Understanding Appalachia Inside and Out

Against the Current, No. 195, July/August 2018

Bob Hutton

Ramp Hollow:
The Ordeal of Appalachia
By Steven Stoll
New York: Hill & Wang, 2017, 432 pages, $17 paperback

RAMP HOLLOW IS largely a synthetic history, and author Steven Stoll’s findings will be familiar to those who have read, as he has, Ronald Eller, Ronald Lewis, Altina Waller, and other scholars who began the first critical historical conversation in the 1970s and 1980s. This is the most ambitious history of Appalachia since John Alexander Williams’ Appalachia: A History (2002).

Ramp Hollow takes its title from a community in northern West Virginia, just outside the university town of Morgantown and a few miles south of the Pennsylvania line, probably named for the pungent wild onions that grow in and around the Appalachian mountains.

It is strange that no ramps are mentioned, since they have recently become a popular “New South cookery” menu item and, more importantly, are relevant to Stoll’s thesis about land usage. Ramps were once a relatively scarce everyday part of a household economy but are now a fetishized commodity now served in restaurants that pursue Michelin stars.

There are plenty of hollows mentioned, however, enough that I hope Stoll knows that not all residents of the West Virginia mountains live in one; actually quite a few people live on hilltops.

There are many indications throughout this remarkable book that Stoll (a history professor at Fordham University who has previously published books on American environmental history) is a relative newcomer to Appalachia, both as a subject and a place. That is to be expected since Appalachia is currently a very popular media topic, despite the common retort that the region and its people have been “forgotten” — but forgotten by whom is often left out of the familiar fret.

Stoll seems to be asserting that, given the prevailing circumstances of labor and capital, Appalachia would have been better off were it indeed forgotten, at least by corporations and the local, state and national governments that serve them. The book’s central thesis is that the logic of capital has deprived Appalachia of its resources. It is a fate shared by many of the people in southeast Asia about whom James C. Scott (a clear intellectual influence on Ramp Hollow) has written over the years,

Enclosures, Taxation and Capital

Appalachia was once an uncommodified commons, not only for the Cherokee, Shawnee, Monocan, Miami, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Creek peoples who lived there before forced removal in the 19th century, but also for the Euro-American hunters and farmers who replaced them in and around the Blue Ridge and Cumberland Plateau.

The practices involved in treating land as a commons ran headlong into the plans being made back east for the commodification of the western frontier. Enclosures of land had begun in England in the 16th century, enabling the creation of a land-based proto-capitalism to replace a feudal system wrecked by plague and climate change.

The whiskey taxation of the Washington administration, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s military attempt to enforce what Stoll calls “an educational tax” (122), was the American republic’s first attempt to impose a financial Enclosure on the mountainous hinterlands. What became known as the Whiskey Rebellion (or as Stoll re-names it, the “Rye Rebellion” since it was really about the commodity that produces whiskey) was an act of resistance to the beginnings of a national cash economy.

Hamilton, who believed more than anything in the power of cash, was ultimately the winner, not by force of arms but by incorporating western Pennsylvania into the national economy via road-building and a sudden western influx of cash-flow arriving with an army marching westward to fight the Shawnee.

So much for the free mountaineers of Pennsylvania, but the mountains south of the Mason & Dixon line (i.e. western Maryland to northern Alabama) were left to themselves, relatively speaking, until the Civil War. The severing of West Virginia from the Old Dominion (Virginia) during the war set loose a series of events that allowed the smaller, newer state to come under the tacit governance of northeastern industrialists. (Stoll is unimpressed by West Virginia’s bold resistance to the Confederacy, considering the bad luck it instigated).

Hamilton had tried only to impose financial order on the wooded highlands, but coal companies, timber concerns and railroads changed the very landscape of the Virginias (and later Kentucky and Tennessee). Outsider ownership had been common since the 18th century, but only after the war did capital destroy the commons that underpinned the self-reliance of many mountaineers.

