Appalachia Isn't Trump Country
March 14, 2018 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Elizabeth Catte discusses her book in an interview with Guernica magazine.
Appalachia is more than just a region in the eastern United States. For some Americans, it’s an important element in the story about why we have the president that we do. A case and point: Hillbilly Elegy, the 2016 bestselling memoir set in Appalachia, was proclaimed by the New York Times as one of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.” But for Elizabeth Catte, a public historian and activist from Appalachia, it’s a place that many people just get wrong. The popular image of Appalachia as a home to a backwards, white population that’s trapped in a culture of poverty is a falsehood that people believe to avoid taking responsibility for social problems, she says. “I think it’s a basic kind of psychological desire that there is a place where everything that’s toxic and not progressive can be compartmentalized.”
More criticism of Hillbilly Elegy from Catte.
posted by eviemath (19 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
But what of the NY Times articles?

Elizabeth Catte: There are a couple things that it’s useful to be aware of. The first one is just the sheer ratio of Trump Country pieces. We have to question why there are so many articles about Appalachia and Trump, and so few articles about progressive people in Appalachia.

Also, you see journalists going to the same places, and the same people get interviewed over and over again. I don’t know if the reading public is necessarily going to realize that. I call them minor coal-country celebrities, people who are very outspoken in support of Donald Trump, and who get recycled throughout these pieces.

Another facet of a Trump Country piece is that when journalists want to debunk things that people on the ground say—you know, like, “Coal’s coming back”—they’ll go to an expert in New England, New York, or Chicago. They’ll never ask one of the many environmentalists or scientists in Appalachia what they think.


Oh.
posted by Artw at 5:06 PM on March 14, 2018 [21 favorites]


Catte was on the radio talking about this last week, so smart. Thanks for this.
posted by allthinky at 5:30 PM on March 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


Is the author of Hillbilly Elegy even from Appalachia? As far as I know, he's a second generation who grew up in Cincinnati. Then he returned back to "Appalachia"(aka Columbus, OH). Why do people love his book so much?
posted by Carius at 6:29 PM on March 14, 2018 [2 favorites]


It reinforces a bunch of trumpy nonsense for people who also like to like to imagine they know something about that region I guess.
posted by Artw at 6:34 PM on March 14, 2018


I just have to say the Appalachian Studies Association is meeting in Cincinnati in a few weeks. Self-appointed hillbilly-whisperer JD Vance is on the program talking about opioids. A few hours later, there's essentially a session titled "JD Vance, stop talking shit about us."

I am praying someone punks him into making an appearance at the second session.

Unfortunately our local Cincinnati bookstore has insisted on carrying Hillbilly Elegy, but I've also seen Catte's book popping up around town (and I have my own copy, as a card-carrying supporter of Belt Magazine, her publisher). If you want more of Catte's goodness, she has a great recent interview with the almighty Trillbilly Worker's Podcast.
posted by mostly vowels at 6:54 PM on March 14, 2018 [12 favorites]



OOOH, oooh! Normally when I read metafilter posts and see someone in the comments who says 'Hey I know the publisher or author personally and they're rad, yada, yada...' I scoff to myself and say, damn it, how the hell do you know these cool privileged people...

But fuck it, I can say, hey, I know Anne (the person behind Belt, the publisher of Elizabeth's book), and she was nice enough to invite me and a few others (by virtue of commenting on cleveland politics on twitter) into her home for a book discussion - ended up being mostly critical - on celeste ng's latest book.) She's a fabulous, no-bullshit person. This book has been in the works since before JD got big. Belt, the publisher, has been focused on non-fiction books, most of which are collective anthologies, based on particular cities in the "rust belt" .

Bravo.

I look forward to finally reading this.

(this may be a bit reactionary, I've had several drinks tonight with a bar tab that totaled only $20).
posted by fizzix at 7:08 PM on March 14, 2018 [8 favorites]


Why do people love his book so much?

My father and one of his sisters think it's the best book ever. They both got out of Appalachia basically the day they graduated high school, and the book confirms all of their deepest suspicions about the people they grew up around, and how unrelentingly terrible they were/are.

In other news, I'll be reading the Catte book, because arguing is also a grand family pasttime.
posted by kalimac at 8:32 PM on March 14, 2018 [6 favorites]


fizzix, I am deeply curious to hear a Clevelander’s critical take on Celeste Ng’s latest book, if you’re inclined to share - perhaps via MeMail? (My mom taught in the district where the story is set for 30+ years.)
posted by Anita Bath at 12:41 AM on March 15, 2018


Why do people love his book so much?

Confirmation bias. It's a ticket on the ship that sails right past the fact that most Trump voters had a higher-than-average income and docks at the port of Let's Blame the Dumb Hillbillies.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:56 AM on March 15, 2018 [16 favorites]


They both got out of Appalachia basically the day they graduated high school, and the book confirms all of their deepest suspicions about the people they grew up around, and how unrelentingly terrible they were/are.

