[Marxism] The Story of Appalachia, With Plenty of Villains

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 21 09:29:49 MST 2017

NY Times, Nov. 21 2017
The Story of Appalachia, With Plenty of Villains

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia
By Steven Stoll
Illustrated. 410 pages. Hill and Wang. $30.

The novelist John Knowles (1926-2001) attended Phillips Exeter and Yale, 
and is the author of “A Separate Peace,” the quintessential American 
prep school novel. But he was born in West Virginia. Sometimes his 
fiction was set there.

In his novel “A Vein of Riches” (1978), Knowles described the wealthy, 
exploitative, coal mine-owning Catherwood family. Young Lyle Catherwood 
wanted out because he understood that a “labyrinth of clammy menace 
underlay every limousine, tea dance and dividend in the world above.”

Knowles’s own father was a coal company executive. The novelist may have 
been describing his own unease and need for escape.

Moral qualms of the sort Lyle expressed, about denuding the landscape 
and impoverishing the people of West Virginia, were rare indeed, if you 
believe Steven Stoll, the author of “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of 
Appalachia.” His book is a powerful and outrage-making if somewhat 
academic analysis of the forces that have made West Virginia one of the 
sorriest places — statistically, at any rate — to live in America.

“Ramp Hollow” is not “Hillbilly Elegy” redux. Stoll, a professor of 
history at Fordham University, does not relate his own story, and his 
book is not especially warm to the touch. But as economic history it is 
gravid and well made.

Stoll describes how outsiders did their worst to the agrarian 
smallholders of Appalachia: taking their land by fiat in the 19th 
century and later stripping the region’s trees for lumber and violating 
its landscape in the extrication of coal. Thus dispossessed, these 
people were at the mercy of mine owners for sustenance, sent daily for 
pitiful wages into sphincters of the earth.

Worse, these smallholders were betrayed by their representatives. About 
West Virginia, Stoll writes, “Perhaps no political leadership anywhere 
in the United States or the Atlantic World ever exposed its own people 
and environment to the same unbridled destruction and abuse.”

This is granular history, especially when it comes to dispossession. 
This book’s primary sentence is probably this one: “I am interested in 
how people get kicked off land and why we don’t talk about them.” Native 
Americans and African-Americans are considered at some length in this 
book, but Stoll’s primary focus is on poor whites.

He delivers a painstaking history of how public land became real estate, 
and how hundreds if not thousands of people were pushed aside by one or 
two barons. Steal a little and they throw you in jail, as the Bob Dylan 
lyric has it; steal a lot and they make you king.

Stoll lingers on England in the 16th century, when lords for the first 
time began to turn the countryside into real estate though a process of 
enclosure, eliminating common land used for hunting and herding and 
planting. He draws a line between these lords and those who divvied up 
Appalachia’s land from afar.

“Ramp Hollow” suggests a litany of villains. Early ones included 
Alexander Hamilton, who as secretary of the Treasury tried to tax the 
many Appalachians who made alcohol, leading to the Whiskey Rebellion. 
(Stoll renames this the Rye Rebellion, by the way, a decision that will 
surely lead to some 90-proof think pieces from this country’s drinks 

Hamilton, like many who came after him, wished to modernize Appalachians 
and drag them by their stringy beards into the circuit of capital. Stoll 
argues they were mostly better left alone. These people were not poor by 
their own standards; they simply made do for themselves, and often made 
do quite well.

Stoll takes his time building this story for a reason. “Seeing the world 
without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating 
hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in 
ruins.” Those that preyed on Appalachians, he writes, turned them into 
“the horrifying hillbillies that lowlanders had always assumed them to be.”

Stoll clings to a different vision of what the United States could be. 
His book becomes a withering indictment of rapacious capitalism. We 
behave as if capitalism itself were “nailed to the roof of heaven,” he 
writes, and few dare to question its assumptions.

He is aghast that so many Appalachians vote against their own interests. 
(West Virginia went heavily for Donald Trump.) He posits that jobs 
versus health is a false choice. He suggests a way forward that includes 
reparations, the creation of new kinds of communities, free college 
tuition and other remedies.

The plight of Appalachia becomes a prevailing cause every other decade 
or so. Elizabeth Hardwick, in a 1953 essay, was in especially brutal 
form when she got at the bedrock hypocrisy of many intellectuals on this 

“If artists could save a man from a lifetime of digging coal by digging 
it themselves one hour a week, most would refuse,” she wrote. “Some 
would commit suicide. ‘It’s not the time, it’s the anticipation! It 
ruins the whole week! I can’t even read, much less write!’ ”

If a country can be judged by how it treats its worst-off citizens, we 
do not seem especially virtuous. “What made politicians and investors 
think,” Stoll writes, “that they could do whatever they wanted wherever 
they wanted?”

While reading “Ramp Hollow,” I recalled a line from the West Virginia 
writer Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Black Tickets,” her pungent book of short 
stories. “This ain’t the South,” one of Phillips’s characters says 
during a moment in extremis. “This is the goddamn past.” Stoll’s book 
suggests Appalachia did not have to turn out this way; not at all.

Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.

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