“Mining receives more attention because it eventually defined the region’s role in the capitalist world,” Stoll points out. “But felling the woods affected a larger area and many more people. It removed the ecological base, the foundation of makeshift livelihood. It turned the mountains into an alien landscape.” (165)

The chestnut blight, inadvertently transported from Japan in 1904, eradicated one of the most widespread and economically vital hardwoods in the United States, while simultaneously demonstrating the Appalachian range’s exposure to extraneous circumstances.

Throughout this process, capital did not need to rely on stocks and machines to conquer the forests, and it rarely required physical force. Capital was accompanied by a culture industry of journalists, fiction writers and photographers who maintained Appalachia’s national reputation as a place that needed fixing, both for moral reasons during the Progressive era, and for material reasons during the New Deal.

It is no great coincidence that John Fox, Jr., the bestselling novelist who essentially created Appalachia in the American mind, was the brother of a timber magnate. Fox believed (at least in his younger years) that the “Anglo-Saxon primitives” who lived near him on the Virginia/Kentucky border needed saving from their own intransigence by the good graces of coal companies, whom he believed to be “missionaries in the cause of culture.” (202)

Booms, Busts and Poverty

The mission field did not remain private. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created in the 1930s to harness the region’s abundance of natural resources and turn “marginal people” eking an existence out of “marginal land” into wage-earners. (240)

Thirty years later, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) came back to solve the poverty problem left unsolved by the New Deal and the post-World War II economic boom. But while drastically reducing poverty, ARC also left the region just as vulnerable to the booms and busts of the volatile coal industry as it had been beforehand (something the TVA also did later on after it switched to coal power from hydro-electric at many of its plants).

In the meantime, the “backward” reputation of the mountaineer that John Fox, Jr. cultivated remained popular and remained solid propaganda for the despoiling of the mountains. British historian Arnold Toynbee famously condemned post-WWII Appalachian mountaineers as “a melancholy spectacle of a people who had acquired civilization and then lost it.” (Quoted, 35)
Toynbee believed in a teleology of human development that did not account for what had happened in Appalachia in the 20th century. His derision, and the popular belief that poverty in Appalachia is self-perpetuating reflected by it, remains to this day. Meanwhile the problem in places like Ramp Hollow, West Virginia remains very similar to what developed at the end of the 19th century when mountaineers were forced to give up their land for a paycheck.

Stoll concludes with a familiar critique of the general wealth-creating theory of global capitalism, turning away from West Virginia  — throughout Ramp Hollow there are multiple asides on contemporaneous events around the globe. He cites the international, multi-corporate joint effort to bring sugarcane cultivation to the arid nation of Mali.

Like modern Appalachia, Malinese villagers occupying land targeted by a South African food conglomerate were forced to “give up their only hold and stake in the world for a set of promises” rather than stick to the household consumption crops they originally planted. (282) As a result, these homesteaders became just as victimized by a world market that sometimes seemed almost as natural as the weather.

“Capitalism,” Stoll ruminates, “generates a blanket of protective assumptions that ties it to nature or the order of things. Compounding interest became the material proof of progress, a value easily projected onto society, so that what is good for capital must be good for the world.” (287)

In the meantime, what seem like natural disasters in places like northern Africa or Appalachian America are simple byproducts of man-made ruin. The 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in West Virginia, which drowned over a hundred people in coal slurry stored behind a flimsy earthen wall built by the notorious Pittston coal company, comes to mind, as does the TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant “fly ash” spill of 2008 which has permanently sickened an entire east Tennessee community. This is not to mention the more singular horror that took place in Wise County, Virginia in 2005 when a boulder dislodged from a surface mining site rolled down a ridge to land on a private residence, killing a three-year-old boy.

Appalachian Studies

While John Alexander Williams’ aforementioned history was a self-described “post-modern” approach to the region, Stoll’s is decidedly Marxian, although the influence of James C. Scott is profound throughout, as is that of French historian Ferdinand Braudel and perhaps other members of the Annales school.

