Review: New Book on Appalachia Takes J.D. Vance Behind the Woodshed

Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia rebuts the “tired ideas about race and culture” that J.D. Vance peddles in the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy.

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[T]he Appalachian ‘mountain people’ today are no better than barbarians. They have relapsed into illiteracy and witchcraft. They suffer from poverty, squalor and ill health. They are the American counterparts of the latter day White barbarians of the Old World—Rifis, Albanians, Kurds, Pathans and Hairy Ainus; but, whereas these latter are belated survivals of an ancient barbarism, the Appalachians present the melancholy spectacle of a people who have acquired civilization and then lost it.

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, never visited Appalachia but based his conclusions on a half-century of stereotypical writing by a horde of half-truthers posing as journalists and travel writers who turned some post-Civil War feuding in a few spots in the mountains into a portrait of a whole people that today numbers over 25 million across parts of 13 eastern states from Mississippi to New York.

What Toynbee failed to properly note in his best-selling 12-volume A Study of History was that these same mountaineers had marched out of the hills in 1780 to give General Cornwallis’s army one of biggest ass-kickings in the history of English warfare at the Battle of Kings Mountain, North Carolina, essentially ensuring that never again shall any of us have to curtsy to some powder-wigged autocrat.

J.D. Vance, whose Hillbilly Elegy has been at the top of the best sellers list for over a year now—despite, we may note, three negative reviews (one, two, three) in the Daily Yonder—has outdone Toynbee by asserting that his dismal personal history of growing up poor and abused in an Ohio mountain migrant city is proof that mountaineers still have no civilization despite decades of do-gooder evangelism and billions from the War on Poverty.   All this is starting to annoy the good natives of the mountains like historian Elizabeth Catte, who grew up in East Tennessee and has just produced a 146-page ass-kicker for Vance, titled What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia (2018, Belt Press).

Catte, who has a doctorate in public history, is as tired as the rest of us “hillbilllies” of having to politely answer questions from well-meaning but misinformed readers of Vance’s book about how we somehow managed to learn to write and which silverware to use at the dining table when poor Vance had to have his psyche saved by the U.S. Marines and be taught which fork to use when he got to the dining halls of Yale Law School.

Says Catte:

Vance is a well-educated person of means with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for a region. Since he is such an enormous fan of personal responsibility, I am thrilled to hold him responsible for his asinine beliefs and associations.

. . . Vance has transcended one of the most authentically Appalachian experiences of them all: watching someone with tired ideas about race and culture get famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region.

Author Elizabeth Catte

Catte devotes most of her book to setting readers straight on the history of Appalachia. That in itself is a refutation of Vance, who wrongly suggested his grandparent’s home county in Eastern Kentucky earned its “Bloody Breathitt” epitaph from WW I when in fact it was the immediate post-Civil War era. And he’s still poor with facts and directions despite the caresses of the Ivies up North because he gets the driving directions from Jackson, Kentucky, to Ohio wrong and drastically overestimates the population of the little town of Jackson.

Catte makes clear Vance is less mountaineer than an ideologue who earned his wealth from arch-conservatives like venture capitalist Peter Thiel and his political philosophy from “you-don’t-talk-like-me, you-don’t-look-like-me, so-your-IQ-is-lower-than-mine,” bell-curver Charles Murray.   None of this would matter, except Vance is about to get even more famous.

In what has to be one of the greater betrayals of modern Hollywood, following on the heels of “The Beverley Hillbillies” and other such ilk, good kid Opie (Ron Howard) of the “Andy Griffith Show” has contracted with Vance to make a movie of his wretched life and redemption by Yale and Silicon Valley. Griffith hailed from Mt. Airy, North Carolina, a foothills Appalachian town where he got his start on WPAQ, a stalwart station in the history of bluegrass and country music and thus a major contributor to advanced civilization. Don’t do it, Opie. And while we’re at it, may the good citizens of Ohio wake up and march to the polls with tons of negative votes should Vance succeed in running for governor or senator.

Catte destroys a lot of Vance’s Appalachian myths with simple facts like the hills are not populated by hordes of fierce Scots-Irish who would rather drink and fight than get off their asses and earn a good living in California taking over corporations and firing the workers. Truth be told, large parts of the mountains, and especially towns in the coalfields, are as cosmopolitan demographically as places like New York City with Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Italians and Greeks, to name a few. Vance doesn’t know it, but all over the Kentucky counties bordering “Bloody Breathitt” there are large populations of African Americans who have lived and worked there since the beginnings of the industrial era. She points out that the fastest growing demographic in Appalachia today are blacks and Hispanics.

