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An Interview with Elizabeth Catte, author of Pure America

It's not often that historians, especially those that are relatively young and previously unpublished, find themselves rocketed into the spotlight. Theirs is a quieter pursuit, with a considerably smaller audience than, say, the average Netflix production. But when historian Elizabeth Catte published What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, her blistering response to the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, that is what happened. Invited to speak at colleges and libraries around the country, Catte quickly secured her place as a vital voice in politics, society, and history.

Now with her new book Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia, (forthcoming from Belt on Feb 2), Catte has put that voice to good use, tackling hard questions, providing thoughtful answers when possible. In this interview, Catte does the same - not just answering my questions but using her answers to continue to ask, to probe, to insist that even those of us who are not trained historians have a role to play in understanding our history so that we can shape our future.

SBW: Pure America is a work of historical research, and every 2nd grader can tell you that history is the story of what happened in the past. Your book complicates that idea, and I’m wondering how you see your role as a public historian? What is your relationship with the past, and how might your work prompt readers to reexamine their own relationship with the past?

EC: Your 2nd grader definition is actually pretty close to the one that I use, which I ripped off a historian named Carl Becker. When he wrote,

the essence of history is the memory of things said and done

in the 1930s, his definition kind of blew people’s minds, both because of its simplicity but also, and most importantly, the implication that history didn’t have to be wholly within the realm of science, fact, or require an academic interpreter. As a public historian, I like to keep Becker’s definition in my pocket because it accounts for the role of memory in understanding the past. That is, history isn’t just what happened, but also what people think happened or want to have happened so badly that it feels real. My long game as a public historian is to help people better understand those distinctions, and how they work together or at odds. Recently, with work like the 1619 Project, some naysayers have tried hard to evoke a sense of scandal that the concerns of the present often shape how we write and think about the past. But most historians will happily acknowledge there is no fixed entity known as The Past, and what we have instead is our relationship to what we call the past, which is still very important to parse out and analyze.

In my work, I try to model good historical thinking even as people are free to disagree with my conclusions. In the narrative, I place myself in archives or out in the world trying to “read” buildings and landscapes. I try to be explicit about what questions I’m able to answer and what questions remain, at least for me, unresolved. I’m a fan of telling readers upfront when a revelation soon to follow will be interesting but not profound. I try to explain why I’m not including connections that seem obvious. Like my favorite definition, I think all of those steps help to show the side of history that is an active process and I believe the public benefits from consuming history that is at least equal parts “show” and “tell” when possible.

SBW: Speaking of the past, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the way the when of a thing can be (but often isn’t) tied to the why of a thing. Growing up in a town saturated with relics from the Civil War, I never stopped to question when those monuments and parks and history centers were established, and I’m only now beginning to ask why they happened then. Can you elaborate on the way we tend to divorce our monuments from the cultural forces that brought them to be?

EC: I was in graduate school finishing my PhD in 2015 when a white nationalist shot nine Black worshippers at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. Within a year’s time, it felt like every historian I knew was involved in some kind of nightmare version of a truth commission on the origins of their community’s racist monuments. The historian’s task was sold as simple, and too many of us believed it would be so: that by producing some kind of definitive proof about the pedigree of these monuments, and by explaining in accessible ways what white people were up to in constructing Confederate shrines years and years after the Civil War, then we could chip away at their power to transmit racist myths.

In retrospect, I think this strategy was doomed to fail because these monuments hadn’t finished doing the work they were designed to do. In the present, they were still useful to that kind of power and in a perverse way, we were allowing that to continue because we had created an environment through these public deliberations where white community members could air racist or abusive views under the guise of “hearing both sides.” I found the processes I was connected to demoralizing and harmful. Instead of advancing justice, we spent an inordinate amount of time practically begging monument defenders to embrace the plausible deniability on offer, to pretend they had been victims of a distorted past.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the struggle to make meaning out of the past is just that: a real struggle. It can be exhausting and unpleasant to think about the past under hostile conditions. To the extent that it’s possible to divide stakeholders into different groups or factions, they are often mismatched in terms of available resources or stamina or presumed credibility. The powerful are at a considerable advantage, and it’s no coincidence that they are often fighting for a version of the past that neutralizes a more accurate telling of how that power came to be.

SBW: Similarly, you talk in the book about the links between where history is and what history is. Here’s the full quote, which I love:

And I don’t mean to be pedantic here, but I need to explain that trying to answer one question --- Where is Western State’s history? --- is not the same as answering another one --- What is Western State’s history? The where always leads to the what, but there is a powerful degree of difference between the two.

Would you say more about that powerful degree of difference?

