Elizabeth Catte Reveals the Other Side of Appalachia

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However you map it—the Rust Belt, Appalachia, or simply Trump Country—it’s fair to say the national conversation has focused lately on places that are poor, angry, and often overlooked. In a terrific new book out Feb. 6, from Ohio’s own Belt Publishing, Elizabeth Catte reveals this region’s other side. Her title is What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia—and it’s not just you, she argues, but some of Appalachia’s most popular interpreters who are missing the point.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

When most readers hear the word “Appalachia,” they think of greater Cincinnati native J.D. Vance and his megaseller Hillbilly Elegy. You believe that’s a bad thing. The Appalachia Vance created has been created in his own image, using his harrowing childhood to project a reality onto 25 million people and a region that spans 700,000 square miles. His Appalachia is monolithic. Like so many politicians and cultural elites, he produces a version of the region that contains and compartmentalizes a lot of what is wrong with our country.

How is your version different? I try to push back on the idea that Appalachia is a monolith, that it can be explained in the identity of a single family or a single election. There are and were people here who are progressive, who are environmentalists, who are creative, who are fighting corporate exploitation.

Do you have a good example of one of those surprising Appalachian characters? My favorite in the book is Bruce Crawford. He wore a lot of hats—newspaper man, World War I veteran, union organizer, and communist. He lived in southwestern Virginia and wrote really sarcastic articles about the reformers and philanthropists who were coming in and trying to find dysfunctional mountain people. It’s the same stuff I write about today. He was mocking the 1920 version of J.D. Vance.

One point you make is that this debate is about more than just how the region is perceived. We’re in a moment of important economic transition. What’s next? Well, these old and outdated narratives may have a big impact on how people outside the region—powerful people, politicians, and business owners—think of us. And that might influence this economic transition.

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