communities of color is that in the coalfields of Appalachia in southwestern Virginia and eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia at various points in time — particularly like in the 1910s and 20s — these are some of the most diverse places in the country. You have an influx of recent European immigrants. You have poor people who have been in the region for maybe a generation or two. And then you have a huge influx of imported African-American labor from the South. These really diverse areas existed and persisted in Appalachia. So some of the places that journalist were describing as the beating heart of Trump Country were also places that were maybe 50 or 60 years ago the most diverse places in Appalachia.
Of course, they're not like that now. But I found it very interesting that nobody was telling that story, too, to talk about why don't people of color still live in these communities. Spoiler: It's often because when the first round of of labor layoffs and firings happen it's people of color that are targeted along with white women. But I really am appalled at this idea that travels through narratives of Appalachia and Trump Country that rural places are naturally white places, because that's never true. Why they come to be and why we imagine them to be can tell us so much about the complexities of how our country developed and how we have arrived at this moment. And anytime we have a chance to push back against the narrative that naturalizes any particular geography or place or state or way of life as the dominion of white people I feel that I need to take the opportunity to do that.
In your book you write that there were a lot of stories about Trump in Appalachia that could have been told but powerful outlets and people didn't want to cover them. Could you give me a couple examples of stories that you wish had gotten more attention or?
I think I mentioned one example which [is that] every year there's a queer film festival in West Virginia. I think it would have been really interesting to see how that played out in the first month of the Trump administration. I wanted somebody to go and talk to African-Americans in Appalachia and say, ‘What do you think about your neighbors?’ This is such a no-brainer to me. Even people were writing about the region to say, ‘Oh god look how horrible it is,’ that would have made the case even stronger for them. We have large immigrant communities in Appalachia. Our Latino populations are some of the fastest growing in the country. And nobody — apart from our local media which did a good job — is talking to Latino farm communities in Appalachia or new immigrants about arriving into this place in the moment of Trump. Those would have been fantastic stories to tell to give a new dimension of the Trump Country story. It's almost malicious to me that those stories didn't get told.
All the people who consume these Trump Country stories, but maybe not as critically — what do you think are some questions that they can ask when they read helicopter journalism or Hillbilly Elegy?
The big one for me is that if you read a profile of a culture, a place, [and] don't come away with more questions than answers, then you have screwed up or the author has screwed up. People are complex, history is complex, regions and politics are complex. You really want to be wary of narratives that offer you all the answers in a bite-sized package. And [those are] characteristics that are very true of Hillbilly Elegy and Trump Country narratives. I authentically do not know who the audience for these pieces are anymore. I think they were primed when they first started to middle class white people who got a little extra value from them because they could see people who were defective and toxic but also [they] enjoyed that they could pity them and have sympathy for the Trump voter. But now I don't know. There's there's obviously things I don't know about the media things that go on behind the scenes… but I do not think that these pieces are going to go away anytime soon.
Ron Howard [is directing the film version of] Hillbilly Elegy. If the movie comes out would you go see it?
No, I wouldn't go see it. Unless I was very drunk.