So 18 years (or whatever) wasn't enough for them to make those decisions personally? I didn't grow up in Appalachia, but it was enough for me in a similar place. Sure, it could be confirmation bias again, but the people you grew up around are the people you are going to be around post-graduation too, so the calculated choice to leave makes a lot of sense.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:28 AM on March 15, 2018 [2 favorites]


Confirmation bias. It's a ticket on the ship that sails right past the fact that most Trump voters had a higher-than-average income and docks at the port of Let's Blame the Dumb Hillbillies.

Agreed, but we can't discount how much of this is very intentional party messaging - Republican politicians are thrilled beyond belief that the mainstream American left mostly believes the poor are 'the enemy'! It suggests labor unions (and anti-capitalist movements in general) as a political force in the US are dead in the water. The good news is there are a lot of teachers in West Virginia who think otherwise.
posted by capricorn at 7:30 AM on March 15, 2018 [13 favorites]


The author and I graduated from the same PhD program, although she finished in the cohort behind me. Elizabeth has her ducks in a row and knows her stuff. She’s quite the powerhouse and I’m positive this won’t be the only thing we see from her.

That said, there isn’t a Southern or Southern-adjacent historian who doesn’t dearly wish Vance would go back to the hole he crawled out of.
posted by teleri025 at 8:23 AM on March 15, 2018 [5 favorites]


It's interesting this is being discussed more after the West Virginia teacher's strike. One feature of that strike included a good bit of community support due to the region's history of wildcat labor strikes.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:23 AM on March 15, 2018 [4 favorites]


As someone who grew up in Appalachia and takes exception to a lot of Vance's book, I'm looking forward to reading Catte's take. (For what it's worth, my dad, both grandfathers, two uncles, and four cousins were/are all coal miners.) I agree with Catte that the complexity of the region and its people is far more nuanced than what Hillbilly Elegy or a thousand Trump Country pieces portray. Yes, I grew up with kids who lived in patched-up trailers on a garbage-strewn edge of a coal town. But, it's also true that my cousin's single-income coal mining family makes as much income as my husband and I do combined with our master's degrees. There's a crucial edge that is not captured in so many of today's news thinkpieces about coal. The vast majority seem to focus on the correlation between how much people believe in Trump's nonsense promises with the amount of tobacco/opioids/Mountain Dew they consume. What most misrepresent is that many coal jobs are very high paying and respected jobs for the time being. A high school dropout can earn an extremely comfortable middle class income in a good mine. A 23-year-old can drive a $60,000 pickup truck and take nice vacations. But if the mines disappear, they're begging for a minimum wage job while trying to change their entire family's standard of living. (I felt that this NYT article, which actually focuses on my hometown, did a better job than most of describing the situation.) From my view, there are two entirely separate problems in coal country: How do we look at the systemic problems with generational poverty? (At least in SW Pennsylvania, these are not the mining families, but the families where total joblessness, disability, and/or addiction create long term cycles of poverty.) And then, how do we diversify the region so that there is not such extreme dependence on extractive industries (mining and natural gas drilling) for all good paying jobs?
posted by hessie at 9:36 AM on March 15, 2018 [9 favorites]


And then, how do we diversify the region so that there is not such extreme dependence on extractive industries (mining and natural gas drilling) for all good paying jobs?

hessie I'm really glad you brought this up. Fracking is going gangbusters over WV/PA/OH (far less so in Kentucky because it's on the edges of the Marcellus/Utica shale formation). This area has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Coal has been in decline since surface mining took hold in the 1970s, its rapid decline is hastening because so many coal-fired power plants are going offline due to the cheapness of natural gas (which the Obama administration completely embraced in its ill-advised "all of the above" energy strategy), and it's astonishing to me how the national media just glides over THE domestic energy story of the 21st century.

I mean, I live in southwest Ohio, and even here, people don't grasp at all how big pipeline expansion is just a few counties east of us. You can't talk about the decline of coal without looking at the rise of natural gas. One extractive industry that has ruined the land, compromised water resources, and occurred in the incredibly vulnerable to corporate exploitation rural hinterlands has been swapped for another. And yet the national media rarely if ever picks up on this.

I wonder why.
posted by mostly vowels at 4:54 PM on March 15, 2018 [3 favorites]


Is the author of Hillbilly Elegy even from Appalachia?

He has family origins in eastern Kentucky, which certainly qualifies as part of Appalachia.
posted by e1c at 8:25 AM on March 16, 2018


What most misrepresent is that many coal jobs are very high paying and respected jobs for the time being.

They don't misrepresent this at all, which is why Trump (or more generically Republican policy) is trying to save good jobs that pay well that don't require much education. Because the Republican plan has no plan on what to do when these jobs are gone.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:31 AM on March 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


The author makes the same point about oil field jobs. That's why they are trying to drill everywhere. It's a good job that pays well with little formal education. It's not complicated.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:33 AM on March 16, 2018


Photos from the 1930s
posted by eviemath at 4:23 AM on March 20, 2018


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