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Elizabeth Catte is among a great number of Appalachians who responded with strong reactions to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. In her tightly written response, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte disputes each of the claims of Vance’s 2016 best seller.
The stereotypical Appalachia people and culture are a much recent phenomenon that traditional media and entertainment portray. “A flaw of the popular narratives of Appalachia is the willingness of authors to describe destruction and social decline in lurid detail while remaining wholly uninterested in the people challenged it.”
The examples abound. Catte tells of an unnamed university – her alma mater – outside Appalachia that has made Elegy required reading, partnered with photos by Arthur Rothstein “who favors images of poor, often disabled, individuals in contexts that her frequently manipulates.”
Catte discusses the creation of the Trump Country motif and the how politicians have used Appalachia for political purposes for years, though not always successfully. Ask Hillary Clinton whose mis-reported, out-of-context quote,” We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” may have cost her the election.
“It is not possible for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of Appalachia and the coal industry to listen to those comments without cringing, regardless of one’s political affiliation,” Catted says
Catte carefully acknowledges that much of what Vance is true, though not universally true of all those in the region. The book takes a similar approach of blending personal memoir with an examination of the current problems of Appalachia.
Everyone who read Elegy, especially those outside the region, should feel an obligation to balance its premises with Catte’s book so that they also see the rich diversity activism of her clearly loved home.
— Doloris Vest
In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.
About the Author
Elizabeth Catte is a writer and historian from East Tennessee. She holds a PhD in public history from Middle Tennessee State University and is the co-owner of Passel, a historical consulting and development company.
"What are we getting wrong about Appalachia? A lot. And we are not just getting it wrong because we do not know. We are getting it wrong because reckoning with the reality of the Appalachia people and culture serves a historical project of disdain, distancing, and deliberate disinvestment in our nation. Elizabeth Catte has written an essential guide on how to talk about race, class, gender and the cultural geographies that shape our lives. Our discourse on Appalachia has been used a cudgel, much of it designed to obscure more than it reveals. Catte uses data and lived experiences to reveal an Appalachia that is not some “othered” out there against which we compare ourselves to make inequality more palatable. This is a necessary antidote to the cyclical mainstream interest in Appalachia as a backwards, white working-class caricature.” —Tressie McMillan Cottom, Professor of Sociology, author, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
"A necessary response to the bigotry against a much-maligned culture." --Chris Offutt, author, Kentucky Straight
“A bold refusal to submit to stereotype.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Fiercely argued and solidly grounded, this an excellent primer on understanding and resisting the common distortions about Appalachia’s past and present.” —Anthony Harkins, author, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon
“You couldn't kill this book with a hammer. Come and watch Elizabeth Catte clip the hollow wings of little Jimmy Vance. Stay and behold an enlightened vision, a living solidarity found among the strong and varied peoples of this misunderstood land. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia asks Florence Reece's old question: Which side are you on? Some of us are sticking to Appalachia until every battle's won.” —Glenn Taylor, author, The Ballad of Trenchmount Taggart
"Succeeds in providing a richer, more complex view of a much-maligned region." —Publishers Weekly
"Highlighting decades of suppressed workers' rights movements, as well as prison facilities that still exploit low-cost labor, Catte expands the perspective on Appalachia. Readers will indeed get more right about this slice of the country after reading her book.” —Cheryl Krocker McKeon for Shelf Awareness
"A 146-page ass-kicker." —Jim Branscome, The Daily Yonder
"What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a brief, forceful, and necessary correction." —Frank Guan, Bookforum
"... the most damning critique of Hillbilly Elegy." —Nancy Isenberg, New York Review of Books