Book Review: Pure America: Eugenics & the Making of Modern Virginia


Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia by Elizabeth Catte

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in for an in-depth accounting of the history of eugenics from the title of Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia. What you get instead is something more interesting, and more chilling. Catte’s account is certainly historical and wide ranging, though not particularly in-depth. It is, however, delivered with a moral clarity that left me apprehensive about the resurgence in our time of the ideas that led to the flowering of eugenics in pre-WWII America.

There are only four chapters in this short book, focused on 1) the precedent setting sterilization case of Carrie Buck; 2) the treatment of poor folks removed from the area that became Shenandoah National Park (including cases of forced sterilization); 3) the  history of the Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia (a site of eugenics based institutionalization) and its gentrification into condos marketed to empty nesters, and 4) the history of the use of institutionalized mental patients as laborers benefiting the institutions that held them. The total text is less than 200 pocket-sized pages.

Eugenics, for those not familiar with the term, is a pseudo-science that, in the first half of the twentieth century, led to the classification and division of Americans based on their perceived “genetic purity”. The best definition, and more information on it, can be found on the NIH website

In eugenics theory some classes of people were deemed “fit” to bear children and some were deemed “unfit” to do so. A key tenet of eugenics was to “purify the gene pool” by only allowing those who were “fit” to actually reproduce. Some of the unfit classifications of American citizens included “feebleminded”, “imbecile” and “moron”. Conveniently, those who fit into these classes might not be obvious “to the untrained eye”, but would require someone knowledgeable in eugenics to ferret them out. Sadly but unsurprisingly those that eugenicists found to be in these categories were mostly blacks, women and poor white men.

The key use of this pseudo-science in America was in the institutionalization and forced sterilization of those deemed to be in lower classifications. All of this continued up to the 1970s when “deinstitutionalization” started - primarily driven by costs.

The popularity of eugenics in America led to court cases that solidified its practices under law. In the 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which arose from Virginia, the Court ruled that society had  a right to sterilize those who eugenicists deemed unfit. In this case the “imbecile” in question was Carrie Buck, whose chief problem was that she was born poor and placed in foster care where she was raped by the nephew of her foster parents. Their response was to have her institutionalized as “feebleminded”. Their motivation seems to have primarily been to sweep the rape under the rug.  

Once institutionalized, Buck’s was deemed a model case to test Virginia’s new sterilization law. The court challenge was arranged by eugenicists precisely to defend forced sterilization as covered under this law - they even found her a lawyer with close connections to the institution where she was held. Despite all this, the Court ruled in their favor. In the ruling Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the infamous line “three generations of imbeciles are enough”.

Catte’s book helps highlight the ties between eugenics, racism, white supremacy and, especially in Virginia, the appeal of the “Lost Cause”. A key thread running through the book is the evidence and effects of eugenics she finds all around her in her new home state of Virginia. Reading this book, and knowing the composition of the Supreme Court we have today, leads to a depressing thought. The ruling in Buck v. Bell has never been expressly overturned. Is it really a stretch to imagine that we may face a dystopian near future where the Court is presented a new case and rules once again that the State, based on race and class, has a right to control who among us can remain free and who can reproduce?

Rating: Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Title: Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia
Author: Elizabeth Catte
Publisher: Belt Publishing
Publish Date: February 2, 2021
ISBN-13: 9781948742733
Publisher’s List Price: $16. Hardcover (on sale as of 07/01/2022)