What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia – 4/5 Stars
This short text on Appalachian issues is actually three essays about some specific topics currently floating about contemporary conversations. The tone of the three essays shifts from academic to polemic depending on the purpose and subject. So while the quote I use in the title might suggest, it’s not simply a reaction to JD Vance, but includes a takedown of JD Vance among other topics.
The driving force behind this book has to do with the ways in which Appalachia, and West Virginia in particular, have come to stand in for an overly simplistic and reductive understanding of “Trump Country” and this book sets to correct the record on the supposed and incorrect monolithic misconception of the region, to re-radicalize the area, and to call out JD Vanace for the con-artist that he is.
So the first essay is a short history and ethnography sort of answering the question “Why do we mean when we say Appalachia?” And in this essay, we come to understand a more diverse region exists than the conversations about what happened in 2016 would suggest. Catte breaks down the regional diversity, the growing population of non-white Appalachian citizens and adds an understanding behind coal as a concept and how it came to define the region for those who wish it to do so.
The second essay is a polemic against JD Vance whose “Hillbilly Elegy” is read a cynical racist apologia which has conned the country in order that JD Vance, who I personally think is a moron, can eventually run for office and be rich. Catte reads Vance against a history of white racists who espouse ahistorical racial theories about “Scots-Irish” cultures which allows for poor people to stand in for all poor people and are shown to be victims of their own racial destiny. This move allows Vance to make categorical assumptions about all poor people, which can easily be transferred to especially poor Black people, and tie their situations to failures of character and destiny. All of this is designed to eschew actual economic analysis of the conditions of poverty and the origins of poverty, which should include the underfunding of education, the eradication of labor and environmental protections, and other critiques of external factors.
The last essay deals with the history of radicals in the region and provides some interesting examples that include labor strikes and labor rebellions in the coal industry, but also include later racial and poverty activism that even led one activist to be charged with sedition by a local sheriff, which is insane.
The First Salute – 4/5 Stars
To read Barbara Tuchman, especially multiple of her books, is to look at broad historical periods that may or may not connect much to one another, but to also enjoy the experience. I am not a historian and so I am only able to listen and take note of the history being written here and think through the conclusions being brought. But for the most part, I find Barbara Tuchman’s books to be about as readable and interesting as these kinds of broad histories can be. To read her books is to deal with a distinct voice that slightly makes fun of names (in one moment she calls a regional governor the “aptly named” Greathead) and to take deep dives into historical errors and mistakes. She presents her arguments about mistakes based on the criteria of “did people suggest reasonable alternatives” and did they persist regardless.
This book starts with the salute of a Dutch fort in the West Indies of the American naval vessel Andrea Doria, which became the first significant moment in which a foreign government acknowledged in some way the sovereignty of the United States. She then goes into a 200 year history of Dutch colonialism, Dutch nation-building, nationalism, and government formation, and Dutch naval history. She presents these histories with a kind of implicit argument that Dutch recognition of the US has something to do with a kind “hale traveler, well met” spirit between the two nations that share a kind of connective historical spirit.
She then jumps around Europe, the Caribbean, and the American continent, with a heavy focus on navy building and naval battles to show the lead up and the execution of the American Revolution, really detailing the various contradictions, lucky breaks, and decisions of the various actors within.
These books are heavily researched and Barbara Tuchman has the academic chops to be writing these, so when I say these are a lot like reading Sarah Vowell books with a straighter historical vision, I don’t mean that to say she’s writing amateurish or pop-history. Instead, I am suggesting her books are very enjoyable.
Why Art? 2/5 Stars
Hmmmmmmm, I guess I didn’t really like this book or really didn’t get it. No, it really doesn’t seem to answer the question of why art? but instead seems to tell a kind of metaphysical (their words) but I would say more so existential journey about the pursuit of art and what that kind of life would mean for someone making that journey. So it’s not a radical interpretation of the field, the medium, or any other kind of defense, elegy, apology, or otherwise kind of intellectual claim about art. Instead, this book is more a much simpler journey into being an artist. As such, I didn’t find it to be saying much and really didn’t find it left much of if any impression on me by the time I was done with it. So I read it….I looked at all the pictures in it. And then, I stopped and wrote this review. If I don’t have much to say, I am in like company.
It’s interesting because there’s so many many many good books that ask this question and come up with much more satisfying or at least thorough answers, even when I don’t agree with them. So here’s what I suggest. Instead of reading this book, and go ahead and skip it, I suggest a great book I read years ago when I was looking for a conceptual framework to explain the Peter Carey novel “Jack Maggs” which retells Great Expectations from the perspective of Magwitch. Because this was a rewriting of that novel, the conventional framework would be to borrow the psychological concept of “intertextuality” primarily explained by Julia Kristeva. But I always found that application to fit awkwardly on the projects I was reading. Instead, I settled on a more satisfying idea of “parody” as elucidated by art critic Linda Hutcheon. So read Linda Hutcheon is my point I think.