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’ 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 pundits.)
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. 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 topic.
“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’ “Black Tickets,” her pungent book of short stories. “This ain’t the South,” one of Phillips’ characters says during a moment in extremis. “This is the [expletive] past.” Stoll’s book suggests Appalachia did not have to turn out this way; not at all.
“Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia”
by Steven Stoll
Hill and Wang, 410 pages, $30.