By Ron Formisano, Guest contributor
For an antidote to the inauthentic version of Appalachia in J.T. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” read Elizabeth Catte’s book, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia.” Unlike Vance, who was a childhood summer visitor to Eastern Kentucky, Catte has spent most of her life in the region.
Maine year-rounders refer to short-time seasonal visitors as “summer complaints,” and “Elegy,” besides being a family memoir, is one long complaint about Appalachia’s poor.
In her book and interviews, Catte describes a people she respects and loves as diverse, and with a long history of struggle against outside exploiters, including wrong-headed do-gooders.
She grew up in East Tennessee near the Smoky Mountains and currently lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She has a Ph.D. in public history, directs a historical consulting firm, and works in Appalachian studies.
Her book describes how Vance is yet another in a long line of writers who, since the Civil War, have imposed their caricatures on Appalachia’s people to define them as “other.”
Coal companies and other industries made use of stereotypes of “backward” and “otherness” to present themselves as benevolent rescuers as they sucked the region dry of its resources and managed its labor force with corruption and intimidation.
Catte faults Vance for ignoring the damage done to the region’s people by outside economic forces. Vance also ignored the corporate welfare that allows coal and other companies to shirk their taxes and impoverish local funds for education and social services.
The homogenization of Appalachians, and its widespread uncritical acceptance, Catte takes personally. According to media coverage, “I do not exist. My partner does not exist. Our families do not exist. Other individuals who do not exist include all nonwhite people, anyone with progressive politics, those who care about the environment, LGBTQ individuals, young folks, and a host of others.”
Vance disingenuously urged readers to appreciate “how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.” But as Catte shows, Vance’s agenda is all about race, as he implicitly makes the conservative case that black people are not held back by racism but by their own failings. To do this, Vance builds upon a myth of the peopling of Appalachia.
He claims the uplands were settled mostly by Scots-Irish mired in a centuries-old genetic-cultural disposition to willingly hold themselves back. But in fact, the Scots-Irish were a minority among a large variety of European ethnic groups who fused with blacks and others. But Vance needs a homogenous poor white group of ingrained backwardness to make the right-wing argument that too much attention is paid to race.
As Vance became The New York Times “Trump whisperer” explaining “those people” who voted for him, Catte points out that liberals ignored his footnote to an essay by a writer for racist, far-right publications, as well as his bonding with Charles Murray, whose book “The Bell Curve” (1994) attributed the social inequality of African-Americans to intellectual inferiority and laziness.
Catte reveals that Murray’s book owed much to the crackpot pseudo-science of William Shockley, a proponent of black inferiority and genetic sterilization.
Another true daughter of Appalachia, Barbara Kingsolver, told the Times that she put down “Hillbilly Elegy” without finishing it.
“This region has been savaged by one extractive industry after another,” she said, “and still its landscape and people impress me every day. We’re not one psyche, one color, one culture, not all J.D. Vance’s cousins, and certainly not without hope, but the rest of America seems keen to reduce us to a pitiable monoculture.”
She recommends reading Catte.
Catte insists that policymakers devoted to the region’s renewal must first recognize that the unequal distribution of wealth and power underlies widespread structural poverty. Inserting the prison-industrial complex is not only “morally repugnant” but also a “failed method of rural economic development.”
Vance believes that “no government can fix these problems,” but ignores governments’ roles in creating poverty and inequality notably by protecting the extractive industries that caused “these problems.”
“What You Are Getting Wrong” does much more than debunk Vance. It is a brief, but powerful, destruction of stereotypes of Appalachia that also links the region to the rest of America.
Ron Formisano of Lexington is the author of “American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class” (University of Illinois, 2017).