The Hills Have Lies

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia BY Elizabeth Catte. Belt Publishing. Paperback, 150 pages. $16.

The cover of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

If there was one book impossible to escape during the eternal election of 2016, it was J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. The Ohio native’s “memoir of a family and culture in crisis,” which detailed his dismal childhood with a substance-abusing single mother and his ascension, through hard work and education, into the ranks of the coastal elite, received rapturous praise upon its publication. Liberal and conservative commentators alike seized on its narrative and setting as a key to the candidacy and election of Donald Trump. In Vance, they discovered a trustworthy local interpreter from Trump Country—one willing to confirm that poor white Appalachians were degenerate, bigoted, and to blame for putting a degenerate bigot in the White House. East Coast journalists parachuted into West Virginia to prove their hypothesis that the core of Trump’s voters were the impoverished and uneducated. The dire condition of the region, the story went, was the natural outcome of its inhabitants’ sins, and electing Trump, who would only inflict upon them further calamity, was yet another self-inflicted punishment, one that summed up all the rest.

By invoking the authority of personal experience, Vance effectively enshrined this account in public opinion. When Hillbilly Elegy was published, he had long since left Middletown, Ohio, for Yale Law and Silicon Valley (he is currently employed at Peter Thiel’s investment fund Mithril Capital Management), but his name became synonymous with Appalachia overnight. CNN hired him as a talking head. A film version of his book, directed by Ron Howard, is forthcoming. “Vance is in our schools, our libraries,” Elizabeth Catte writes in What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. “He is at our graduations. He is on our timelines and in our newspaper. He is a member of our faculties, with new honorary degrees. He’s like the monster from It Follows.” When Catte, a trained historian from Tennessee, moves to the Gulf Coast of Texas after receiving her doctorate, everyone she meets tells her about Hillbilly Elegy. “Why don’t more people just leave?” they ask.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a brief, forceful, and necessary correction. Though the referent of the accusatory “you” in the title is left intentionally vague, it clearly points to J. D. Vance. Many pages are given over to enumerating the ways the region doesn’t conform to Vance’s sensational portrait (not all Appalachians live below the poverty line, and certainly not all coal miners; true, Appalachians are mostly white, but what population growth there is comes primarily from blacks and Hispanics), and the book’s central section is devoted to situating Vance within a long tradition of those eager to blame Appalachia’s woes on anyone but the rich.

Catte traces the legend of the hillbilly back to its sources at the turn of the twentieth century. As the discovery of abundant coal in Appalachia gave rise to an extractive industry that enriched mine owners while reducing miners to abjection, the area became a byword for backwardness and deprivation. Big-city journalists in search of exotic narratives began visiting, and their reports painted the locals in a primitive light. Unwashed and unlettered, prone to inbreeding and violent family feuds, the dull folk of the hills and hollers stood in desperate need of moral guidance and modern improvement.

Appalachian impoverishment, in this formulation, was not the result of market economics but of the natives’ own cultural failings. A rhetoric typically applied to people other than white expanded its targets to include paler Appalachians: They were “barbaric mountaineers” in “‘a blood-stained wilderness’ that was ‘as remote as central Africa.’” Hillbillies were not red, but they were lawless and ignorant rednecks; they were not black, but their flesh and lungs were caked with coal dust, their eyes dimmed by the endless darkness of the mine shaft. White Appalachians weren’t just poor; they were predestined to be poor. And to be forever poor, in a land where wealth alone opened the gates of grace, was to be forever damned.

As Vance’s book reveals, some adjustments to the formula have been made since the days of naked social Darwinism. In Hillbilly Elegy, his preferred term for what ails his region is “hillbilly culture.” But the essence of the myth remains intact. It is never the rich who drain the poor, but the poor who fail society.

Exeter coal mine housing, Welch, West Virginia, 1946. Russell Lee/Nara/ Wikicommons.
Exeter coal mine housing, Welch, West Virginia, 1946. Russell Lee/Nara/ Wikicommons.

