I met Elizabeth Catte in a hotel lounge in Staunton the evening the world found out Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We felt awful, but then again, nearly everything had felt awful since November 2016. Catte was with her partner, Josh Howard, and over the next two hours, I grew fond of their assessment of our country’s past and present reality, and their efforts to fight back. “As a historian, there’s a particular distress of being in a historical moment like this, because you see what is coming to a certain extent,” Catte said. “It’s like looking through a rainy windshield—you know something bad is ahead.”
Part of Catte’s resistance, and her work as a historian and author, is to correct the popular mythologies that have been ruinous to marginalized communities for centuries. Her book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a direct response to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, his anecdotal story that became a cultural guide to one of the most exploited and misrepresented regions in the country. Vance is currently being groomed for a seat in the U.S. Senate; Catte is pushing her weight in the opposite direction. “I know how things work here, in Appalachia in general,” she said. “I sometimes doubt I can do anything about it, but at least I know how it works and I know how to help people understand it.”
Catte grew up in Central Appalachia, a region that touches 13 states from New York to Alabama. Her hometown is Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains and Dollywood, the folksy theme park owned by Dolly Parton. “We have a pretty distinct heritage that is related to tourist attractions, and sort of like performing an identity that is consumable for attractions and branding,” she said. “I was super aware that there was some dissonance between what Appalachia is in terms of the consumer market for Appalachia and what people were behind the scenes.”
After completing her undergraduate degree in Latin and Greek at the University of Tennessee, Catte went on to receive her Masters and PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, where she met Howard. They eventually moved to Beaumont, Texas, where Howard had taken a job at Lamar University. Donald Trump was bulldozing his way through the Republican primaries, and Catte watched as the media began their pilgrimages into Appalachia in an effort to describe “Trump Country,” propped up by the release of Vance’s book. After noticing her blog, Belt Publishing reached out to her to discuss writing a book about the region and its historically simplistic coverage. “What I was interested in making more clear is that that superficial coverage has a history in the region, and it’s had some consequences,” Catte said. “The ideas of J.D. Vance and his ideas about Appalachia have a history as well, so I was really desperate for people to see that those ideas and those practices have a history—and to see the consequences of that history.”
Catte’s book, released in February and now in its third printing, directly responds to Hillbilly Elegy and not only dismantles the stereotypes of the region, but charts where they came from. It provides a brief history of Appalachia and explains the role that capitalism, environmental degradation, and eugenics have played in exploiting local communities, as well as the resistance movements that have arisen in response. Where Vance paints a picture of Appalachia as a singular monolith, Catte provides the nuance necessary when discussing a region of 25 million people. “These are the politics that masquerade as not being politics,” Catte said of Hillbilly Elegy. “I think it was always meant to be that. If you look at who put the word out on the street about the book and helped shape it, you have people like Amy Chua, those people who have written very determinist texts about poverty and inequality in this country that recycle the same bootstrappy narratives about decline in America.”
Following the release of her book, Catte and Howard relocated to Staunton, where they are involved in numerous local progressive movements, including the Democratic Socialists of America and resistance to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. “It’s very polluted. There’s a lot of environmental racism in Texas, and I think we both had the feeling that we weren’t going to be from a region that is destroyed by the coal industry and then move to where oil and gas is destroying someplace else and pretend that that’s some kind of progress,” said Catte. “So, we just came home”.
Catte, while not working in activism roles or touring for her book, works with Howard as pro bono historical consultants under their company name Passel. She is working on her second book, focused on the history of the Western State Hospital, a former asylum in Staunton that’s now the site of residential condominiums. “I certainly don’t blame them for not talking about the history of the eugenics practices in these institutions as they’re building their luxury boutiques, but it’s something we still need to talk about,” she said.
As we finished up our conversation, I asked Catte if the book had changed her life at all. Despite the popular recognition she has since received (her tweet in remembrance of Bourdain had already been liked over 20,000 times), she is nothing if not humble. For her, the highlight of the book’s release was her grandmother seeing it in a bookstore. However, in a time when it feels like atrocities occur on a daily basis, it’s hard to downplay the importance of a voice like hers offering stalwart support for those working for change. “It was just a small time thing that we did, and it turned out to be something that has been a breakout in some respects,” she said, adding, “I’m really humbled that people have connected to the book.”
Photography by Brandy Somers