Stoll relies on many great local studies and regional histories dating back to the 1970s when Appalachian Studies was founded as a reaction to the Great Society’s mixed legacy. Unfortunately, a few relatively recent titles are not consulted.

Emily Satterwhite’s Dear Appalachia (2011) would complicate (for the better) Stoll’s understanding of John Fox, Jr. and other similar writers. There is a significant amount of information about the Norfolk & Western Railroad in Ramp Hollow, but no citations of Rand Dotson’s civic history of Roanoke, Virginia (the founding of Roanoke in the 1880s was one of the most important factors in the Gilded Age development of a southern West Virginia coal industry).

Ian Hartman’s In the Shadow of Boone & Crockett (2015) examines the role that changing assumptions about whiteness had on the same historical changes that interest Stoll; race is remarkably sparse as an explicitly active factor in Ramp Hollow.

Finally, John R. Burch’s Owsley County, Kentucky, and the Perpetuation of Poverty (2007) explores an important element of Appalachian life that Stoll generally ignores: the role played by local hegemons in perpetuating poverty, a role that was arguably as pervasive as that of the perpetually “invading” forces form the capitalistic northeast.

Appalachia was never cut off from outside forces, and plenty of “native” white mountaineers wanted to do away with the commons once it behooved them to do so because of gold and cotton. The Georgians who encroached on the Cherokee nation in the 1820s were not eastern financiers inspired by Alexander Hamilton.

This southern area (as opposed to Stoll’s concentration on central and northern Appalachia) has become a tourism-based playground for high-waged outside owners with high local unemployment but coal nowhere to be found (although railroads and the timber business played a gigantic role there). Does this section of Appalachia not also fit into Stoll’s thesis?

One other qualm I have about Ramp Hollow is Stoll’s over-emphasis on “Scots Irish” ethnicity, and its alleged constancy throughout the history of white settlement in Appalachia. It is a common mistake because of authors like Grady McWhiney, Jim Webb and J.D. Vance, all of whom have turned genealogical lineage from the Ulster Scots into a cultural fetish popular among white people yearning for the novelty of being ethnic.

The Ulster Scots actually began intermarrying with other Protestant Europeans (not to mention a fair number of Native Americans and African Americans) fairly soon after their arrival in the 18th century.

Daniel Boone, one famous historical figure Stoll points out as an early lover of the Appalachian commons, was certainly not Scots Irish (the Boone family, which hailed from southern England, had been expelled from a Pennsylvania Quaker community shortly before they headed for western North Carolina), although he did favor their Presbyterian church in his later years. The degeneracy allegedly pinned on their descendants after the Civil War was more often attributed to Anglo Saxon traits rather than Celtic ones.

Most of the people who settled in places like Ramp Hollow considered themselves “white” above all other identities.

These are not fatal problems, and it is also forgivable if Stoll knows his Malinese sugarcane better than his wild onions. Even if he did miss out on a whimsical illustration of his larger point in his introduction, it’s probably for the best. That particular esoteric knowledge about ramps could be viewed as a shibbolethof authenticity for determining insiders and outsiders in the region, a debate that gainsnothing but emerges again and again.

In fact, many Appalachian historians happen to be from the region (this reviewer included). But far too many people think Appalachian history should only be told by its natives, and there is nothing less helpful to a discussion about economics than the drawing of arbitrary boundaries based around arcane intricacies of dialect or cuisine. Nativism has gotten us nowhere as scholars or as citizens of the region.

Stoll is an outsider, and thankfully so. Very few scholars from outside of Appalachia have taken a profound interest in the region, let alone cast it in such an unprecedented light. As a result, a sort of “insiders versus outsiders” nativism has resulted, and nativism is an impediment to explaining the ironies, inconsistencies, and atrocities of capitalism that define Appalachian history.

Capital is, after all, no respecter of place and person, and its victims live on the inside and the outside of wherever we happen to draw our boundaries.

July-August 2018, ATC 195