EC: I grew up in Tennessee, and I was well into my adult years, with dozens and dozens of visits to historic sites under my belt, before I encountered a plantation site that credibly interpreted the history of enslavement. Prior to that, most sites I had visited were configured as architectural monuments or shrines to a specific family. If I asked myself, “Where is the history of enslavement?” at any of these places, I’d be forced to answer, “Not here.” And that’s illogical and obviously intentional. One of my favorite thinkers, a Haitian anthropologist named Michel-Rolph Trouillot, said about such arrangements, “Power begins at the source.” This means we should understand these silences, omissions, or elisions as a type of power play that attempts to buttress a preferred story about the past. If I wanted to then ask, “What is the history of this place?” I’d be compelled to go elsewhere, to archives or libraries or universities, for example. The power of that physical separation is enormous.

I think it’s important to extend this a bit further, to understand this separation happens not just because operators are squeamish or bad at what they do, but also because they’re rewarded for sustaining those silences. Their visitor numbers, also known as revenue, might dip, you see, if they started telling stories that were less palatable to some white guests. They could damage their potential to host weddings or other happy events. Because we’re a capitalist society, the past often has a real, material value. This is why, in Pure America, I provide what might seem like digressions about things like historic preservation or tourism. I want people to understand that one of the complications in saying, simply, “we need to talk more about eugenics,” is the reality that this past has no value or perhaps even a negative value.

SBW: Like you, I grew up in East TN and spent a substantial part of my adulthood in Virginia (SWVA -- Charlottesville -- Christiansburg). So, perhaps it’s no surprise that this book felt familiar even though I was rather ignorant to the history of eugenics in this country and in Virginia. In both this book and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, you make clear that your work is born from your personal sense of place. This focus on setting is expected in fiction, but journalism and the social sciences often prefer a detached, objective view. Why do you think it is important to make your physical presence in (or even your absence from) a place central to your historical research?

EC: One of the quirks of public history is that it’s a discipline that places a lot of value on making room to discuss how people feel about history and how they engage with and use the past, and that includes us, the practitioners. We call this “reflective practice.” In general, public historians do not like claiming to be authorities on the past – we prefer to think of the production of historical knowledge as a collaborative process between the public and practitioners. We try to acknowledge our places within the communities we write about, to be transparent about why we’re seeking knowledge, and to anticipate how our work will be used or received. We are not shy about reliving moments when our best intentions went off the rails. I still do this, and I think my writing has evolved to emphasize even more of those intimate, emotion connections to the past.

I wrote What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia because I wanted to talk about the way power worked in the world I lived in. I had a similar motivation in writing Pure America, except that I didn’t fully understand those workings when I started the process, even as many of the historical “facts,” so to speak, we known to me. This means that in writing Pure America, it was important to show more of how I came by the questions I tried to answer, and how I put these pieces of the past together. The book, for example, begins with a bewildered reading of a former state hospital, born out of a momentary encounter at a traffic light, and ends with what I hope is a very nuanced and in some ways more complete understanding of that same site that can account for what the hospital meant in its own time and also what it means to people who live here today.

SBW: I haven’t watched the Netflix version of Hillbilly Elegy, but its arrival certainly reminded me of the experience of reading that book and feeling like the only person in the country who thought it was awful. Over time, I encountered others who found it problematic, but it was reading What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia that gave voice to my discomfort. Over the course of the book, you stress the importance of narrative, of who or what gets to shape that narrative. How do you balance that fact with the reality of your role as a historian - someone who literally gets to shape the narrative?

EC: A lot of universities invited me to speak about What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, and some were hilariously explicit that my invitation had come via a half-hearted attempt to prove the marketplace of ideas was working, that they could listen to JD Vance but also me. In these invitations, I could indeed see that the marketplace was working as intended, because I was paid tens of thousands of dollars less to be the “the counter-narrative” and often grudgingly so. Even in my own hometown, I was the counter-narrative.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a kind of power or privilege in that, of course. Degraded privilege is still privilege and in the Appalachia that is a real place and not just an idea, that matters a lot. I tried to share the authority I had been given. I helped other people produce their own work behind the scenes. I said no to a lot of things while recommending other people. I reread work by and listened to interviews with folks like Eve Ewing, who has exceptional citation practices and who, even when speaking publicly, is terrific at connecting their work to other projects, people, and scholarship on the fly. I tried to be more like that, and I hope that I have a good track record in recommending the work of others.

I also very consciously decided to take a break from writing specifically about Appalachia, and that included my second book and, from a little over a year ago, other public writing as well. I want to avoid crowding the room even further, but also, I wanted some time to process. Once it became clear that the book would have a shelf-life beyond the political moment that helped create it, I started to think how I might have written it differently. For example, I might have included more detail about present-day activism in the region and how it builds upon or diverges from examples in the past. So, I wanted to take a beat and work though some of those thoughts and not just continue in the same vein, as a critic of bad ideas about a maligned region.