In a bravura display of research and synthesis, Catte demonstrates how the discourse of broken culture yields to the discourse of faulty genetics with unnerving speed. Vance’s predecessor Harry Caudill, an eastern-Kentucky lawyer who gained fame for his portraits of hill-country destitution, began as a liberal: Reporting on “The Rape of the Appalachians” for The Atlantic during the Kennedy years, he laid blame for regional pollution and poverty squarely at the door of an unregulated coal industry. Yet after the failure of the War on Poverty, Caudill began to wonder in the 1970s if the lack of initiative among the poor he had documented, epitomized by their increasing welfare dependency, was ordained by nature. He befriended William Shockley, a Stanford scientist fixated on correlations of IQ with race and an open advocate “for coercive sterilization for the ‘genetically unfit.’ ”

Shockley’s research and even his tone served as vital precursors for Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s pseudoscientific doorstop The Bell Curve (1994). Decades later, Murray’s blaming of white poverty on inferior culture in Coming Apart (2012) was cited appreciatively by Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. Appearing together on a panel at the American Enterprise Institute in 2016, Vance and Murray joked about their “pretty clean Scots-Irish blood.” Many established journalists who wrote about Vance’s book in congratulatory terms let this undercurrent of racial determinism pass without comment, thus tacitly linking the mainstream desire that the poor be invisible to the extremist impulse to eliminate them outright.

Like its racist counterparts, the stereotype of inbred Appalachian deficiency is ultimately a creation of well-off white Americans: The myth, as Catte puts it, is “a sleight of hand that used working-class people to illustrate the priorities and voting preferences of white middle-class and affluent individuals.” Characterizing white poverty as innate closes off the possibility of relieving it; more insidiously, it also serves as a stalking horse for antiblack racism. Desperate to see themselves as normal and deserving, rich white Americans project their unacknowledged bigotry and idiocy down and out. Focusing on the ignorance and naked racism of poor whites allows them to conveniently overlook their own covert racism and the myriad benefits accrued by subscribing to it. Collective fault may be assigned to bad blood or bad culture. As long as structural racism and capitalism are exonerated and individual enterprise framed as the only path to redemption from poverty, the myth fulfills its hegemonic purpose.

Catte cites a long heritage of fellow Appalachians dedicated to a struggle for collective uplift: the thirteen thousand West Virginia miners (two thousand of them black) who went to war in 1921 at Blair Mountain with private detectives, state police, and the Army Air Service to win the right to unionize; Bruce Crawford, a left-wing journalist employed by Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project who preserved the union narrative in official histories; Huey Perry, a history teacher who organized the poor in West Virginia and attempted, ultimately in vain, to direct War on Poverty funds toward direct relief; Eula Hall, who opened a health clinic for the poor in Kentucky and reopened it after arsonists burned it down. “This is who we are. This is who we have been all this time,” Catte announces. She makes the persuasive case that the fight against poverty in Appalachia has always been a fight against capitalism, the hopes and fortunes of its workers rising and falling in direct proportion with shifts in national policy.

Despite these truths, the hillbilly myth weighs heavily all the same: It’s a jolt, near the book’s end, when Catte reveals that “the first time I had looked closely at an image of Appalachia that didn’t inspire shame or pain” was early in her studies as a historian. The ubiquity and force of the stereotype sometimes oblige Catte to adopt a defensive posture that downplays the points where reality and legend coincide. “The support for Trump may be real, too strong for my comfort,” she hedges, her hesitation underlining the depth of her discomfort. Small wonder that the meth and opioid epidemics that have decimated the region go unmentioned in her narrative; of that which one cannot speak one must be silent.

We should acknowledge, over and over, that Trump’s base isn’t the white working class but white suburbanites and property owners. We should understand that poverty, racism, and Trump support are hardly more concentrated in Appalachia than elsewhere in America. Whatever their color, the poor of the region should not be held most culpable for the Trump election. As Catte notes, Trump’s victory by huge margins in mountain counties was predicated on abysmal voter turnout, and turnout is always lowest among lower economic strata. Taking 75 percent of the votes cast in McDowell County, West Virginia, is a less impressive feat when one considers that only 35 percent of eligible voters in McDowell voted in 2016. “We are all residents of Trump Country,” Catte writes; we believe her.

But is the “real” Appalachia truly so poor a representative for Trump’s America? The region is overwhelmingly rural and white. It is burdened by declining industries and decaying infrastructure. Its working-class movements are beleaguered, discouraged, and excluded from power. It is drained by addiction and poisoned by pollution; infested with racist, economically anxious middle managers and minor businessmen; and dominated by a sadistic ring of conglomerate oligarchs. That these are not specific local features but common to an entire nation dominated by racial capitalism does not make them less important to address. An unsettling silence lingers near the heart of a book whose cogency and spirit of correction are otherwise brilliant.

Frank Guan is a writer in New York. His criticism has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and Dissent.