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The Truth About Appalachia

A conversation with historian Elizabeth Catte, author of a new book that upends narratives about a region that has been dubbed Trump Country


Appalachia is home to coal miners, addicts, Trump voters—and nobody else, according to the average article about Trump Country. In her new book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, historian Elizabeth Catte tries to diversify these tired narratives. The Appalachia she presents is a complicated one, marked by the coal industry, yes, but also by passionate, sometimes violent local opposition to its practices. Appalachia isn’t monolithically white and it isn’t monolithically conservative. It may be Trump Country, but that’s because we all live in Trump Country.

“If it is appropriate to label a small but visible subgroup as unambiguously representative of 25 million people inhabiting a geographic region spanning over 700,000 square miles then we should ask a number of questions,” Catte writes. “Where were, for example, the ‘Bernie Country’ pieces about Appalachia? As a point of reference, there are more people in Appalachia who identify as African American than Scots Irish, so where were the essays that dove into the complex negotiations of Appalachian-ness and blackness through the lens of the election?”

Catte, who is from east Tennessee, spoke with me about her book, hillbilly elegies, and what Appalachia actually needs from the world outside its borders. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is out on Tuesday from Belt Publishing. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Jones: Why this book? And why now?

Elizabeth Catte: I really took exception to narratives that centered Appalachia as the beating heart of Trump Country. It seems that reporters were going to Appalachia to attach Trump’s success to a narrative of economic anxiety. They were using Appalachia to make that argument real, to give it a human dimension.

I wanted to dig into the reality of what Appalachia is. Because a lot of the Trump Country pieces use myths about Appalachia, such as that we’re all crazy for coal. I didn’t expect the Trump Country pieces to have such a shelf life. I did not expect to be seeing them a year and a half after the election, but here we are. And they haven’t changed much.

SJ: How did your expertise in public history, your doctoral field, influence your approach?

EC: Public history is a sub-discipline within history, and what it tries to do is make history more relevant in public life. It is about making power visible and helping the public understand how some people have been deprived of their history. Within Appalachian history, for example, there’s been a strong push to separate narratives of the region from the past. I’m interested in exploring what historical forces have brought us to this moment.

SJ: Before 2016, people associated Appalachia with two things: coal and poverty. After 2016, we now have a third, which is Trump, and perhaps a fourth, the opioid epidemic.

EC: There’s a tendency in reporting to separate Appalachia from the rest of the United States, to present problems in Appalachia as unique, singular, an exaggeration of social ills. I don’t think that we can tell the story of Appalachia without telling the story of a lot of important historical forces that have shaped the United States, such as the imbalance of wealth. We need to tell these stories from the perspective that these are American problems.

SJ: How do we balance understanding Appalachia as being both a part of the United States and a region with its own unique history and problems?

EC: When you start looking at the history of Appalachia, it almost forces you to accept hard truths that are specific to Appalachia but not solely the domain of Appalachia. These are stories about people who have been forcibly removed from land and suffered from the wealth of the land, and that is quite a conventional historical narrative that travels through forced indigenous migration to slavery.

SJ: Why do you think Appalachia so quickly became a stand-in for Trump Country at large?

EC: We obviously have to acknowledge that there is strong support for Donald Trump in Appalachia. So that part of the narrative is authentic. Trump’s fantasy that he can make America great, and the way that he uses the coal industry to talk about that fantasy, obviously are going to compel people to look at the region and understand how people there are receiving that message.

But I also think, again, it was this narrative of economic anxiety. That’s what really compelled people to come to Appalachia to find the most extreme form of poverty that they could imagine—to make this narrative work, to say that these people who are supporting Donald Trump aren’t doing it because they’re racist.

SJ: Some of the most popular contemporary stereotypes, like Appalachia’s affection for coal, reinforce the very narratives that industries like the coal industry would like people to believe. So when it comes to coal, what should people actually know about Appalachians and their relationship to the industry?

EC: That’s a really important point to make, that when reporters tell this story about Appalachia’s relationship to coal, they are often repeating these narratives that the coal industry spends a lot of money developing. The story of Appalachia and coal is incredibly complicated. One thing I see a lot is that reporters will go to Appalachia for the “I love coal” take, then to somebody outside the region—whether it’s an environmental group or an energy professor or an energy analyst—to provide balance for their story. But that counter-take can be produced by talking to people in Appalachia.

SJ: In your book, you talk a lot about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which has been alternately praised and criticized for its depiction of the region. Why do you think Hillbilly Elegy became so popular so quickly?

EC: For a lot of reasons that we’ve already talked about. The fascination with Appalachia in the context of the presidential election gave it a tremendous boost. His book kind of fell into that narrative, and he has done a tremendous amount of work promoting his book as this useful tool for our political moment.

Overall I think what fans of Hillbilly Elegy most like about the book is that it doesn’t actually ask you to do anything with the knowledge it imparts. It doesn’t ask you to change your ethics, it doesn’t ask you to go out and modify your behavior. It asks you, maybe, to be a little bit more patient with people on the up-and-up. But the biggest argument of the book is that line right there in the introduction: that we set aside the racial prism when we’re talking about poverty and class. I’m not surprised that many audiences, even liberal audiences, were really excited by this. They were excited to hear that they didn’t have to make everything about race anymore, that they didn’t have to talk about intersectionality, that they didn’t have to talk about how race and poverty might account for unique experience among some demographics. They can just talk about poverty and it would be fine.

SJ: What other things do you think Hillbilly Elegy gets wrong?

EC: I’ve talked a lot about J.D. Vance’s kind of fetish for Appalachia’s shared Scots-Irish heritage. And for me this is central to the book because without it his argument doesn’t work. It transforms his book from a memoir of a family to a memoir of a culture in crisis. So without that kind of cohesiveness, the book doesn’t work—and he’s obviously very, very wrong about this. He’s wrong about it according to so many metrics, whether it’s archaeological evidence, whether it’s historical documents and primary sources, whether it’s contemporary reporting about people’s ethnic heritage in Appalachia.

And of course he’s wrong that corporations didn’t help create the problems of Appalachia. I think anybody with even the most remedial understanding of Appalachian history should have issue with that. Obviously the coal industry has reshaped Appalachia in ways that we would still be contending with even if the coal industry packed up and left today.

SJ: So what does Appalachia actually need from people living outside its borders?

EC: Appalachia needs solidarity. I think that’s an easy place to start. What I’ve been hoping in my wildest dreams is that people would wake up and realize this administration is rife with political corruption. We have an administration that was put in place by a powerful minority of voters, and the consequences feel unchangeable. And that’s exactly what people in Appalachia have lived with for over 100 years.

I think people outside the region need to learn from Appalachia and the way that it has addressed some of its problems. Look at how people in the region are running low-income health care clinics for example. Look at the ways that people in the region support teachers. These are all things that people who don’t live in Appalachia should be mindful of, to see if there’s something that’s useful for the struggle that they’re going to have to engage in as well.

SJ: In addition to your own book, what else should people read about Appalachia?

EC: I use Ron Eller’s work a lot in my book. He does a tremendous job crafting a narrative of Appalachia that is readable and that also gets into some of the policy decisions that have shaped Appalachia. It’s fantastic.

Ramp Hollow by Steven Stoll is just tremendous. Every time I think about his book I’m blown away in a new way. As I have tried to do in my own work, it makes these connections between Appalachia and the wider world.