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Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

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This book is clearly one of the most important books about Appalachia in recent years. The author is a formidable scholar who did his undergraduate work at Berkeley and received a master's and doctorate in history from Yale. He has taught throughout his career at Fordham. This is his fifth book from a major publisher.

    In a nutshell, he takes Harriette Arnow’s thesis that 19th Century Appalachia was a land of relatively equal yeoman farmers and Wilma Dunaway’s antithesis that Appalachia has always been integrated into American capitalism and establishes a synthesis around his concept of a makeshift economy - small farmers who do some work for money but supply most of their own needs from gardening and gathering and crafts.  Importantly he expands upon the central concept of Kathryn Newfont’s Blue Ridge Commons emphasizing how important common ground is to sustaining smallholders, and how devastating the appropriation of common ground has been to freeholders throughout the world. This book could easily be seen as a book of Atlantic history, rather than Appalachian history, except for the fact that beyond mentioning campesinos on eight pages, he doesn’t focus on South America as much as Africa and Europe.

    One of the keys concepts of this book is that peasant societies around the world have been oppressed by mainstream ideas of stages of economic development. He rejects the idea that any culture depended exclusively on barter and the notion of purely subsistence farms and insists that they are always a part of a makeshift economy. He points out that a makeshift economy is not simply a stage of economic development inexorably and beneficently leading to a fully monetized laboring life. He traces the history of Appalachia, first focussing on the Whiskey Rebellion as a conflict between Alexander Hamilton’s belief in the benefits of a money economy and Appalachian devotion to a makeshift economy. He then centers on the effort to incorporate freeholders into coal camps as a similar fundamental conflict. He ends his book with a plea for a Commons Community Act which would allow the government to institute land reform and create communities with common land complemented by small homesteads allowing a makeshift economy to flourish again.

    I predict that Stoll’s book will not receive the widespread influence of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands  or J. D. Vance’s  Hillbilly Elegy because of its scholarly depth. It often reads like the transcript of a professor’s fascinating lectures in a class where the students have learned how to game the system by getting the professor to veer off-topic. Yet this weakness is also a strength. His treatment of how African-Americans were prevented from land ownership during Reconstruction is an important complement to his argument, but not, in my view, his consideration of George Inness’s 1883 painting, Short Cut Watchung Station, New Jersey which he considers “interesting for reasons other than the tension it expresses between Nature and Culture” (p. 195).

    At times his clarity of expression and his depth of understanding are striking as in this transition to a comparison between the appropriation of Appalachian land and Native American land - “The Civil War should be understood as a conflict with two Union fronts, one in the South and the other in the West” (p. 178).

    This book is certainly an important contribution to Appalachian scholarship, exemplary in its international perspective, its use of primary sources, its willingness to include a prescription for ameliorating the problems it explicates, and the importance and clarity of its fundamental thesis. I believe it makes a significant contribution to the illumination of how Appalachia came to be the way is.

New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giraux/Macmillan, 2017. 410 pages with an Index, Notes, Bibliography and photos. Hardback in dust jacket