Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Historian Makes Case For 'What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia' In New Book


Appalachia is this long, diagonal region that stretches from New York state down to Alabama - 400 counties, 25 million people. And the story of Appalachia has been told many times over the decades often by writers and photographers who travel there to show poverty and struggle. More recently during the campaign of Donald Trump, who got a lot of support in Appalachia, the story of the region was told by a writer named J.D. Vance in his book "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis."

Vance wrote about his family history of drug addiction and violence. And since then, he's become a kind of spokesperson for the region. None of this sits well with Elizabeth Catte. She's an historian based in Virginia who has written a slim-but-pointed rebuttal to J.D. Vance. It's called "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia."

ELIZABETH CATTE: There's a projection of his realities onto the lives of everybody in the region, and it's not in my mind accidental. It's right there in the subtitle of the book. It's a memoir of a family, but is also a memoir of a culture in crisis. The universalizing that is done in the book is something that's become a trademark of J.D. Vance's engagement as a pundit and a political up-and-comer. And so my book is certainly a criticism of "Hillbilly Elegy," but I'd also like it to be read as an interruption to a claim of ownership about my life and the people around me.

MCEVERS: How do you think people think of Appalachia now because of projects like this? And what would you like to tell those people? (Laughter) You know, like, what image would you like to sort of replace in their mind?

CATTE: Something very ordinary. I think the problem that we're starting to see from "Hillbilly Elegy" - and it's certainly not a new problem in Appalachia. It tends to come in waves. There's an idea that Appalachia is not fundamentally part of the United States, that it's a place within a place, and it's not a place but a problem. I would like people to understand that Appalachia is very much part of the wider United States. There's no mysterious culture here that explains the - you know, the realities. And our stories - the story of Appalachia cannot be separated from the story of the United States and the historical forces that have shaped us.

MCEVERS: There's this genre of campaign reporting that you talk about in your book. It's called the Welcome To Trump Country piece, right? You've got a reporter from The New York Times or The Guardian or The New Yorker or The New Republic coming to a small town in Appalachia, talking to the forgotten white people who were left behind by a global economy and how these people explain, you know, the rise of Donald Trump. You have a problem with these stories. Explain why.

CATTE: The piece that's often left out of them is what it feels like to be on the other end of those stories. And Appalachia has a long history of absorbing people in my book I call strangers with cameras, people who come to the region maybe not to see just poverty but a particular kind of poverty that they need and want to find.

The last moment that we had that comes to mind when I think of parallels was the war on poverty during the 1960s. This is the flurry of related legislation to remediate poverty. So we had a lot of reporters come to the region to take pictures of people who were experiencing poverty and extreme hardship because they needed to get the voting public to sympathize with poverty and the conditions that people experienced when they were in poverty.

And that created an overabundance of images that really left an enduring impression on the national imagination of what people think of when they think of Appalachia. They think of shacks. They think of people barefoot, dirty, you know, covered in coal dust. And that's left a big impression that we're still dealing with.

MCEVERS: So how do you talk about the region then?

CATTE: When I talk about Appalachia and I say that I think that there should be better coverage about Appalachia, I certainly don't mean that there should be more flattering coverage of Appalachia.

MCEVERS: Right. There is still poverty, right? And there - you know, the region is mostly white, and - so yeah, how do you talk about that in terms of...

CATTE: Yeah, so we just want more nuance I think. We need to kind of diversify the narrative of the region and acknowledge that it can't be contained in a single election or a single person's life. And I think one of the things I see now when I read comments on news articles and kind of engage with people online is that they want stories about how people who are vulnerable are weathering this administration - like, people of color, members of the LGBT community, new immigrants. My basic point is that Appalachia has those stories, too.

MCEVERS: Elizabeth Catte is an historian based in Virginia. Her new book is called "What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia." Thank you so much.

CATTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.