If you read “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of growing up in Appalachia, you are probably morally obligated to read the new book that is a withering response to it. “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte, a historian from the Shenandoah Valley, is an angry little book, although from Catte’s viewpoint, she has a lot to be angry about.
One of the things she’s angriest about is how “Hillbilly Elegy” purports to speak for the Appalachian experience, and how it’s been embraced in some circles as the definitive word on the subject. Catte does not beg to differ because she does not beg. She demands, and she makes a lot of points worth paying attention to. (She also speaks Tuesday at the Glenvar Library at 7 p.m.)
“Hillbilly Elegy” won lavish praise in conservative circles. When The American Conservative published an interview with the author in 2016, the magazine’s website crashed from the volume of comments. Vance, in turn, has sometimes been touted as a possible Republican candidate for, well, something, in his home state of Ohio. His book struck those conservative chords because it emphasized the role of personal responsibility, always a popular conservative theme. Or, from the standpoint of liberal critics, it blamed the poor for being poor. Sarah Jones of The New Republic complained that Vance’s book is simply “a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” Now comes Catte’s book, which in 132 snappy pages, aims to present the other side of the story. She writes about an Appalachia that’s been exploited for generations by outside interests, both economically and even journalistically.
Conservative readers will soon tire of Catte’s politics (she lists herself as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America Charlottesville chapter), but they should read on anyway. Her opinions might be decidedly to the left, but that does not make her facts wrong, or even some of her conclusions. How else can we explain why the coal counties are so poor? Immense wealth was mined out from under them that made somebody rich somewhere, just not the people who live there. Does one have to be a socialist to wonder why? Shouldn’t conservatives be asking that, too?
In theory, there’s room for both Catte and Vance to be correct. Outside interests have taken advantage of Appalachia and not left much behind. Some families are dysfunctional and some people do mooch off the system in ways that cause resentment in others. Readers can compare and contrast the two books and draw their own mental Venn diagram. Mostly, though, Catte wants to dispute the notion that Vance speaks for all of Appalachia. In doing so, she makes several salient points:
n Appalachia is more diverse than people realize. One of the main things that particularly galls Catte is how Appalachia is often shorthand for white — and how sometimes the region is presented as a nearly pure remnant population of the “pioneer stock” of Scots-Irish. On this point, she is most emphatically on solid ground. Appalachia is, of course, overwhelmingly white but it is not exclusively white — and its white population has a more complicated genealogy than simply the Scots-Irish. For many immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the route from Ellis Island ran directly to the coalfields — which is why for many years there used to be a Hungarian festival in Tazewell County.
“There are more people in Appalachia who identify as African-American than as Scots-Irish,” Catte writes. “It might be true that much of the region is overwhelmingly white, but it is also true that there are few towns or cities in Appalachia without a visible African-American or Latino community. Constructions of the region as ‘all-white’ to satisfy a particular fetish about the white working class maliciously erase individuals whose lives also matter.”
Another demographic fact to squirrel away: “For the past thirty years, African-American and Hispanic individuals have fueled more than half of Appalachian’s population growth.” To be sure, there hasn’t been much population growth in Appalachia. Many localities have seen just the opposite — de-population. Still, her point is one worth remembering: Appalachia isn’t just white people picking banjos. Ideally, those of us who live there understand that, but stereotypes die hard.
n Appalachia shouldn’t be used as shorthand for “Trump Country.” Catte might come from the left, but she takes on the liberal website DailyKos, which she blames for pushing the idea that to understand Trump’s appeal, you should study Appalachia. Catte cites some inconvenient facts. Most of Appalachia did, indeed, vote for Trump by wide margins. But so, too, did some very non-Appalachia communities, such as eastern Long Island and Staten Island. That prompts Catte to offer this insightful piece of journalistic criticism: “‘Trump Country’ pieces share a willingness to use flawed presentations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose.” Catte doesn’t say it, but we will: Appalachia didn’t elect Trump for the very simple reason that it’s been voting Republican for quite some time now. Trump certainly ran stronger in Appalachia than previous Republicans, but those extra margins didn’t change the Electoral College. Trump won because he carried some combination of Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all states that had gone Democratic for at least two prior elections and often longer. We might learn more about Trump’s appeal in St. Lucie County, Florida, than anywhere in Appalachia. That’s a county that voted Democratic in five straight elections, then went for Trump. But St. Lucie County doesn’t fit the preferred narrative. Liberals might blame Appalachia for Trump, conservatives might congratulate it. Both are wrong.
Many of the examples that Catte cites come from the coal counties, what might be considered the classic representation of Appalachia, but is really just a sub-set of a larger Appalachia. Readers outside Virginia’s coal counties likely will find this foreign to their own experience. There was never any coal mined here, so no pitched battles over unions or distant corporations that controlled vast tracts of land. So is this book really about us? Yes, because Catte’s basic points apply nonetheless.
This part of the country is a more complicated place than it’s often depicted. That’s just one of many things that people get wrong about Appalachia.