A searching economic and political history of a dispossessed, impoverished Appalachia that progress has long eluded.
Alexis de Tocqueville may have insisted that there are no peasants in America, but Stoll (History/Fordham Univ.; The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth, 2008, etc.) finds the term “a perfectly good word to describe a country person.” Moreover, as refugees from the enclosures of feudal and early modern Europe, the free “peasants” of Appalachia were able to find land—even if seized from others—and channel their own energies into whatever work they saw fit. That was early on, however. Following the incursions of the extractive industries of logging and mining, those free people suddenly were landless, essentially the property of the company. Stoll notes that the story of Appalachia is very much the story of world systems, with the region “fully part of an Atlantic and global expansion of capitalism.” In that winner-take-all system, places like the titular Ramp Hollow, a hamlet outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, that hosted a once-profitable coal seam, are used up and then abandoned. So are their people, as the log cabins of mountain dwellers gave way to tar-paper shanties, “just as a free and robust set of subsistence practices gave way to impoverishing wage labor.” Stoll’s resonant critique of capitalism takes many turns, examining the corn economy here and the money economy there as well as the backyard company-town garden as a free ride for the company, the rise and fall of agrarianism, and many other topics. The author closes with a friendly but pointed critique of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as blaming the victim for systemic failures, even as dispossession has served others “as an instrument of control, not a sign of progress.”
Which is better, cornfields or clean coal? Stoll’s sharp book complicates our understanding of a much-misunderstood, much-maligned region that deserves better than it has received.