SBW: In What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, you write, “telling our stories is central to our activism” and in both books, you insist, “our communities are connected.” In a country as large and divided as ours, how do we do the work of telling those stories and staying connected?

EC: This is where I get to make my pitch that one of the things this moment cries out for is something like the Federal Writers Project that existed as part of the New Deal. The FWP obviously put writers, or just anyone with an aptitude or interest in writing, to work. But its true importance was to introduce Americans “to their multifarious, astonishing, broken country,” to use a description from David Kipen that I love. We can talk all day about the importance of connections and stories, but like I’ve alluded to in other answers, it can be hard to maneuver around the implicit value that some stories are rewarded with or denied to others. A project like the FWP that can be achieved at scale with a transparent compensation scheme would be tremendous.

SBW: What about archival work? You commend the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections at UVA in the book. Would you elaborate on why collections like this one are so important? Some might cast that work as dusty and boring. Is it drudgery, a necessary evil in the task of writing a book, or is it something more?

EC: Archives aren’t simply repositories for documents. They are places where trained archivists work, where they perform the often unrecognized task of arranging overwhelming numbers of records into useable sources. This is why I am very careful to never say things like, “I discovered in the archives,” because what I’m actually doing when I’m conducting research is following a trail or instructions put in place by archivists that tell me, often very specifically, how and where to find the information I need. That said, I will always confess that archival research is not my favorite part of the job. I am very fortunate that my partner Josh is both a librarian who has worked in archives and a historian. His research skills try to rub off on me. When I read documents, it’s very difficult for me remain focused, to stop my mind racing and assembling information which might be incomplete. It’s an issue of attention span, rather than a like or dislike for the particular task.

SBW: Is there a story or archival find that didn’t make it into the book that still haunts you or makes you laugh?

EC: Charles Davenport, who I mention in the book as a leader of the national eugenics movement, had what I think is a hilarious death. He lived near the eastern end of Long Island and in 1944, found the remains of a beached but frozen killer whale on one of his seaside walks. Eugenicists of his era often had training in zoology, and he was very excited at the chance to secure a specimen of this type for a local museum. According to his obituary, which again I find hilariously TMI, “instead of using the slow but easy method of maceration in a pond, he undertook to boil it,” meaning the corpse of the whale, to remove its flesh, “and for a fortnight he labored into the nights in the intense heat of a cauldron in an open shed, with the bitter winds pressing from all sides. He caught a cold but still worked on. The job was far from finished when pneumonia developed. He had asked too much of his great ability to work.” In other words, he made himself sick messing around with a putrid cauldron of whale slime and died because of it.

SBW: What questions or curiosities are you chasing these days?

EC: Absolutely none! Ten months into the pandemic and my brain just doesn’t work the way it used to and I don’t know what to do about that. I’m pretty hopeful that one day I will be useful again, in a better world, but I am definitely not someone who can do good work right now.

And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:

Who are your heroes?

All of the people making Bernie Sanders mitten memes right now. Thank you for letting me use the internet for more than 5 minutes without falling into despair.

Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first? A reader! My range as a writer is pretty narrow but as a reader I am far more expansive. Plus, to write non-fiction, you often read dozens and dozens of books to produce a couple of pages so just as a matter of how my labor is divided, I still spend much more time reading.

Who/what are you reading these days?

I’m trying to reread some Alice Kaplan books right now to remind my brain how smart people approach the past. That is my daytime reading. At night, I read marriage thrillers.

What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated by Morgan Giles.

What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?

At the moment I’m watching a ton of old shows like Murder, She Wrote. I find that watching anything more recent gives me anxiety, because my brain is like where are their masks? Why are they touching?

What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?

Honestly, in this moment, it’s how to be bored. I’m an only child who spent a lot of time with my grandparents and went to school outside my school district, so no walking to friends’ houses. I am really good at doing nothing, so thank you rural upbringing.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t think I wanted to be any specific thing, but I did want to live somewhere more exciting, like a big city. That’s still a bucket-list goal. Maybe if the people here hate my book they’ll chase me off and we’ll wind up somewhere closer to my childhood dream.

What constitutes a really good day for you?

Right now, I really appreciate the days where I have nothing pressing to do and the weather is good. I’m glad to be warm and to eat nice things. The days where I have enough reward points for free coffee at Dunkin Donuts? Those days are exceptional.

What is one thing you are afraid of?

I hate the rain, big time. Our house flooded a bit last year after a freak storm and now I panic every time inclement weather happens. Obviously this is related to the pandemic, too, and coping poorly with loss of control. I tried to go to online weather school to confront my fears and it didn’t help, but at least I got a neat ID out of it.

What is one thing you hope for?

I want the pandemic to end. That’s it. That’s the tweet.


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