Vance has been hailed as the one interpreter in the nation who can explain why all the hillbillies voted for Trump. You might get the impression that all of us are coal miners pining for the return of the ruination and death that coal brought to the mountains.   In fact, Catte notes there are 36,000 miners left in Appalachia out of 25 million of us. There are better explanations of why someone in southern West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic and United Mine Workers union bastion, would vote Republican.

Let’s pick McDowell County, West Virginia, as the most typical coal county in Appalachia. I know it well. My folks mined coal, railroaded, peddled produce there, and I still have kin in towns like Coalwood, which was founded by George L. Carter from my hometown farther down Route 52, Hillsville, Virginia. Carter also founded the Clinchfield Railroad and was one of the leaders in founding the beautiful city of Kingsport, Tennessee, home of Eastman Chemical Co., once Eastman Kodak.

Just as an aside, if you’ve ever heard of Coalwood, it’s probably because you are familiar with the book by Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys, that became the movie “October Sky.” He grew up in the town.

Catte points out that the media descended on McDowell County as the epitome of “Trump Country.”   CBS agreed with the Huffington Post that the county offers “a glimpse at the America that voted Trump into office.” Interesting until you know the facts: Trump got 4,614 votes to Clinton’s 1,429. Catte notes, however, that most of the county’s 17,508 registered voters just stayed home.   And if you think Vance has a clue about why West Virginia went for Trump, ponder this fact from the prior Democratic primary from West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

“(Bernie) Sanders took more than 55 percent of McDowell County’s vote in West Virginia’s May 2016 primary — beating out the inevitable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in all of the state’s 55 counties.”

One of the most sinister, wrong-headed, stupid and factually ass-backwards comments in Vance’s book is his observation that, “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the traits that our culture inculcates make it difficult to succeed in a changing world.” (Just a note for your well-being, J.D., don’t repeat that to any coal miners, farmers, loggers, school teachers, Iraq War veterans, factory workers, and a whole host of mountaineers that Catte profiles in the book to prove you wrong again.)

Catte does a historical tour of Appalachia to introduce dozens of past and current men and women who demonstrate that mountaineers haven’t lost a bit of the spark that lead them to the Battle of King’s Mountain. There’s Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, where Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks once attended workshops. Stokely Carmichael, the founder of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said “Myles taught me Black Power.” Horton’s wife, Zilphia, and Guy Carawan introduced “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement. Highlander thrives today as a progressive education center on Bayes Mountain near Knoxville.

And from the past she introduces two people from “Bloody Harlan” County, Kentucky: Florence Reese who wrote the famous labor song “Which Side Are You On,” and Tilman Cadle, a striking and hungry coal miner who went on to become famous as both a folk historian and a pistol shot who put one of Russia’s crack shooting teams to shame with all bullseyes.

And then there is Uncle Dan Gibson, the Old Regular Baptist preacher and coffin maker from Knott County, Kentucky, who held off a strip-mine bulldozer with his rifle to save the property of a kinsman who was off fighting the War in Vietnam. And the “Widow” Ollie Combs of the same area who laid down in front of a bulldozer to save her property.

Among the living heroines she profiles is Eula Hall, a 93-year old founder of the Mud Creek Clinic in Floyd County, Kentucky. It has become a model of how to operate community clinics all across the country. Somebody torched the clinic building one time; Hall had a telephone installed on a tree and continued to treat patients.

I won’t spoil the reader’s opportunity to learn what they are getting wrong about Appalachia with any more details. Just suffice it to say she achieves her objective of pointing out, “We are all residents of Trump Country.” What she proves is that from Toynbee to Vance we have a lot of misguided writers who keep “discovering” Appalachia as “the other.” Visit any part of Appalachia from the Great Smokies of Catte’s East Tennessee, to my Blue Ridge Mountains, to the tip of still gorgeous West Virginia and you will find a very wholesome mix of good Americans working and fighting to make their region great again, Vance and Opie and politics be damned.

Jim Branscome hails from Carroll County, Virginia, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and just up the mountain from “the real Mayberry,” Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He is an honors graduate in history from Berea College in Kentucky.



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