Elizabeth Catte, author of Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia and What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is a historian and writer living in Virginia. She is an editor-at-large for West Virginia University Press and the co-founder of Passel, an applied history and consulting company. Catte’s work has appeared in the Guardian, The Washington Post, Guernica, The Nation, and McSweeney’s, among others. Learn more at ElizabethCatte.com.
Get to know Elizabeth in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, February 18 at 12 PM EST to hear her discuss her work in SHELF LIFE—Unfit: Virginia’s History of Eugenics.
Festival: What motivated you to write about the history of eugenics in Virginia?
Catte: I am someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how places work. I love to puzzle out how communities grew or went into decline, when they arrived at an agreed-upon narrative of what they want to be, and what less visible histories played an important part in their development. When I asked these questions in Staunton, where I live, and of the larger Shenandoah Valley, I found my answers kept returning me to eugenics. Embracing eugenics allowed institutions like the University of Virginia to grow in size and reputation, it made state hospitals, like Staunton’s Western State, into miniature kingdoms, and it imparted some logic onto land management practices that helped create the Shenandoah National Park, for example. Research about Virginia’s eugenic past is plentiful, but I wanted to connect these dots in a way that could make eugenics feel like local history as well, because that’s how I’ve been living with these stories.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while writing your latest book?
I finalized the book just as the pandemic started. There were elements about production and release that got shifted, but the biggest challenge, which is still ongoing, is just accepting that this book feels like it was written by a different person. I think many writers eventually feel this way about their past work, but the pandemic accelerated these feelings for me considerably and coupled them with the realities of trying to support a book 10 months into a global crisis when everyone is just worn out. Everything is a challenge right now and for me that challenge just happens to look like releasing a new book.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
For this book, I was very much inspired by Charlottesville and the community-led history initiatives that have emerged there in the last 5 or 6 years. The scope of these projects goes far beyond the city’s two Confederate monuments, although that’s the example that most people know. But when community members decided to tell deeper stories about race and place, they looked at a much wider range of landscapes and moments from the city’s past. They folded in important topics like urban renewal as well, and are working to make these elements part of the conversation about community development in the present. It’s tremendous work and very participatory, meaning that everyone from high school students to fair housing advocates can learn and take part. There are lots of places in Virginia that claim to be historically-minded, but often the sense of the past that is being invoked feels abstract. Charlottesville is very much an exception to that and I’ve benefited a lot from being able to observe the community work happening there.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
Connections between the past and present when thinking about a topic like eugenics can feel overwhelming. Someone could pick any vantage point, from immigration to disability rights to reproductive choice to the modern healthcare system, and write an entire book. And they have! I decided to explore this past by looking at my own backyard, my own neighborhood, and my own community. I think that’s always the right choice when someone senses something matters but is unsure how to start the process of understanding. I try in my work to model a kind of historical thinking that anyone can adopt and use to gain deeper insights about their place in the world. I hope that could be a takeaway for people beyond Virginia, and beyond the topic of eugenics.
Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.
I think I find a way to quote Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past in everything substantial that I write. It’s a complicated book, the first I was assigned to read as a historian-in-training, about how historical knowledge is produced and the kind of power plays that can happen when there is disagreement over the meaning of the past. Something further clicks into place for me every time I read it, which is about a dozen times by this point. Trouillot believed “we all need histories that no history book can tell” and to be exposed to his ideas, very early in my career, really set the course for things to come.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
I’ve only read bits of it but I’m really looking forward to the upcoming release of John Paul Brammer’s memoir ¡Hola Papi!, which is on my radar because I love his popular advice column for queer people by the same name. Even though it wasn’t written for this purpose, I think Brammer’s hilarious and compassionate style of life advice is a great fit for what will hopefully be a post-pandemic world, where people might have questions about who they are now and what they want their lives to look like.
What are you working on next?
I’m trying to figure out if I have enough stamina to work on a project about the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal program that I’ve been talking up a lot in this moment of brainstorming ideas about the future of work after the pandemic. But I reserve the right to throw that out the window if things change!